Donating to Faces

In the United States there is a lot of wealth and a lot resources that are directed toward charity. One problem, however, is that the people who are the most in need of charity are generally in developing countries and economies on the other side of the globe. Those counties and individuals, where our donations from the United States could go the furthest, don’t manage to capture as much of the donation market as we might think they would given the scale of need and potential impact of our donations. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain call this the Relatability Problem of charitable donations.

 

They write, “we’re much more likely to help someone we can identify-a specific individual with a name, a face, and a story. First investigated by Thomas Schelling in 1968, this phenomenon has come to be known as the identifiable victim effect. The corresponding downside, of course, is that we’re less likely to help victims who aren’t identifiable.”

 

We might hear a news story about millions of people in a distant country being displaced by a major natural disaster. We might see lines of people trying to flee a destroyed town or countryside, but the further from us they are in terms of both distance and culture, the less likely we are to feel a burning desire to help them. I think that part of this comes from the rational side of our brains. We want to be sure that if we expend effort, energy, or resources, that we can see the final product to know that something good happened. If we can see a single person in need who received a meal, a place to sleep, or had a home repaired as a result of our charity, then we will be more likely to make some type of donation to help, especially if we can see something in ourselves in their situation. When we just see statistics about how many people are in need and how many dollars helped however many people, we are less sure that our efforts really made a difference and actually applied to the problem at hand. This feels like it makes rational sense, but as I have detailed previously, our charity is usually not very rational to begin with, and our brains end up driving our charity to less rational purposes in this potential rational aim.

 

Peter Singer gives an example of this in his book The Most Good You Can Do. If we see a campaign for the  Make-a-Wish Foundation to help one specific child with a terminal illness have an amazing day, we will likely feel incredible empathy for the child and we will see an opportunity for us to be part of making something spectacular happen for a child with an unfortunate and unavoidably short life. We see exactly who we are helping, we can read or watch a story about why we should help this child (and others like them), and how our donation will help them directly. At the same time, however, the CDC reports that in 2016 445,000 people died from Malaria, a preventable mosquito born parasitic infection.

 

We could make a $250 donation to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and our money would go toward some things that help provide a fantastic day for the one child whose story we can see on TV or read about. We could alternatively make a $250 donation to the against malaria and provide about 50 anti-malarial bed-nets to children. Somewhere inside us, the statistics about bed-nets doesn’t weigh as heavily as helping the one child whose story we saw on TV, even though we are helping 50 children and potentially saving the lives of the children by ensuring they have something to prevent Malarial infections. Its hard to say how much our donation does for the Make-A-Wish foundation, but we know pretty well what our donation toward bed-nets does.

 

Global charities helping those where our resources could go the furthest are hampered by our empathetic drives to help those with whom we relate to. We first want to help those who look like us, have similar backgrounds, and speak our same language. After that we are willing to try to help those unknown people creating the statistics that fail to move us to action. We don’t donate because we want to make the most good, we donate because we feel compelled to help people who look like part of our tribe.

An Ethical Dilemma

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson consider human ethics in a framework laid out by Peter Singer. Singer suggested that if we saw someone dying right in front of us, we would have a moral obligation (in instances that did not put us in moral danger ourselves) to try to assist them, even if it came at an expense to ourselves. A common example is that you are wearing brand new very expensive clothing and see someone dying in a situation where you could save them without risk to yourself, but in a way that would certainly ruin your brand new clothes. The loss of our expensive new clothes is almost certainly not a reason to put off helping the person dying in front of us.

 

The question becomes, are we obligated to help people who are not dying in front of us at the expense of the cost of the brand new clothes that we would sacrifice if the person were dying in front of us? Are we obligated to save a life thousands of miles away in a different country and culture for the price of some goods that we might frivolously buy for ourselves?

 

Simler and Hanson lay out this argument in their book and write, “What Singer has highlighted with this argument is nothing more than simple, everyday human hypocrisy – the gap between our stated ideals (wanting to help those who need it most) and our actual behavior (spending money on ourselves). By doing this, he’s hoping to change his readers’ minds about what’s considered ethical behavior. In other words, he’s trying to moralize.”

