Peter 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.