Why Do the Most Good?

Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically examines a new movement toward ethical responsibility on a global scale.  What Singer explores in his book is the way in which effective altruists measure their impact in the world and go about trying to make positive changes. In his view, an effective altruist is measured in their generosity by rationally examining their resources and the resources of others so that they can make decisions that would best benefit those who are in the most profound poverty.  This system for an effective altruist not only allows them to assist others, but it also allows them to live without waste in their own lives.

 

Singer highlights part of the identity of effective altruists when he writes, “Effective altruists, as we have seen, need not be utilitarians, but they share a number of moral judgements with utilitarians.  In particular, they agree with utilitarians that, other things being equal, we ought to do the most good we can.” What he is explaining is that effective altruists have a rational approach to life, but they are not only interested in concrete concepts such as the usefulness of individuals, programs, and objects in society.  They may be measured in their approach to aiding others, but they will embrace a program if it reduces suffering for others rather than embracing a program because it proves to generate progress for society.

 

This quote makes me wonder about why we want to do the most good we can do, and why a rational individual would set out to make that their life goal.  Singer offers evolutionary explanations as to why altruistic behavior became part of the human experience, but when we begin looking at rational behavior, we must look past our evolutionary past.  Emotionally we want to donate and assist others to feel positive about ourselves. We want to be able to say that we made an impact in other peoples lives, and that we assisted those who were not as fortunate as we are.  We receive a boost of dopamine when we make our donation or think about the ways in which we have helped others, but a rational individual can come up with thousands of excuses to overcome our dopamine induced desire to help.  We can rationalize donations and see that when we donate we are actually helping society progress by saving lives or reducing the suffering of others so they can become more active.  However, this type of rationalization becomes utilitarian and to me seems as though it would push us toward making local donations and contributions to help those in our community. What Singer describes that sets effective altruists apart is their desire to assist those living in the most poverty stricken situations on a global scale. Effective altruists are focused on stretching their dollars as far as possible to assist people, which often means helping those who live in extremely poor countries, often on the opposite side of the planet. If we live a life focused on doing the most good for others, then our life begins to be shaped by generosity and action in a positive direction. Our sacrifices adopt a story that is greater than our own personal happiness, and that larger meaning helps us feel valuable and encourages us to continue when we grumble and face personal obstacles.  Doing the most good we can satisfies an evolutionary dopamine fueled desire to help others, but it can also give our lives a purpose that is missing in an often self-centered capitalistic society.

Evolution and Groups

Looking at how evolution may have contributed to senses and actions of altruism, Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, quotes Frans de Waal, a social scientist, “Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside.” Singer uses this quote to show that we tend to be very generous to those who we perceive as having a level of sameness with ourselves while we separate ourselves from those who do not seem to be like us.  In our small group where we actually live and interact with others who are like us, we can be generous and see the payoff from going out of our way to help those around us.  Singer explains that this does not happen as easily with people outside our group and he quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson who have studied altruism, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.”

 

The perspective that Singer is building helps us understand the base of the movement he has coined as Effective Altruism, a notion where individuals make an effort to do the most good they can do throughout their lifetime by focusing on ways they can impact and improve the world by aiding those who are the most impoverished or those who face the most suffering on a day to day basis.  Those who travel to other countries building wells, administering healthcare, and those who advocate for education and social improvement for groups in the developing world can be effective altruists under Singer’s definition, but the group he focuses on that can have the greatest impact is the group of individuals who shape their life so that the fruits of their labor, the money they earn, can be directed back towards themselves in a small amount so that the bulk of their financial wellbeing, or at least a significant chunk, can be applied toward making the world a better place. Those who volunteer with charities to travel and provide humanitarian aid are using supplies that were purchased through donation, finding connections that were established through financial assistance, and sometimes only investing their time and effort because the monetary needs of a program were met through donation.  Singer believes that effective altruists change their life in an attempt to reduce their needs  so that the financial benefits of their work can be applied toward charities that have the  greatest impact on the planet. They may still make the trips and spend  the time and effort on the ground, but they see that their skills and abilities give them a chance to earn money in the richest countries that can then be re-directed toward the poorest of the poor in other countries, where their money goes further to assist and save lives.

