books development generosity

The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer

the most good you can doFive years ago Peter Singer made a compelling case for giving in The Life You Can Save. A large number of people paid attention to that book, and along with other pioneers and experimenters, Singer now finds himself at the forefront of a movement towards ‘effective altruism’. This follow up book explores what this emerging movement is and why it matters. And to put his money where his mouth is, Singer will be giving away all the royalties.

‘Effective altruism’ is giving that is based on “rational insight rather than emotional impulse”. Most people who give to charity do so out of emotion. They are moved by the photo of a child or the story of an abandoned pet. Effective altruists take a much more calculating approach to their philanthropy. They apply logic, randomised trials, cost benefit analysis, putting more emphasis on maths than empathy.

By doing so, they’re more likely to get more for their money, and Singer explains why. Effective altruists tend to target their donations to the very poorest rather than supporting local causes. They look for overlooked or undersupported causes and unusual strategies, little interventions that offer the biggest impact for the smallest amount of money. The foremost question in their minds is the one Singer adapts as his title – ‘what’s the most good I can do?’

To take one of Singer’s examples, training and providing a seeing dog for a blind person in the US costs $40,000. Preventing someone from going blind from trachoma can cost $20-$100. “If you do the math, you will see the choice we face is to provide one person with a guide dog or prevent anywhere between four hundred and two thousand cases of blindness in developing countries.”

The book is full of such examples, not wishing to diminish the importance of local causes, or giving to the arts, but if we’re looking to do as much good as we can, it’s only logical.

Since writing The Life You Can Save, plenty of people have furnished Singer with their own stories, so this follow up is full of real people with a passion for giving their money away. Some of them give hefty percentages of their incomes, or have pursued high-paying careers in order to give more away. Some live simply to free up income. Through the internet, many have got together to discuss the best strategies, and to form new organisations and charities. I’ve mentioned some of them before – the Giving Pledge, Giving What We Can, or Give Directly. I’ll mention some more in a separate post, as there are some intriguing projects out there.

Effective altruists are concerned with data, transparency, and impact. They research how they give in detail, and expect charities to be able to prove how effective their programmes are. This is a bit of a shift in philanthropy. Big donors and trusts have tended to do that more, but casual donors haven’t. Many of those taking an interest in effective altruism aren’t particularly wealthy or radical in the way they live. They just want to do more good in the world, and they come from a broad range of backgrounds – Christians, atheists, Buddhists, bankers, tech millionaires, charity workers, even a professional poker player who enters the biggest tournaments in the business and gives away his winnings.

The book includes ethical and philosophical considerations, stories of ordinary people making a difference, practical things to consider, and radical examples to provoke. (We have two kidneys but only need one. Should we give one away? Singer still has both of his, but he introduces a couple of people who have taken possibly the most altruistic act one can imagine and donated a kidney to a stranger – an gift so outrageous that it was illegal in the UK until 2006, as it was presumed you’d need to be psychopathic to consider it.)

I’m going to write more about effective altruism, as I find it a challenging idea. I consider myself fairly generous, but I know that I’m not very organised or strategic in what I give, so I don’t give as much as I think I do or achieve much with it. The Most Good You Can Do – a book that had me at the title, I’ll admit – has made me want to do better.

27 comments

  1. Jeremy what do you think of the critique that charity by itself without political or economic reform or activism, is an enabler of exploitative systems of power? That poverty itself is created and not just a result of complex societies. I think people like Derrick Jensen say something similar regarding the environment.

    I caught the end of one of Peter Singer’s talks and he raised something like we all use band-aids, and he also went on to ask what are the alternatives? Given we know there is plenty of work being done regarding alternatives is it enough just to give money; even if you increase the amount?

    1. There’s a chapter in the book about which organisations to give to, and he mentions advocacy and the need to change the underlying structures of poverty. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to measure the effectiveness of advocacy, so many of the effective altruists overlook it. Singer suggests they should take a longer view, which is sensible.

      1. Funny he didn’t mention this in his reply to a question dealing with this. I do wonder with the sort of 40 year Club of Rome and even shorter for climate change time limits I would wonder if the long term view is really helpful.

        1. Singer’s focus is on saving lives, which means immediate human suffering gets pushed to the front – and rightly so. But that might mean that all our giving does is patch things up, and he suggests that trusts and larger donors in particular should fund more speculative or longer term projects.

          1. So in fact he talks about advocacy and longer term systematic projects as well as short term fixes. Again he didn’t seem to expand on this in his RSA talk Q&A. Would have been nice to have a followup question referenced to what you have just said.

          2. I agree with the post you link to, an altruism movement is no substitute for activism. But it definitely won’t hurt.

            There are unfortunately a lot of silly comments coming from effective altruists about how important their movement is, and it does them no credit. One of the conference organisers was suggesting that effective altruism may be the last social movement we ever need, which is just naive.

