Is Peter Singer right about ‘The Most Good We Can Do?’

Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do (2015) appears to be an updated version of his 2009 work The Life You Can Save. Both works apply his preference utilitarianism (suggesting that we should act so as to maximise the interests of the most number of people), to global poverty. Through a mixture of philosophical, psychological and practical reasoning, Singer fundamentally argues that the most ‘ethical’ way to live is to aim to work in a high-paying job, and give a large proportion of your income to charities based on the extent to which the organisation can demonstrate effectively that they are saving lives; he suggests that we should be calculating and cold-eyed in our approach to philanthropy, rather than being driven by any personal motivations or emotional factors.

This principle has become known as ‘effective altruism’ and there is now a movement associated with it, encouraging individuals to donate significant proportions of their wealth by looking at analyses of charities such as that provided by Give Well, who have analysed thousands of charities, and concluded that The Against Malaria Foundation and charities which support deworming programmes are the most effective. However, the key question for me, appears to be: ‘effective at what?’ It is also clear that, as often articulated as a flaw of utilitarianism more widely, even if we establish a clear end (saving lives, or reducing suffering),  calculating the impact of various approaches to global inequality and injustice is challenging. This is not to say it cannot be done, but I’m not sure if Singer’s somewhat anecdotal approach, gives credit the complexity of this task which is at the heart of development studies.

Starting on the positives present in this ethical agenda – certainly, both these books hold an important positive focus on the difference individuals are able to make. In a world in which self-interest and desire for material wealth often seem to be a driving factor in many forms of action (often supported by claims that this does benefit the world’s poorest, too), this is a good thing, and if not, Singer also emphasises that giving is in our own interests, due to the psychological benefits. Even if Singer argues that we should be somewhat calculating, or some may say ‘cold’, in our charitable giving, it is clear that his desire to give is born from a desire to help those suffering, in a recognition of our shared ability to suffer (note that as Singer also condemns the suffering of animals, he wouldn’t justify helping others on the grounds of a ‘shared humanity’). There is also a really positive sense of the possibility of making a difference, which again can be lost amidst a world in which wide-spread scepticism with respect to aid can form a cloud over the well-formulated and community-driven attempts to improve the quality of life for the millions living in abject poverty. Amidst this scepticism, the ability we have to be a changer-maker rather than an accepting ‘onlooker’ on poverty can be lost.

Singer is keen to show that ‘doing good’ is part of our human nature rather than something that goes against it. He gives the examples of paying tips as a common practice and the enormous numbers of people who donate blood as clear examples of people giving to others, when they need not, citing the importance of a well-timed ‘nudge’ as motivating people to act. Linking to the work of Plato and Aristotle he also argues that those who are good, often derive significant pleasure from it. Aristotle was keen to show that whilst we shouldn’t be virtuous in pursuit of pleasure, pleasure does certainly accompany good action. He urges us against seeing ‘do gooders’ in a negative light, and asks us to at least consider Marx’s idea that money can alienate us from our true human nature, and indeed other human beings; as he states: ‘money is not an intrinsic good’ and shouldn’t be seen necessarily as a sacrifice in itself, but only in what it might deprive us of. Certainly, Singer can only be applauded for suggesting that companies can play an exciting role in creating a culture of giving in various ways – thus giving individuals the ‘nudge’ they might need to make a difference to the preference-satisfication of the those in the world who experience the least freedom.

Singer is also right to make us question and analyse our decision-making processes. The evidence from various pieces of research demonstrate that people do make decisions in relation to charitable giving that are irrational, and are driven to act by factors such as an identification of an individual they can help, swayed by an emotive image, and turned off from giving by a sense of the enormity of the problem. In his famous ‘swimming pool’ analogy (in which our failure to act to help children dying of starvation in the developing world are compared to children drowning in a swimming pool which we look onto), Singer is fundamentally asking us to ‘check’ our ethical intuitions by comparing our reactions with various differing situations. This analogy is writhen with difficulties, but I do agree with the basic driving force of Singer’s project – that we should be consistent in our ethical reasoning, and not act differently in situations which appear to be very similar in all but immediate appearance.