 

Singer’s quotes from de Waal, Sober, and Wilson show how the altruistic impulses of effective altruists may have developed in our ancestors before being passed along to us. We value the act of aiding others because it helps our group or tribe progress. Our small group will be greatly hindered if one person is falling behind, but if those who are successful can help pull that individual along and provide for them so that they can begin to make returns for the group, then everyone rises together.  Effective altruists are able to see this benefit, but they have managed to expand their idea of the group to which they identify to the whole world. They are part of a global group of humans, not just a national, regional, or local group. They defy the ideas of Sober and Wilson by showing that there does not need to be another group against which we should be competing. For Singer, the effective altruists have capitalized on an evolutionary trait, and pragmatically applied it to areas of our life where it can benefit the world the most.

How Effective Altruists Capitalize on Capitalism

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains the way he thinks about economic objectives, equality, and how capitalism affects the American public.  Singer is globally focused on reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty and what he explains in his book is that the levels of extreme poverty seen in the united states are far lower than levels seen in other countries. He also explores the idea that to be poor in the United States is better than to be poor in developing countries where there is not a structure of assistance and where there are not wealthy people who are able to make donations to help others.
Singer focuses on the idea of the wealthy helping those who are not as fortunate in his book, but his ideas of wealthy might not align with ours. With his global focus he sees ways in which the average American is vastly more wealthy than most people living throughout the world. Even though we may not consider ourselves wealthy, we are often much better off in the United States, and we often have a much greater opportunity to help others through doing good.
Capitalism in The Most Good You Can Do is explored as the source for both the great wealth in the United States even though it is also a source for great inequality within the our country and the global community. Interestingly, Singer views equality as a secondary goal or a useful byproduct of a society focused on doing good. He writes, “effective altruists typically value equality not for its own sake but only because of its consequences.” I would argue that Singer greatly values political equality and social equality since somewhere at the base of effective altruism one must believe that those who they are helping are equals because we are all human. However, the idea of everyone being on equal footing socially and economically is not a key aspect of effective altruism.  Effective altruists are not driving for more wealth and more things, but may drive toward greater salaries because it means they will have a chance to do more and provide more for those who are in the most unfortunate of situations.
“No doubt capitalism does drive some people into extreme poverty — it is such a vast system that it would be surprising if it did not — but it has also lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty.  It would not be easy to demonstrate that capitalism has driven more people into extreme poverty than it has lifted out of it; indeed there are good grounds for thinking that the opposite is the case.”
Singer’s quote shows that our economic system cannot be blamed for the greatness of our society nor for its shortfalls. People within the same system experience greatly different pressures and outcomes, but what determines the overall health of our society is how we use the system in place. In capitalism the very wealthy have taken advantage of the system to benefit themselves, which is a side effect of the system that does deserve criticism.  I would argue that on the other end of the system, thinking of a socialist or communist society, we would fear that those who are the most disadvantaged would find ways to take advantage of the system as opposed to those who are the most wealthy.
The argument that I believe Singer would make, in regards to capitalism, is that those who do become super wealthy, or even moderately wealthy (which may mean the average American when we adopt a global perspective), can do the most good by choosing to redirect their resources to causes that they can meaningfully impact and that will meaningfully impact the lives of those who suffer the most.  Without a capitalistic system that allows us all to obtain the most wealth possible, we lose the opportunity to do the most good possible. A focus on social responsibility within a capitalistic society, Singer would argue, is the greatest change and source of positivity the world can provide.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.

The Emotional Pull of Making Decisions

The Make-A-Wish foundation is a successful charity in the United States which has done a lot of great things for young children diagnosed with life threatening diseases, however, in his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains that effective altruists, or a budding group of people who are focused on using their resources to provide the greatest value to people who need it the most, do not find the charity to be a place where they should focus their money when they are trying to change the world or do something truly great for other people.

 

In his book Singer explains the value of Make-A-Wish, the value of the emotional fulfillment people receive when they participate in Make-A-Wish events, and what pulls us toward the charity to make donations. The charity is focused on children who often live in our community and who do not have the opportunity to live a full life with the joys that we have experienced in ours. When Make-A-Wish stories air, we see an individual child and are able to connect with their story possibly even identifying a piece of ourselves in that child and their story. Making a donation satisfies a core part of who we are, and we get to see the children who actually benefit from our donation.

