Peter Singer The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically . New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
Peter Singer, author of Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation has long been known for his philosophical rigour, in that, when he posits an argument he rigorously follows it to its logical conclusion. The infamous example was in Practical Ethics, when in defending a woman’s right to abortion he claimed that one could only defend the personhood of a foetus if it could exist independently outside the womb. In so doing, he also had to argue that infanticide would be permissible if a child could not exist for itself in the world, in the case of a premature baby, for example. Similarly, in Animal Liberation his views were perceived to be fairly controversial as he argued that some causes motivated to stop animal cruelty were more worthy of attention than causes which sought to alleviate human suffering. Some theological circles thought his work at the time too cruel, too odd for their liking and have been arguing vehemently against his views ever since. However, in his latest 2015 publication, The Most Good You Can Do, which follows his previous 2009 publication The Life you Can Save, he focuses his attention on effective altruism; a movement which is becoming popular due its emphasis on efficiency in charitable giving. Rather than being motivated by emotive factors when making a decision to donate to charitable causes, argues Singer, one should be motivated to give to the charity that will bring about the best result from the philanthropy.
Singer observes that the effective altruism movement is motivated by people who wish to give to reputable charities, and want their donations to make as much as a difference as possible. That is, the money they give must be used efficiently and sensibly. This sounds like a reasonable enough request. However, the reason these people are not just charitable donors, and more altruistic than most, is because larger percentages of their salaries are donated, or they deliberately and consciously live more modestly in order to donate what they have said they would. Many also choose high-earning professions, such as finance, not to earn more money for themselves, but to give extra to their charitable causes. Such an ethic is called ‘earning to give.’
It sounds like a worthy lifestyle, but I doubt many would be willing to put it into practice. Julia Wise, an altruistic giver, gives an example of the kind of money one would have to reasonably be expected to donate to be considered altruistic as opposed to just charitable. She suggests that for someone on a $35,000 annual salary (around £28,600), ten percent of this amount – that is £2860 or $3500 should be donated to a well-researched charity where the money would be used responsibly. This does not sound like an unreasonable amount, but when one factors in other costs such as, on average, most people would probably prefer to save this extra few thousand away in a bank account, earning interest, than give it to charity. Many effective altruists go far above this suggested 10% donation. Julia Wise and her husband Jeff, though they earn an extortionate $261,416 per year, give half of that to charity. Imagine giving away around $130,000 to charity every year. Imagine what you could buy for yourself with that money… most people would see it too much of a sacrifice to give to charity. This is the word Singer refers back to each time. The criticism that effective altruists are making too many sacrifices to live their kind lifestyles. However, most people he interviews or refers to in his book, do not see their giving as any kind of sacrifice as all. It is simply doing the most good they can do, which is, as they see it, an ethical imperative we should all strive for.
This ethical stance of being an effective altruist is one which requires no particular theological or religious underpinnings at all but Singer does refer to one particular religiously founded effective altruist. Dharma Master Cheng Yen is a Buddhist nun in Taiwan, who despite never leaving her home region, founded a charity fund, Tzu Chi, for local people in 1986. Since then, the charity has expanded, vastly in Taiwan itself, but also across the world. The charity also donated $10 million to victims of Hurricane Sandy, in Jersey and New York in 2012. The reason the charity helped those affected by crisis in developing countries was because the people in the developed countries are the people who are capable of making change for those in the developing world who are yet to see things like clean running water, an adequate food supply or basic healthcare equipment. If more affluent people experience the positive effects of charity themselves, perhaps it will motivate them to donate to people in the poorer parts of the world, who so desperately need aid.
To summarise, Singer’s latest book is one which will challenge your preconceptions of what charitable giving entails. It will make you think about which charities you donate to – and whether they are efficient ones, since many do not publish figures of where their funds actually end up. It will also challenge your morals – perhaps it will make you rethink about what type of charitable person you are, or whether you are one at all. Perhaps it will even motivate you to be an effective altruist. It is possible, and Singer puts forward a convincing argument for doing so. Despite this, I do think that it will take a few more years because people seriously consider such a lifestyle change. The reason for such reluctance is because we live in a society which encourages hedonism and the selfishness which accompanies such a culture is a difficult one to root out in order to radically change ourselves to be more charitable towards others.
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