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.