#14) Peter Singer on Effective Altruism

singerPeter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, is perhaps the world’s foremost ethicist. He is recognized as the intellectual father of the Animal Liberation movement, and for his advocacy of effective altruism – the idea that people are morally obligated to maximize the impact of their charitable giving. This week we consider a pair of his more recent books, The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015).


On the second day of each semester I have my public speaking students read Peter Singer’s essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Many of them are in their first year of college, so the timing seems right to challenge their assumptions about what it means to be a good citizen, how we ought to relate to our fellow human beings, and what goals we should set for how we apportion the money we make.

Generally they hate both it and him from the start, and we begin the course with some spirited conversation.

Basically Singer argues that, in order to be ethical, we should be doing the most possible good for the greatest possible number of suffering people, right up to the point where doing any more would create a comparable suffering in ourselves and our families. We can do this by minimizing our expenses and maximizing our donations to reputable relief organizations. Doing so would require a total reorientation of our lives and our priorities and a complete reevaluation of personal success.

For these reasons and more, practically nobody does it.

But Singer’s ethical case for such a life is really strong, and though the students tend to react defensively to his claims, they struggle to persuasively counter them. To me, that’s what makes for a great read. I love it for all the reasons they hate it.

In recent years Singer has expanded upon his initial argument in many books, including The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015). Always interested in arguments about better living and better life, I like these books a lot. And I have access to you, my friend, who actually know Peter Singer and have been able to discuss the ideas with the man himself. So tell me, first, what’s your take on effective altruism?


I like Peter Singer a lot – he’s a good teacher, a sweet and humble man, and a genuinely caring public figure. His arguments and advocacy have done a lot of good in the world. He’s encouraged a huge number of relatively privileged people to reorient their lives toward giving and sharing, effectively channeling enormous amounts of humanitarian aid to the people who need it most. It seems like a great thing for everyone involved.

That said, I think his utilitarian case is ultimately unfounded. As best I can tell, he thinks we are obligated to relieve as much suffering as we possibly can (until, as you pointed out, doing so creates more). Why? Where does this obligation come from?

I once saw an exchange between Singer and Kwame Anthony Appiah that put Singer’s ethic in a new light for me. Appiah was giving a lecture on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and Singer asked a question from the audience, suggesting that utilitarianism was the most coherent way to make sense of Mill’s claims. Appiah responded with something very much like, “But there are lots of different types of goods.”

I think Singer believes you can ultimately boil all ethical decision-making down to calculations of pleasure and pain (or some semi-equivalents). When you do so, you can make direct comparisons between all possible courses of action and, if you have enough information, choose the best.

But I agree with Appiah – there are lots of different good things in life, and they aren’t all commensurable (much less measurable). Giving to an aid organization to relieve malaria is great. But so is taking your lover out for an ice cream.

A related point: utilitarianism undermines individuality. In many of its guises (including Singer’s, as I understand it), it suggests that we all have the same (or very similar) ethical roles to play. But each of us is different, with different life trajectories and talents and contributions to make. And I tend to think that we’ll be the best versions of ourselves – and perhaps do the most good in the world – if we allow ourselves to be who we really are.

I’m not sure about that last claim. Perhaps it’s just wishful. But I know this – it doesn’t feel dutiful, and that seems like a good thing to me.


Okay, but I don’t think Singer has much of a qualm with taking your lady out for ice cream. (In fact, in The Life You Can Save he actually uses it as an example, mentioning a woman who has committed her entire career to altruistic giving but also makes room for ice cream in her budget, noting that it is vital to her happiness.) I don’t think he is targeting the simple pleasures of life.

Instead, I understand him to be calling out the excesses of life in the “developed” world, calling on (comparably) wealthy people to prioritize the suffering of others ahead of their own luxury, and to do so because A) it is the right thing to do, and B) it will make you happier than having a bunch of possessions.

Singer’s case makes me as uncomfortable as the next guy. I, too, have things I would like to buy and trips I would like to take. But it’s hard for me to dismiss his argument. It’s really persuasive. So I may need to hear more about your objection (or Appiah’s) before I can get safely back to shopping.


Happy to, but maybe it’d be best for our readers if you laid out your understanding of Singer’s argument first. What exactly does he argue, and why do you find it so persuasive?