 

In their book, the authors use the argument of singer and the fact that many of us do not sacrifice the money we would otherwise spend on meaningless things to save the lives of children across the globe as evidence for the elephant in the brain. We say things and signal things that we don’t follow through on, and we are strategically ignorant of the fact that we ignore these aspects of who we are. The authors don’t attempt to criticize us for this behavior, but instead make an effort to point it out and acknowledge that it is a huge driver of human behavior.

 

Our goal, in contrast,” Write Simler and Hanson, “is simply to investigate what makes human beings tick. But we still find it useful to document this kind of hypocrisy, if only to call attention to the elephant. In particular, what we’ll see in this chapter is that even when we’re trying to be charitable, we betray some of our uglier, less altruistic motives.” Very often we do not escape our own self-interest completely, even when we are doing charitable things for other people. Our ethics and moral philosophies can be trampled by our self-interest, and with our big brains we are able to justify our selfish behaviors.

An Ethical Dilemma

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson consider human ethics in a framework laid out by Peter Singer. Singer suggested that if we saw someone dying right in front of us, we would have a moral obligation (in instances that did not put us in mortal danger ourselves) to try to assist them, even if it came at an high cost to ourselves. A common example is that you are wearing brand new very expensive clothing and see someone dying in a situation where you could save them without risk to yourself, but in a way that would certainly ruin your new clothes. The loss of our expensive clothing is almost certainly not a reason to put off helping the person dying in front of us.

 

The question becomes, are we obligated to help people who are not dying in front of us at the the cost of the brand new clothes that we would sacrifice if the person were dying in front of us? Are we obligated to save a life thousands of miles away in a different country and culture for the price of some goods that we might frivolously buy for ourselves?

 

Simler and Hanson lay out this argument in their book and write, “What Singer has highlighted with this argument is nothing more than simple, everyday human hypocrisy – the gap between our stated ideals (wanting to help those who need it most) and our actual behavior (spending money on ourselves). By doing this, he’s hoping to change his readers’ minds about what’s considered ethical behavior. In other words, he’s trying to moralize.”

 

In their book, the authors use the argument of singer and the fact that many of us do not sacrifice the money we would otherwise spend on meaningless things to save the lives of children across the globe as evidence for the elephant in the brain. We say things and signal things that we don’t follow through with, and we are strategically ignorant of the fact that we ignore these aspects of who we are. The authors don’t attempt to criticize us for this behavior, but instead make an effort to point it out and acknowledge that it is a huge driver of human behavior.

 

“Our goal, in contrast,” Write Simler and Hanson, “is simply to investigate what makes human beings tick. But we still find it useful to document this kind of hypocrisy, if only to call attention to the elephant. In particular, what we’ll see in this chapter is that even when we’re trying to be charitable, we betray some of our uglier, less altruistic motives.” Very often we do not escape our own self-interest completely, even when we are doing charitable things for other people. Our ethics and moral philosophies can be trampled by our self-interest, and with our big brains we are able to justify our selfish behaviors.

An Artifact of the Media

In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Princeton professor Peter Singer introduces the idea that the world is improving and becoming a less dangerous place as we become more globalized, and as effective altruists and average citizens make greater efforts to help those who are the most disadvantaged.  Singer states, “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media.” I strongly agree with Singer’s statement and believe that in many ways our world is an improved place, even though that idea is not presented to us by our politicians and national media.

 

Despite claims that we need to make America great again and that daily life in the United States is in danger, many people face few risks of even being moderately uncomfortable.  For me, remembering how challenging life is for those in third world countries helps provide me a better perspective of where I am, and how sever my struggles are relative to others.  Singer would argue that effective altruists are able to live their lives with greater happiness because they are able to recognize this fact and take steps to reduce their own needs while using their resources to help others.  When you can avoid fear, jealousy, and gluttony in the United States, you are able to live quite comfortably without being pressured by the negatives in capitalism. You are then able to use capitalism to your advantage by not consuming and spending more, but by consuming less and donating more in an effort to assist those who need it most.