It is also clear that Singer’s approach intends to be egalitarian – everyone’s interests are recognised as equally worthy of consideration, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, location, culture, and ability. Singer does add a caveat to this, in that he recognises that we have a particular responsibility towards our children (justifying this, it seems, on the utilitarian grounds that if everyone is appropriately nurturing towards their child, this benefits society more widely).  Many would find it unnatural to value the interests of people in different countries equally, seeing this is somehow anti-evolutionary, anti-nationalist, and against our instincts as humans. However, for several reasons, including our complicity in the suffering of others, if we know about remote suffering, I don’t think with have a logical reason to discount it as a valid area of concern simply due to distance. Certainly, acknowledging its importance would seem to bring people closer together. Sedgwick presents a famous criticism of Singer in suggesting that as humans it is simply against our nature of ‘take the point of the universe’ in ethics. However, whilst I’d agree that it is difficult for us to do this, due to the emotional and social connections we form with those nearest to us, this does not mean that we shouldn’t at least be prepared to critically analyse our decision-making processes – this critical analysis, I think, is a clear part of Singer’s project: he is aware that people have different boundaries for effective altruism, and recognises that if we spent our entire life calculating the most utilitarian outcome, that this would be a ‘maddening experience’ and likely deter us from being effective givers.

Singer also raises an important point that charities should have to demonstrate their effectiveness. After recent scandals linked to DFID and government fundings for charities in the UK, it is important that funding institutions ask charities to think about the effectiveness of their methods towards particular outcomes. Many would strongly argue that governments also need to be more transparent in the reasons behind choosing particular projects, with the ‘securitisation of aid’ in recent years, seeing millions of pounds flooding towards countries which might present a future ‘global threat’ in some way, whilst many of the world’s poorest remain unsupported. However, I think Singer is guilty of presenting this calculative process as an easy affair. Some of the most successful initiatives in history have not been easy to predict. Individuals who sparked and driven large-scale change may not have been able to demonstrate that they had the tool to change global politics or alter inequality; small charities who understand the environment locally may not be able to afford extensive evaluative studies of their work, even though it might represent some of the best value work of all in terms of maximising preferences and reducing suffering, with initiates often led by volunteers and working at the grass roots level. Sometimes by financial backing an individual or charity on a ‘gut instinct’ rather than solid evidence of impact, may have greater results.

Looking specifically at the work of Give Well, the website that evaluates charities, I’ve noticed that none of their top initiatives involve the funding of education. It is quite challenging to quantitatively evaluate the long-term impact of investing in education. Certainly, it is widely acknowledged that education has a direct link to improving health risks, reducing hunger, increasing employment opportunities and furthering wider economic growth; indeed, all of the SDGs are advanced by an investment in education. And yet, in Singer’s work, education is surprisingly absent as a point of investment. In How to Save a Life it is virtually ignored, and in The Most Good You Can Do Singer actively suggests that it is not the best use of your wealth to fund educational initiatives in your own country but does not offer much thought on the impact of education in developing world. I’m aware, for example, that it is difficult for Reading Spots to give clear evidence on the impact of a community library upon living standards, as providing a quantitative analysis of such a difference would require test case studies in communities without libraries (which many are uncertain of doing, on ethical grounds), and it would be difficult to establish clear causation rather than correlation with respect to advances made over time. However, if children and adults want to read books on particular subjects, and gain enjoyment from this, and we can see through qualitative observation that children become more engaged in their school work and improve their English leading to better jobs, then we can quite safely conclude that the provision of a library was a good thing.