 

However, effective altruists likely would not find the Make-A-Wish foundation to be the most impactful place for their donations. Singer explains it this way, “Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and many more.” The $7,500 figure is the average cost according to Make-A-Wish of fulfilling a wish. The argument for Singer and effective altruists is that we could use the money that we direct toward providing one child with a very special day, and save the lives of multiple children.  An effective altruist would argue that saving a life is more important and provides more positivity for the world.

 

Continuing on and writing about a Make-A-Wish recipient nick-named Batkid, Singer writes, “Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed-nets to families in malaria-prone regions?  The answer lies in part in the motional pull of knowing that you are helping this child, one whose face you can see on television, rather than the unknown and unknowable children who would have died from malaria if your donation had not provided the nets under which they sleep. It also lies in part in the fact that Make-A-Wish appeals to Americans, and Miles is an American child” Singer shows us that we are more likely to make donations that will remain close to us and benefit those who look like us. We are less likely to feel the same emotional pull when considering a donation to a charity that helps people in a different culture far away from us who do not dress, act, or look very similar to us.

 

By pausing and reflecting on how their money is used, effective altruists are able to reason past these shortcomings of the human mind. Our biases limit our donations and create a prejudice against making donations and helping those far away from where we live. Singer contrasts effective altruists against average donors, “Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do.” He shows that effective altruists are truly focused on finding the best use for their extra resources and finding the best way to help people. They focus and reason through their donations, avoiding the emotional pull of spontaneous donations. All of their daily actions align one way or another with their philosophy, helping them do the most good possible. In this way, and effective altruist is able to ensure that the donations they make will help shape the world for the better, save lives, and reduce global suffering.

A Warm Glow

In his book The Most Good You Can Do author Peter Singer explores a recent phenomenon that has been coined effective altruism. Those who follow the philosophy explained by Singer take the title of effective altruists and they are defined as individuals who are focused on having the greatest positive impact on the planet that they possibly can. An effective altruist is concerned about human beings on a global scale, and drives towards making donations that have the greatest impact on the lives of others. They see their goal or mission in life as impacting the most lives possible at a sacrifice to their own lifestyle.

 

Singer contrasts effective altruists with those who make small donations when a charity tugs at their emotions. He writes, “Those who give small amounts to many charities are not so interested in whether what they are doing helps others — psychologists call them warm glow givers.” Singer includes this passage in his book to make a distinction between effective altruists and those who occasionally make small donations to charities when it is convenient.  The distinction he raises helps us see that effective altruists have shaped their life around doing great things for those who are less fortunate, something not seen in most people who donate to charity.

 

Throughout his book Singer also makes a distinction between wealthy donors and those who are focused on making meaningful donations to charity and communities.  Few people truly take a moment to research the charities they are making donations to, even when their donations are large and impactful. By not researching where your donation is going you cannot be sure that your money is truly heading toward the cause being promoted by the charity as opposed to being used for additional fundraising or executive salaries. An effective altruist would spend time understanding how a charity uses donations prior to making a donation. Ultimately, the research, the amount of money donated, and the decision of which charity to donate to, for an effective altruist, is not based on generating positive feelings for the donor, but is based on reducing the suffering in the lives of as many people as possible.

Effective Altruism

Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, is all about what he has termed effective altruism. He writes about individuals who seek ways in which they can have the greatest possible positive impact in the world because they feel compelled to help others.  These effective altruists, as he has named them, are secular individuals driven by compassion and a true understanding of themselves and the assistance they have received to live a comfortable life. The self awareness required to become an effective altruist helps individuals see the challenges that others face on a global scale, and drives effective altruists to aid those who are the least fortunate on our globe.

 

Singer describes effective altruists as being individuals who donate large amounts of money to charities that they have researched as being the most influential and impactful in the lives of those the charity is established to assist.  Singer explains that a common thread is the idea of living quite modestly to focus the most of ones resources towards the most effective charity possible. Many effective altruists will seek high paying positions and salaries because they understand that by earning more, they will be able to funnel more resources back towards those who are in the most need.  Combining these traits, Singer explains effective altruism with the following definition, “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.”

