Philosopher urges charitable people to do the most good they can by using their heads.
Peter Singer is stirring the pot again, challenging us to think about giving — how much and whether it does as much good as it could.
The Australian philosopher and Princeton University bioethics professor will be in Seattle on Friday to talk about his latest book, “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.”
Should you buy a new iPhone when the money could save a life? Should you support the opera or save the planet? Do you give when your heart is touched when you could accomplish more by calculating the benefit of the dollars you donate or the time you give?
Peter Singer is giving a free reading hosted by the University Book Store, 7 p.m., April 10, at the Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E., Seattle.
You can guess the answers, but relax, it’s OK to buy a mocha if that’ll make you happy or to buy a good pair of shoes for your kid even if some other child is doing without. No one has to wear a hair shirt to be an ethical person, but Singer would like people to think more deeply about their impact on the world.
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Singer has been writing about altruism throughout his long career, but he’s jazzed now by a new generation of philanthropists who are taking data-driven, reason-based giving to a new level. Many of them are tech workers, accustomed to crunching numbers, and millennials who want to do good rather than live to earn and consume.
When I phoned him last week, Singer said Seattle is a particular hotbed of what he calls effective altruism. He noted the endorsement of Bill and Melinda Gates on the book jacket, which reads in part, “Singer makes a strong case for a simple idea — that each of us has a tremendous opportunity to help others with our abilities, time and money.”
Stories of people making the most of that idea run through the book, breathing life into Singer’s philosophical arguments.
He writes about a former student named Matt, who was accepted to Oxford University’s postgraduate program in philosophy, but after calculating how many lives he could save on the salary of a professor, Matt turned Oxford down and took a job on Wall Street, making a huge salary and donating half of it. He saves more lives in a year than he would have in a career had he stayed on his original path. And he likes the work he does.
The effective altruists don’t feel as if they’re giving up anything; in fact, practicing effective altruism is itself a source of happiness. Singer cites studies that show having more money improves people’s lives up to a point, but after necessities are covered and a person has enough to save for the future and enjoy a few luxuries, additional money adds very little to happiness.
Some of those he writes about earn a modest income, but economize so they can give a significant portion away.
Giving is only half the point. Giving effectively is essential if a person is going to do the most good. Choose programs that prove they get results and choose causes that do the most good.
I mentioned debates here about homelessness and panhandling downtown and asked how that fits his giving philosophy.
“I don’t give handouts to people on the streets,” Singer told me. “I’m not convinced it’s going to make a significant long-term difference to do so. I also think that, in general, donations to people who are in extreme poverty elsewhere in the world have a significantly greater impact than donations made to people in the United States.”
For instance, he said, health care is so expensive in the U.S. that giving is best focused elsewhere. “If for the same amount I could help one person in the United States and 10 people in Kenya,” he said, “I would choose the 10 people in Kenya.”
His calculations of benefit put a premium on saving lives and on education in developing countries. He also promotes reducing animal suffering and preserving the environment because a healthy planet is essential if sentient life is to endure.
In the book, he writes that too often people choose to give because their emotions are touched, or because someone they know asks, without considering the relative benefit of a gift. (I’ll have to think more about my own giving practices.)
Not surprisingly, some tech-savvy altruists have constructed apps or websites to help people decide which programs will make the most effective use of a donation. In the book, he talks about some of them, such as GiveWell.
There is also a list of effective organizations on the website of The Life You Can Save, an organization started by Singer and based on Bainbridge Island, where it’s run by Charlie Bresler, who left a high-powered corporate job to do the most good he can do.
I asked Singer how he’s changed as he has tried to figure out what’s in the best interests of the world. “I grew up in Australia eating a lot of meat,” he said, but then, “I went to Oxford to do my graduate work when I was in my mid-20s and started thinking about the ethics of how we treat animals. … I couldn’t justify continuing to eat animals so I became a vegetarian.” That was in the 1970s.
Later, he said, “I started giving away 10 percent of my income to organizations like Oxfam that were helping the global poor, and I’ve gradually been increasing that and I’m now up to roughly a third of my income that I’m giving away each year.”
He said people who are middle class and above and have the good fortune of being born in an affluent country should ask ourselves whether we’re being ethical if we’re not helping people who, through no fault of their own, are born into an impoverished country.
“We have the ability to do a lot of good for them at a small cost to us.”
Do you feel challenged?