 

Singer presents information in his book which backs up his claim that the world is slowly improving. He cites statistics from UNICEF that he included in a book written in 2009 which showed that nearly 10 million children were dying from avoidable causes related to poverty each year. The most recent statistic available from UNICEF as Singer completed The Most Good You Can Do in 2015 showed that 6.3 million children were dying from poverty related avoidable causes.  The reduced child mortality rates gave Singer hope, and to him served as proof that we were getting to a world with less suffering and unnecessary death.  Singer did not assert that effective altruists or any specific program was the reason for the reduced death rate, but he presented the information as a ray of light in the face of the doom and gloom of our national media.  We are bombarded with negativity every time we turn on the TV or pull up social media, but Singer argues that this negativity is created by our media consuming habits which dial in on the negative and tragic.  Our perception of the world has become worse and worse as we have taken major steps to shape the world into a better place.

Life in the Universe

Peter Singer shares with his readers a wide variety of areas where individuals can focus in an attempt to make donations of time, effort, or money with a goal of helping the world move in a positive direction in his book The Most Good You Can Do. He discusses donations to individuals in poverty in the developing world, donations to political advocacy organizations, and even donations meant to prevent human extinction through global (usually man made) crisis. Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer makes an effort to quantify the benefit and the return on investment of directing donations and efforts toward various causes.

 

When writing about the preservation of the human species through donations meant to prevent our extinction Singer states, “The universe is so vast and so sparsely inhabited with intelligent life that the extinction of intelligent life originating on Earth would not leave a niche likely to be filled anytime soon, and so it is likely to reduce very substantially the number of intelligent beings who would ever live.” By taking this view Singer is elevating the importance of the role of humanity in the universe and justifying any effort made to protect our species and the lives of humans into the future.  He is advocating that we fill a special spot in the universe because we are the only intelligent life that we have been able to detect in the surrounding areas of our galaxy which we can study at this point.  For Singer, there is an intrinsic value in human life simply because we exist and will exist into the (at the least very near) future.

 

For me, the quote above makes me question Earth’s value.  The vast space and time of the universe is on a scale so large that it is hard or possibly impossible for any individual to fully encompass.  On an episode of the podcast Startalk, Neil De Grass Tyson once said, “Think about a beach full of sand, and for every grain of sand on the beach, we have more planets in the universe.” With that in mind I cannot imagine that the intelligent life on earth is truly as unique as we imagine we are. We simply have not been able to view life on another planet in the space near Earth that we can study. Throughout the space-time of the universe which operates at a different scale than what we perceive and comprehend on earth it is incredibly unlikely that life has not been quite abundant relative to our standards and experiences in studying the universe to this point.

 

In my mind, Singer’s view of humans importance in the Universe overinflated the value of humanity. By focusing and placing so much attention on intelligent life Singer also leaves out other species on this planet that play an incredible role but may not be considered intelligent relative to humans. I think our role even on Earth is less than that which Singer imagines.  When human extinction does occur it will only be humans that truly suffer. Life will not suffer, as species will change and adapt and probably thrive with biodiversity returning to the planet in new ways.  The universe will not miss a single species no matter how intelligent or dominant they are within their section of the universe. Life, and the continued organization of the randomness of the universe will continue to expand be it intelligent or not.  I would therefor argue that providing for our continued existence as humans on this planet is less important than the improvement and elevated life quality of those who are currently living.

Political Advocacy

Political Advocacy is something I think of constantly. Personally, I am getting ready to return to school and I plan to study for a Masters in Public Policy.  What I find interesting is the idea of studying and understanding our problems and having a chance to truly consider what types of actions will benefit those who need help most. Often times the perception of our problems and the reality of our problems are not aligned, and we bemoan a particular policy even though it may not be as serious or have the negative consequences that our voices suggest. For Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, political advocacy is presented in another light, as a way to make changes that impact those who live in the most profound poverty, and to provide the means for changing situations which drive so many into poverty.

