Peter Singer Argues for 'Effective Altruism' for Charitable Giving in His New Book

03/27/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Renowned and controversial philosopher Peter Singer's books and essays have always been brain stimulators for me and numerous other people, including academics and those who reflect on how they live their lives. And, his new book called The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically continues in the same tradition. It'll make you think not only about how you spend your money but also on how you can do the most good with whatever you are able to give, allowing reason rather than emotion to make your choices.

The accolades and endorsements for The Most Good You Can Do, including those from Bill and Melinda Gates and Paul Bloom, also clearly show that this challenging book is a must read. In a brief interview Professor Singer notes:

"Effective altruism is both an emerging movement and the set of ideas behind that movement. The basic idea is that to live a fully ethical life, we should seek to do the most good we can. To discover what will do the most good, we need to use reason and evidence. In contrast, two-thirds of donors to charity do no research at all into the organizations to which they donate--they are moved by images that play on their emotions, but give no indication whether the organization is effective at what it claims to be doing." In the preface to his book Professor Singer writes, "Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can." (page vii)

So, how do we do the most good we can? The books' description summarizes Professor Singer's arguments about as well as anyone could:

Peter Singer's books and ideas have been disturbing our complacency ever since the appearance of Animal Liberation. Now he directs our attention to a new movement in which his own ideas have played a crucial role: effective altruism. Effective altruism is built upon the simple but profound idea that living a fully ethical life involves doing the 'most good you can do.' Such a life requires an unsentimental view of charitable giving: to be a worthy recipient of our support, an organization must be able to demonstrate that it will do more good with our money or our time than other options open to us. Singer introduces us to an array of remarkable people who are restructuring their lives in accordance with these ideas, and shows how living altruistically often leads to greater personal fulfillment than living for oneself.

In his book Professor Singer notes, "Effective altruism is an advance in ethical behavior as well as in the practical application of our ability to reason." (page 181)

I stopped marking up my copy of the book because it got to look like a day-glow yellow and green kaleidoscope replete with exclamation points and question marks that gave me a headache. Some comments and discussions that get me thinking include: "We do not have to be make self-sacrifices a necessary element of altruism. We can regard people as altruists because of the kind of interests they have rather than because they are sacrificing their interests." (page 103) While some may quibble with the use of the word "altruists" here because altruism is supposed to involve some sort of self-sacrifice, I agree it's possible to "do the most good for others" and still live a good life. Surely Bill and Melinda Gates aren't giving up much with their incredibly large contributions to all sorts of causes, but they are making huge positive differences in the world. And, I can speak for myself and say that while I make sizeable charitable donations to a number of animal protection organizations and also support the education, housing, and medical costs for a young girl in Uganda, I do not feel that I am sacrificing all that much. So, am I really an altruist? Well, perhaps not, but I do feel I'm doing the most good with my resources and so what if I can't buy something I really don't need.

Professor Singer makes one more point that caught my eye. He writes, "We can now see that giving them [donations] to art museums for a renovation or expansion would not do the most good." (page 123) In the ensuing discussion he summarizes debates he's had about the value of the arts noting, "there is value in creating and enjoying art." (page 125) And, he leaves room for arguing that museums do indeed do some good. However, the point Professor Singer is making is that in our current world where billions still don't have enough to eat and don't enjoy "basic health care, adequate sanitation, and a place at school for each of their children" there are better ways to do the most good.

There also is some urgency to Professor Singer's arguments. In an essay I wrote called "Animals and Us: Maintaining Hope and Keeping Our Dreams Alive in Difficult Times" I noted that in the future there likely will be fewer people who will actually be able to make a positive difference in our challenging world. Researcher Joel Cohen (2009) offers the sobering fact that the difference in the population numbers between less developed areas of the world (the have-nots) and more developed regions of the world (the haves) will have increased from two-fold in the 1950s to about six-fold by 2050. This means that it is imperative -- perhaps it is truly a moral imperative --that those who can do something good do it because the division between those who can and those who can't is rapidly growing and this will be challenging to humanity as the ratio shifts. Of course, because not all "the haves" choose to do much if anything at all, it is even more essential that those who choose to do something do it for as long as they can and do the most good they can.

Professor Singer's book also left me with a feeling of hope for the future. He writes, "... when I speak about effective altruism I am often asked how I can remain optimistic about human nature and its potential for altruism." (page 179) After all, there are wars all over the place and it seems as if everyone is a thief or a violent predator. However, based on available data, both he and I agree that the vast majority of people are kind and decent, and that "If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media. There are plenty of violent people, but for any randomly selected person today the chances of meeting violent death at the hands of his or her fellow humans is lower now than it has even been in human history. " (pages 180-181)

Similarly, in an essay I wrote titled "Humanlike Violence Is Extremely Rare in Other Animals," I noted in an interview with the Huffington Post called "Animal Morality Research Suggests We All Have Complex Emotions" that there's much new solid research showing that across cultures humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for and it's relatively few people who actually wage wars, kill people, and harm children, but they get in the news. However, probably more than 99 percent of the people in the world are nice, kind, generous, and beneficent people, and that's what we're discovering in nonhuman animals (please see the above essay for available data supporting this claim).

I highly recommend The Most Good You Can Do. Whether you agree or disagree with Professor Singer's arguments I guarantee they will move you out of your comfort zones and make you think deeply about what you do with your money and if your charitable giving really does the most good you can do.


Cohen, J. 2009. Human population grows up. In Mazur, L. (ed.) 2009. A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice & the Environmental Challenge. Island Press, Washington, D. C., pp. 27-37.