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Posted on 14 Jan 2016 in Non-Fiction |

PETER SINGER The Most Good You Can Do: How effective altruism is changing the world. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks

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singerPeter Singer’s recent book is an optimistic and persuasive look at how carefully planned giving can change the world.

In a world that is getting ever wealthier and more unequal, yet where opportunities seem almost unlimited, Peter Singer’s book on effective altruism is well timed. As he describes, the new phenomenon is already underway: ‘An exciting new movement is emerging: effective altruism … based on a simple idea: we should do the most good we can.’

Singer, world-renowned philosopher, academic, author, ethicist and animal rights advocate, challenges our complacency by maintaining it is not enough to simply obey the usual rules of not harming, stealing, cheating or killing. Those fortunate enough to be born into a level of material comfort where basic survival needs are easily met and who have time and money to spare must do more if we are to live a ‘minimally acceptable ethical life’. He urges us to think carefully about, and plan, how we can most effectively maximise the time and money we can allocate to do the most good we can.

Effective altruism involves not only donating, but also taking responsibility for the allocation of donated time and resources so that they reach the organisations who are achieving the best results and not those that tug at our heart strings. Hence, effective altruists demand evidence of how much good can be done before donating.

Most of the people Singer invokes who are active in this movement tend to be millennials – the generation that started to think about their life choices around the turn of the millennium. Matt Wage is one who undertook Singer’s undergraduate Practical Ethics class in 2009. He discovered the cost of saving the life of one of the millions of children who die each year from preventable diseases. He worked out that, on a professor’s salary, donating ten per cent of his income over his working lifetime for bed nets to prevent malaria would save 100 children’s lives. Two years later he graduated so well that Oxford University accepted him for postgraduate study: the dream of most students who major in philosophy. But after contemplating what career would do the most good, he instead took a job on Wall Street, working for an arbitrage firm. This decision would allow him to give much more in both percentage and dollar terms than ten per cent of an academic’s salary. ‘One year after graduating, Matt was donating a six-figure sum – half his annual earnings – to highly effective charities,’ a path that would save hundreds of lives annually throughout his working life.

Some may wonder if Matt, in choosing a career with Wall Street rather than academia, sacrificed a more satisfying and possibly more ethical career. Singer provides no insight into whether or not this was a dilemma. He simply accepts that this is Matt’s choice, based on his desire to practise effective altruism as he sees it.

Matt’s decision also raises the question that in choosing Wall Street, is he supporting a system that entrenches poverty, thus defeating his aim to be an effective altruist? On this Singer argues that there is no evidence that capitalism drives more people into poverty than it lifts out. Furthermore, that like it or not:

… we are stuck with some variety of capitalism, and with it comes stocks, bonds and commodities. These markets serve a variety of roles, including raising investment capital, reducing risk and smoothing out the swings in commodity prices. They don’t seem inherently evil.

Singer identifies four perspectives from which he explores the ideas and practice of effective altruism. Firstly, and most importantly, is that it makes a difference to the world. He analyses the US philanthropy industry, worth $300 billion annually. Few agencies are transparent enough for donors to judge how much good their donations are doing. Singer contends that two thirds of donors do no research at all before giving. Most donations are made on the ‘basis of emotional responses to images of people, animals or forests that the charity is helping’. Effective altruism, on the other hand, where donors research to identify the most cost-effective agencies, is redirecting millions of donor dollars to charities that can validly demonstrate that they are effectively reducing the suffering caused by extreme poverty. The book also discusses and evaluates how the various metacharities, organisations that evaluate other charities, are assisting in effective donor decision-making.

Secondly, Singer has found that effective altruism brings meaning and a deeper sense of fulfilment to our lives, so that ‘by doing good we feel good’. However, he advises not to give to the extent that we cease to live happily ourselves. Excessive austerity to increase our capacity to give can diminish our capacity to meet our own basic level of emotional, physical and mental needs and therefore be counterproductive. Here Singer introduces Julia who, when young, decided it would be immoral to have children as the time and money she could otherwise donate could cost others their lives. Later she realised that her decision was making her miserable and was able to readjust to satisfy her longing for motherhood while still meeting her altruistic needs. In Julia’s words:

We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least to do their damnedest. 

Thirdly, Singer shows how effective altruism sheds new light on an old philosophical question: ‘Can reason play a crucial role in determining how we live?’ Or are we hardwired to be driven only by our innate needs and emotional responses? What drives some people to look beyond their own immediate interests and those of their loved ones to include the interests of strangers, future generations and animals? Singer responds to these questions through such people as Rhema Hokama, a Harvard doctoral student, who lives on a yearly income of $27 000. Influenced by her Hawaiian community values, she chooses to adapt to a lifestyle that allows her to donate five per cent of her income annually and still live comfortably:

She likes to remind herself that [she earns] 16 times the average global income of $1,680 pa [which] places her in the world’s richest 4.4% . In other words, of the world’s 7.2 billion people about 6.9 billion earn less than Rhema.

In 2014 she donated to the Fistula Foundation in Ethiopia, an organisation that for $450 repairs obstetric fistulas, allowing women to recover from a condition that otherwise condemns them to social isolation: ‘Giving back a portion of my earnings is the least I can do to help other women receive the necessary surgery for injuries that are almost non-existent in the developed world.’ It also relieves Rhema of any guilt she may feel, knowing that she is helping to create the kind of world she wants to live in.

Finally, Singer looks at how, despite long-held scepticism, those practising effective altruism are proof that people can be motivated by concern for others beyond their immediate family and social circles. He identifies Ian Ross, who ‘offers the most remarkable example of a life committed to maximising giving’. In college Ross realised the suffering modern animal agriculture causes and so became a vegan. His logic is that each of us is responsible for what we do and refrain from doing. If we can relieve the suffering animal agriculture causes, we have a responsibility to do so. He then applied that logic to how he lives. While working for renowned international corporations, including McKinsey’s and the Disney Corporation, Ross helped start Hampton Creek Foods, producing plant-based egg substitutes which are already reducing the demand for eggs. In 2014 he earned $400 000, donating more than 95 per cent of his after-tax earnings to charities. He lives an enjoyable life within an annual budget of $9000, following his ethical ideas according to logic. He does not see his decision to live without a partner and family as a sacrifice as this was always his intention.

Singer concludes his book with ‘A Note to Readers in Australia and New Zealand’, pointing out that while doing all the good you can do is universal, how to do it varies from country to country. In seeking a career in politics or advocating for better government policies on global poverty or better treatment for animals, an individual’s success is more likely in a small country like Australia or New Zealand than in a more populated one like the US. On the other hand, countries with greater resources produce more effective aid programs.

It is relevant to point out that Singer’s belief that effective altruism is growing is based on anecdotal evidence rather than statistical. But we know that his arguments about animal welfare and vegetarianism have moved millions to change their lives. The philosophical, logical and ethical case Singer puts for a simple idea is compelling – that each of us has the capacity and opportunity to use our abilities, time and money to help others. The Most Good You Can Do is an optimistic and persuasive look at the positive impact that giving can have on the world.

Peter Singer The Most Good You Can Do: How effective altruism is changing the world Text 2015 PB 256pp $32.99

Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, dedicated to the preservation of Australian women’s writing and the Sydney University Chancellor’s Committee, which raises money to support disadvantaged students. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.