 

“Political advocacy is an attractive option because it responds to critics who say that aid treats just the symptoms of global poverty, leaving its causes untouched” Singer writes to show that simply providing aid may not be  the most effective way to improve the lives of individuals. Organizations and groups that help develop fair trade, fight corruption, and advocate for the citizens of a country can shape the world for those living in poverty. Advocacy can help them find a more stable economic base, and it can provide for more clear paths out of extreme poverty.

 

Singer seems to be on the fence about the true impact of donations and efforts related to political advocacy. He argues for it but it is clear that he is concerned about how much anyone can claim that their lobbying impacted the decisions that were made.  He finds it a useful way to make donations or become involved to help others, but the difficulty of measuring ones true impact makes political advocacy seem to be a second tier form of difference making in Singer’s views of effective altruism.

Girls’ Education

Searching for the most effective means of using ones resources to help others is a cornerstone idea in the philosophy of effective altruism.  Throughout his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer examines what this means, what we spend our money on, and how we can redirect our limited resources so that we guide a maximal amount toward causes that have meaningful and life-changing impacts.

 

One of the areas that effective altruists may decide to direct their monetary donations is toward girls’ education in the developing world. Singer explains the benefits of educating more girls and looks at why it is such an important issue in the world today.  He looks at several popular methods for addressing girls’ education and ways in which we have tried to improve girls’ attendance and completion rates in school. By outlining several strategies Signer invites the reader to consider which strategy seems the most obvious, which seems like it would have the greatest benefit, and which strategy seems like it would not be as useful as the others.  He then explains the results of a study from the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and shows the reader that the most effective way to improve education is to provide information to parents about the increased wages of those who stay at school. What Singer explains is that for each $100 dollars spent educating parents, daughters spend an additional 20.7 years in school, which results in girls being able to reach their full potential.

 

What I found particularly interesting is the fact that Singer focused on the well being of the individual girl as opposed to the society as a whole. Often when we look at things like girls’ education, we focus on the benefits it will produce for society such as a reduced birthrate, fewer single mothers, and fewer children in foster care.  We don’t often focus on the well being of the individual woman whose life we want to change. “…for every $100 spent on one of the least effective methods, $99.50 is wasted. When resources are limited and educations is so important to the future of children, that waste means that many human beings do not achieve their full potential.” This quote shows the mindset behind effective altruists who expect to use resources to better others, and want to ensure that their resources have the greatest impact possible because it allows others to live lives to their full potential.

Respecting the Well-Being of Others

Peter Singer focuses on the ideas regarding our interactions with others throughout his book The Most Good You Can Do, and he continually returns to the idea of how we value our life relative to the lives of our family members and the lives of those beyond our family.  Singer argues that the effective altruist movement would not be able to spread if people did not have the ability to empathize with others, and if people could not find ways in which they recognized that all human life holds the same value.

 

Singer references Richard Keshen, a Canadian philosopher, to explain the ways that effective altruists may view other people in the world. “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and  their well-being matter as much as our own.” Prior to this quote Signer quotes Keshen to explain that a reasonable person is someone who makes decisions and develops beliefs that are backed by evidence which can be defended. Their evidence may still be criticized and challenged by others, but the evidence can be used in a rational way to reach a real conclusion.  The base mindset of a reasonable person is that their thinking is unbiased, and the unbiased nature of their thought means that it is not influenced by personal factors and takes a more objective view of the world.

 

As I write this I am absolutely able to understand the importance of viewing the lives of others as equal in value to our own, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s views of reason and do not feel as though they completely add toward the point he is making.  I question whether or not we are able to take a truly objective view of the world regardless of the reason behind our thinking and regardless of how well we try to live without biases.  While I agree that living with the principal that the lives of all members of society are equal in value, I feel as though there are personal biases that have pushed me in this direction. I have been guided by more than just  rational thought, and I know that I am affected by my biases even if I don’t notice them.
I also wonder if the same argument presented by Keshen in support of effective altruism can be used to demonstrate the differences between the lives of those in society and ultimately used to show the importance of keeping wealth and resources within a close family unit.  I do not argue with Singer’s main point, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s view of a rational person, and I am not sure that his definition helps us truly understand the thought process and identity of an effective altruist.