Essentially, Singer argues that people who live in wealthy Western nations like England, France, Australia, and the United States have an ethical obligation to donate large portions of their income to alleviate the suffering of people who live in famine-stricken parts of the world.

Because these wealthy nations have the means to save people’s lives, and because reputable organizations stand ready to make the arrangements, there is simply no justifiable excuse for inaction.

If we can save impoverished people, he argues, without thereby impoverishing ourselves, then we should.

On some basic level, we all accept that we have a moral imperative to help one another, a duty to look out for our fellow beings. We laud people who do this, and condemn people who don’t.

But in the wealthy West, he says, most of us have shirked our moral duty, relegating it to the optional status of charity. This is a major problem, in Singer’s view, and he illustrates it with help from a parable.

Suppose you are walking to work one day, dressed in your nicest suit, and you notice a child drowning in a shallow pond. At this point, you have to make a choice. You can walk into the pond and save the child—ruining your suit—or you can let the child drown and so protect your suit.

For most people, this choice is no choice at all. The moral value of the child’s life and the urgency of the danger demand action. The choice is so clear, in fact, that it corresponds to a pair of dramatic outcomes. If you save the child, you will be hailed as a hero. If you let the child drown—especially if you do so out of petty love for a suit—you will be reviled as a monster.

But something odd happens when we remove proximity from the equation. Suppose that, instead of drowning, the child is starving, and that instead of appearing right in front of you, she is somewhere in Africa. You live in a wealthy country and have disposable income that could grant this child a reprieve from suffering and death. But instead of sending every available cent to ensure her safety, you use that money to buy a large television, or a vacation, or let’s say, a suit.

In that case, no one will condemn you for placing your own luxury ahead of a human life. In all likelihood, no one will notice.

Again, this is a major problem. We know to a certainty that, even today, there are people in parts of the world who are dying from wholly preventable causes and we who have the means to save their lives are not doing so, largely because we have prioritized our own luxuries ahead of their well-being. And because we think of charitable giving as charity rather than as duty, we don’t even feel guilty about it.

In a 1999 essay for the New York Times, Singer puts his claim into some perspective, arguing that, because a family of four can maintain a decent quality of life on $30,000 a year, that family is ethically obligated to give everything in excess of $30,000 to famine relief in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

If you make $35,000 a year, then, you should donate $5,000. If you make $1,000,000, you should donate $970,000. Otherwise, you live an unethical life.

Students recoil from this essay because it makes such a strong demand on their income several years before they even have any. What they do have are bills and loans and the earnest desire to land a high-paying job and own a home and a car and support a family and achieve their personal goals. This is America, after all, where hard work and dedication pay off and reward you with the life of your dreams. And this guy wants to make you feel bad about it!

Singer angers us because he challenges a right to which we feel entitled—the right to prosper, to build wealth and use it as we see fit. With that challenge, he envisions a new way of life entirely recalibrated from an inward focus—on self-fulfillment—to an outward focus—on alleviating the pain of others.


I wonder if he also frustrates us because he underplays the importance of proximity. You’re right – his arguments are premised on the idea that distance is ethically unimportant: the guy falling in the well next to you matters no more and no less than the child dying of malaria in Uganda. And from a 30,000-foot perspective, that’s right. But we don’t live at 30,000 feet, and most (all?) human societies recognize that it’s okay for us to attend to some people more closely than others.

I think what’s what our evolutionary past has prepared us for, too. Our species grew up in small bands, and we looked after one another on a very intimate level. Over the past few hundred years, the world has become more connected and interdependent, but we’re still working with ethical sensibilities that developed under very different conditions. And I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing (at least in this case).

Singer’s involved in humanitarian work in distant places, and I think that’s great! (I’d love to see my society – and my government – do more of it, too.) And like Singer, I’m excited to see how our relationships with very distant people change over the next few decades, especially with the aid of technology. But I don’t follow him all the way – I’m not sure that giving away huge portions of one’s income is ethically obligatory.

I also wonder very sincerely about economics. If relatively affluent people stopped buying most non-necessary goods, lots of industries in lots of very poor places would collapse. What would replace them?


I don’t know! That is where my class discussions often end up, and I simply don’t know enough about macroeconomics or global commerce even to have an opinion. But it would be an interesting problem to face, and all the more so because we never, ever will.

