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.