All of Our Stuff

The Most Good You Can Do is a book written by Peter Singer about a philosophy known as effective altruism.  Those who follow the philosophy are characterized by making large donations and directing greater than 10% of their income to charities and organizations that make meaningful changes in the lives of those who are the most disadvantaged.  Effective altruists are focused on making sure that the good they do by making financial donations is maximized. In this pursuit, they look for new ways to save their money for donations, and for charities that direct almost 100% of the donations they receive toward their cause as opposed to administration, fundraising, or lobbying.

 

Singer argues that more Americans should move toward the lifestyle of effective altruism even though it would mean we would have more people moving away from the standard focus of capitalism which is buying more goods with the money we have for our own happiness.  Throughout his book he shares the stories of effective altruists who make large scale donations despite having modest or average incomes.  He shows that a life focused on helping others builds a sense of purpose that is greater than the joy we receive by owning things.  He advocates that Americans should better budget their money and make more stringent decisions about what they choose to purchase if they want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

 

“An in-depth study of thirty-two families in Los Angeles found that three-quarters of them could not park their cars in their garages because the garages were too full of stuff. The volume of possessions was so great that managing them elevated levels of stress hormones in mothers.  Despite the fact that the growth in size of the typical American home means that americans today have three times the amount of space, per person, that they had in 1950, they still pay a total of $22 billion a year to rent extra storage space.”

 

Singer uses this example to show that our spending and purchasing is getting in the way of our true happiness.  By having so much stuff we are building more stress in our lives, and repurposing space to better accommodate all of our possessions. Rather than enjoying our space and having leisure time, many Americans are crammed into cluttered spaces and must spend a large amount of time organizing, cleaning, and managing their stuff.

 

“Perhaps we imagine that money is important to our well-being because we need money to buy consumer goods, and buying things has become an obsession that beckons us away from what really advances our well-being.” Singer writes this passage to explain that our purchasing power and habits have not helped us have richer lives, even though our lifestyles may be richer.  What he would advocate for, I believe, is a better use of our financial resources, stricter uses of our money, and a refocused interest in helping others.

Consumer Spending

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer gives examples of people living various lifestyles as effective altruist.  He explains that deciding to live off less money and making significant monetary donations helps people find a more aligned life than those who live a life of continuous consumer spending.  Many of the individuals he references say that they expected making sacrifices and living as effective altruists to be challenging, but ultimately found the lifestyle strangely liberating. Singer explains why consumer spending does not lead to happiness by sharing the example of one effective altruist who can see that he is not missing much by not using his money to purchase items. “Ian Ross is familiar with psychological research about the “hedonic treadmill” of consumer spending, which shows that when we consume more, we enjoy it for a short time but then adapt to that level and need to consume still more to maintain our level of enjoyment.”

 

Singer shows that effective altruists who learn to live off a small portion of their income avoid the cycle of continually buying goods to boost their happiness. For them, their happiness comes from knowing that they are doing the most they possibly can to improve the lives of those who may be suffering the most. They do not direct their resources toward new items which are marketed toward them that they do not need. In order to boost the good they can do their budgets have to be carefully monitored and thought out which allows them to buy what they need and use the rest resourcefully.  They are in control of their spending instead of letting their spending and desire to have the most up to date items control them.

 

Rather than moving through life adjusting their expectations to have more and more goods, bigger houses, and more expensive cars, effective altruists focus on continually using their resources in ways that will allow them to help others. They may expect to move up a corporate ladder and earn more, but as they earn more it will not be directed toward more debt and more payments. Effective altruists maintain a basic lifestyle, and use their additional resources to help others.