As far as I can tell, Singer founds his moral obligation on a couple of very simple premises. He says this explicitly in “Famine,” and it seems to inform the later work as well:

  1. Needless suffering and death are bad.
  2. If we can stop needless suffering and death, without creating new suffering and death, we should.

I don’t know how to disagree with this. Nor do I see any help from an evolutionary counter. If I see a child drowning, I will act to save her. And if she is starving in Africa, it seems to follow that I should act just as surely insofar as I can.

Maybe mass effective altruism would create new problems that would then also need to be solved. Maybe it goes against our nature. But we live in unprecedented times, with unprecedented potential for helping others. And most of us don’t. So far I haven’t been able to dodge the moral indictment posed by this knowledge. Any other suggestions?


Singer’s arguments usually proceed like this:

First, he names one or more intuitions that sound pretty unobjectionable. (“Needless suffering and death are bad. If we can stop them, we should.”) You already believe this stuff anyway, right? No need to examine these premises too closely.

Then he extends the logic of these premises to cover far, far more cases than you thought they covered when you agreed to them. (“And therefore, you are obligated to give away a large portion of your income to people you’ve never met.”) All of a sudden, you’ve arrived someplace that is very unfamiliar. But you feel trapped, because these conclusions seem to be dictated by your own beliefs.

The trouble, I think, is that you didn’t necessarily have those beliefs to start with. Not really – not in an examined way. Instead, you had some instincts about what to do if you see a guy drowning in a well. You hadn’t necessarily formulated general principles; you hadn’t attempted to found your whole moral outlook on your instincts about what to do in that particular case.

Singer does that for you. And I suspect that it’s a mistake. It oversimplifies. The good isn’t just one thing that we try to maximize. It’s a whole bunch of things, and sometimes they’re in tension.

Take the ice cream example. Singer permits you your ice cream, since it’s vital to your happiness. But wait – why should your happiness matter next to needless suffering and death? And wait – what if your happiness requires more than ice cream?

Part of me suspects that the ice cream carve-out isn’t really principled – that it’s just a rhetorical concession, because Singer knows that if he takes ice cream off the table, his audience might stop reading. (Singer is open about the fact that he thinks about the consequences of how he frames his arguments; that’s part of his utilitarian approach.)

As you can see, I’ve got a very powerfully mixed set of feelings about what I think Singer is up to.

On one hand, I think he’s probably done a lot of good by getting people involved in humanitarian aid.

On the other hand, I don’t like the way he seems to suggest that we each have a kind of infinite responsibility for all the suffering in the world. Again, why? The world is full of suffering, and it would be wonderful to reduce it. But if governments and aid organizations aren’t getting the job done, why does that collective responsibility automatically transfer to the relatively few souls who read Singer’s books? Must a big portion of their lives be devoted to reducing the suffering of faraway people just because the rest of the world is falling down on the job?

I have other questions, too, but I can’t recall if Singer addresses them. (How does he measure suffering? Yes, untreated malaria and river blindness exert powerful calls on our sympathies – but what about less visible forms of suffering that might be closer to home? It seems to me that mental illnesses, for example, can sometimes disfigure lives just as much as physical ones (and that they’re not always fully distinguishable).)


I’m with you, but I wonder about that distinction between instincts and principles. Isn’t some variety of do unto others as you would have them do unto you operative in every culture? And as a general moral principle, doesn’t it violate some self-serving instinct that everyone feels?

You seem to suggest that we – as readers – are generally willing to agree to this to a certain point, but not beyond. But how do you decide exactly where that point is, or how far the principle is warranted? If the point is to be decided arbitrarily, isn’t it fair to push it all the way to the point of marginal utility, so as to maximize the good?


I don’t know where that point is. I suspect it doesn’t exist – that moral life just isn’t that simple. (Interestingly, Singer seems to acknowledge the same thing in the Partially Examined Life interview I linked to above.) More generally, I think there are lots of good things in life, and pushing only one of them doesn’t necessarily “maximize the good” – it just makes you unwilling to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty.

For more on Peter Singer’s ideas, check in on the Centre for Effective Altruism. Or, listen to this recent episode of The Partially Examined Life.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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