I also do not think Singer is particularly clear on what exactly he is measuring. In The Life You Can Save, the focus appears to be upon saving lives and increasing life expectancy. However, it can be seen that ‘preference satisfaction’ should not be totally focused on saving the most lives, but in improving the quality of lives that people have. It is very difficult to prioritise quality of life, versus saving lives –  this sort of questioning is right at the heart of ethical enquiry and I don’t think that Singer can provide us with easy answers here. For example, Singer suggests that providing guide dogs to the blind is not a worthy cause when compared with providing bednets to prevent malaria. It could be more widely questioned whether neither approach addresses the fundamentally cause of the suffering, and that the money might be better invested in providing cures to both things (however, of course, the problem with medical research is that cures are uncertain and research is expensive). It also seems that Singer does not consider in enough detail how charities might empower individuals to create longer term solutions themselves – many of Give Well’s suggested charities appear to be short-term solutions. These kind of assessment decisions are difficult. Utilitarianism must exist in recognition that is is difficult to calculate long term aims – whilst it is great that Singer (briefly) references global warming and other possible reasons for human extinction, it is difficult to see how we could possibly form a cold calculation between investing in meteorite protection versus buying a mosquito net.

Singer also fails to pay significant attention to the role of social global structures that exist in keeping the poor as poor as they are. He does reference the subsidies (e.g. in the cotton industry) that western governments pay that keep African producers out of trades, and the possible role of political advocacy against tax evasion, debt-relief, and individuals in lower-income countries and elsewhere benefiting from their resources at the cost of the poorest in the country; however, I do not think enough attention is paid in this work to the role that the richest in society could take to changing the inequality in global society, helping the poorest in Africa to gain entry into trade if this is what they want. Returning to Singer’s famous swimming pool, in presenting the poor as falling into a ‘swimming pool’ of poverty, it may be seen to imply that they are somehow in the ‘pool’ through their own fault or misfortune, and does not sufficiently question why such ‘swimming pools’ exist, and why some people seem to be in them without an ability to swim, whilst others stand safely on the shore.

I also don’t buy into the idea that we should all try to earn through any means, and that possible harms in the process of earning can be ‘outweighed’ by the giving you later do. Society would also simply would not function with people who ‘do good’ as part of their every day work, rather than trying to earn income to give – nurses, teachers, and carers clearly ‘do good’ without necessarily being part of the process of giving that Singer advocates. In addition, it is difficult for high earners to decide when the best time to give may be, for it might be the case that they could generate further funds by reinvesting their wealth, which could later be given. The world philanthropists which Singer appears to respect such as Bono and Bill Gates would not have been able to do what they did if they hadn’t first simply pursued their own talent or interest. Howard Thurman stated: ‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’ Whilst I do think we should consider what the world needs in giving, I think there is merit in the idea that following your own passion is more likely to lead to outcomes that later go onto help others, perhaps due to the fact in ‘feeling alive’ yourself, you are more likely to be in a position to feel able to help others towards that seem ‘feeling alive’.

Fundamentally, a practical issue with Singer’s calculated altruism is that it is people and places that motivate us to act: for me, it is seeing the impact of reading resources on a remote Ghanaian community that makes me think that fundraising is an important use of my time, and worth the potential negative result of annoying a friend here and there. I also think that we can contribute to the world through giving time, qualities and leadership, in ways that Singer neglects – changing the mindset of the youth towards global inequality through education, or shifting a company’s social responsibility agenda can certainly make a big impact but is not part of Singer’s ethical agenda in these books. Perhaps Singer’s next book could focus on other actions that make a difference? It seems he positions financial giving as the most important way of contributing whilst neglecting other courses of action.

Singer’s book is a great step forward, and I’d recommend it is a book that will make you consider and reconsider your actions. His approach has some useful advice, and focuses on a practical solution to making a difference without being caught in a ‘maddening experience’ of giving or feeling overly guilty. Indeed, he states that ‘effective altruists don’t see a lot of point in feeling guilty. They prefer to focus on the good they are doing.’ He crucially implores us to  try to live in accordance with rational reflection upon decisions that we make that can and do impact others. I think we also need to keep questioning: ‘is this fair?’ – and we shouldn’t be paralysed by this question, but instead motivated to know that we can make a meaningful difference.

Cat Davison 05/08/2017

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