 

The effective altruists that Singer explains are not limiting their impact to local causes and efforts and they are not donating to charities just because they have a good campaign video.  A system has been established around effective altruists to guide them in the best direction to do the most good possible with their money. The charities that they often support are well researched and spend most, if not all, of the money and resources they receive on the programs they implement. Often times the charities are in poorer countries where one dollar can go further, and where simple measures can be taken to actually save a life.  One of the charities that Singer mentions in his book is a charity that provides bed nets to people in Africa. Since a single bed net can protect from mosquitos and malaria, a small donation can save the lives of multiple people and help keep farmers and families healthy. It is hard to find a comparable charity in the United States or elsewhere where a donation of roughly $100 can help save an actual life.

 

For me the main glue that holds effective altruists together is the idea of moral secularism that requires individuals to be self aware enough to see that they have a responsibility to assist those less fortunate than themselves.  I believe that any effective altruist would be able to explain that they relied on the luck of being born into a good family or the luck of having people to support them on their journey to arrive at a place where they have some wealth and can live modestly.  They are called to action because moral decisions are socially derived, and by changing their perspective they can chose not to compete with others to acquire the most goods, but rather to do the most good.

A Constructive Use of Our Resources

In his letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, William T. Vollmann lists as number seven on his list of 21 pieces of advice the following quote, “Don’t buy anything or use anything you don’t need or want.  Try to do constructive things with cash.”  This little piece of advice seems so simple at face value, but if we really incorporated it into our lives we would see that it can have a deep impact on our lives.  Focusing on what we buy and not buying things that could be labeled as junk will help us eat healthier, de-clutter our homes, and even focus on donating to better charities.  Budgeting is one of the clearest ways to limit spending money on unnecessary things, but increased self awareness is a crucial step for anyone who wants to truly identify their spending habits. I just finished reading The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and in his book he recounts many stories of individuals and couples sitting down to budget for the first time, and being shocked at just how much money they were spending towards things they did not need or remember.  The big takeaway from the power of budgeting is the self-awarenss that a good budget creates, and the control that planning and budgeting provides for our lives.  Trying to avoid purchasing things we don’t need or use our money in frivolous and mindless ways will lead to more control and security in our lives.

 

It is easy to go to the grocery store and come home with a variety of things that you did not intend to buy, and this is not always a bad thing.  Getting to the store and realizing that you need  sunscreen and throwing some in the cart as you pass the display can be a good thing, while I would argue, throwing an extra candy bar or soda in the cart is not.  In this example I am comparing the impulse to buy a skin protector, something that helps us be health, with a junk food that is not healthy. This argument is a little flawed, but accurately identifies situations where we can be spending money on things that will not help us, and will just leave us with a little less cash.  One candy bar on its own does not mean anything, but combined with soda, cookies, and other junk foods the candy bar can become a dangerous habit that we spend money on each time we go to the store. Self awareness is required to see what you are buying at the grocery store and limit the junk you buy and the excuses you develop for buying that junk.

 

Vollmann’s ideas about consciously spending our money and making sure that we use our money wisely extends beyond simple shopping.  I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Point of Inquiry where host Josh Zepps interviewed Peter Singer about morality.  What surprised me was to hear that the majority of people who donate to charity do so on an impulse basis with little to no thought of the impact factor behind their donation.  Any time we donate to charity we feel better and justified for our action, but we rarely take the time to identify how impactful the charity is, and how our money will benefit the programs or lives of those the charity aims to assist.  Random and unconscious donations to charity may not be harmful and may be one of the constructive uses of cash that Vollmann encourages, but according to Singer we could still be doing more with our resources.  I think that in the end Vollmann, through his quote about money, is speaking about making the most of the resources we have. Singer shows us that even one of our most coveted resources is often misused even when we try to do something positive.  Searching for the most constructive use of our time, effort, and cash can help us feel more fulfilled, and it will allow us to have a grater impact on the planet. I followed the podcast by reading Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, and was struck by the idea of intentionally donating money by consciously saving and making valuable contributions to charities that have the greatest impact on the lives and suffering of the global poor.  One of the biggest surprises of affective altruism as Singer has named it, is the meaning that impactful donations of time and resources provide to those who are wealthy enough to give back.  Affective altruists who make meaningful donations feel more connected with their community and those around them, and feel like they are making a greater difference in the world.