            Even if we just end up picking up the pieces, an altruism movement can ensure that any surplus (and many people will still have one) is given to those that need it most, rather than frittered away on sentimental causes.

          3. I’m generally pessimistic but do see some rays of light. If nothing else lack of large economic surpluses will refocus many people into what really matters and communal cooperative values rather than the extreme individualism that has infected much of Western culture. That is if we can overcome the tribal xenophobia that is raising its ugly head.

          4. ‘But that might mean that all our giving does is patch things up’.

            – We spend so much time, energy and money trying to improve the dire consequences of us trying to get more time, energy and money!

            So much damage limitation and plasters! If all with the aims of social justice could find a way to unite against corporate injustices it would surely be a force to get the better of enormous greed for power over others and its never ending, ever growing, fall-out? If only!

            Unfortunately, it is our dependency on those who have sought and gained enormous power which makes us unable to attack them; we are vulnerable to weakness because be have become dependent on them for our daily lives. Injustice simply grows with their power. We will never solve the issues arising from it, (not by religious backing of climate change or artificial intelligence and living on the moon! – see Jeremy’s recent August 2015 articles). Perhaps corporate power has long since got its grip on this earth and there is no way out, even Singer’s suggestions to fund speculative or longer-term projects ultimately fall in just the same way, as trusts and larger donors are still small and ineffective meat relative to the dominant corporate power over the majority. If corporate power is never to be removed and prevented thereafter it seems that anything done can only be to ‘patch things up’ whatever scale.

            This has almost always been the basis of my comments in MWH; perhaps I’ve now summed it up for me and will have no more to say here, (we’ll see 🙂 ). My thoughts are not at all doom laden. I do not recommend giving up, merely attempting to find realistic answers, rather than repetitions of old methods, simply enlarged in attempts to play catch-up, but, solving nothing in reality. Any counter argument/opinion, I’d be pleased to hear.

    2. Thank-you Simon for the link to Truthdig.com. on Singer. I found this SO telling:
      ‘But Singer’s analysis is too limited to merit our respect, Snow writes. Its cardinal sin is in exonerating capitalism and capitalists—people who “make it their business to control what others need for life and a minimum standard of living”—of responsibility for the suffering that Singer and the Effective Altruists say they want to alleviate.’

  2. This sounds very good Jeremy. It is why I originally drilled down to the thought that giving to Water Aid would be best as apart from clean air it is our next need before food and protections of all sorts. Then, I still wanted to help other issues and animals!!! Where does it stop. Like generousity begins at home it doesn’t have to stop there. This is why I ended up giving to a larger charity and hoped they’d work it out better than me and one or two they may neglect!

    On your comments about being ‘fairly’ generous and wanting to do ‘better’. How much can a man give to do better? Many have heard it said that ‘Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another’. Interesting! How much ‘better’ do we each become? What a goal eh? Perhaps two kidneys, my whole body?

    1. Perhaps, I ought not to have left on that cliff hanger. So, futhermore – Give up my whole body (while alive)? Yes, but, only in one go, if the opportunity arises (like in attempting to save the life of another), but, meanwhile, i can give a little to many MORE people in all sorts of ways. Spreading small amounts far and wide. This sounds like back where the book started?

    2. There’s a chapter on animals, you may be interested to know. Singer says that if the giver’s aim is to reduce suffering, then they can do a lot of good by donating to help animals – especially farm animals. Most animal charities focus on neglected pets, which is a tiny fraction of the problem when it comes to animal suffering.

      How much is enough? There’s no upper limit. If you make enough to give away 99% of what you earn, great. If you aspire to 5%, that’s great too. It’s always going to be about what we want to give, and not what we feel we should give. I don’t think guilt is a relevant motivator in healthy giving. It should be a joyful experience, about sharing what we have out of gratitude and hope.

      1. Yes Jeremy and I would never have disagreed with any of these comments. The point I’m making is that without the golden rule it is alawys going to be relative. Even with it we are not to be miserable about it or live with anxiety about it. Simon has brought attention to the question of activism in all its forms and this is of course of paramount importance (it contains the golden rule which we are to apply to ourselves personally), but, meanwhile, we do what we can where we choose. This makes it all relative to the golden rule, whatever the book says. I’m not, BTW, criticising the book in any adverse manner.

  3. Glad to see the concept had a similar effect on you as it did me. I heard a podcast from Peter while in South Sudan and it really struck a chord with me that I haven’t got my financial giving in order or aspire to anything as I do in my advocacy and volunteer work/life.

    I’ve now put a tangible goal on my donation giving of 10% of any income I receive which for me on a largely volunteer wage is small but it is significant to me and that I am not just telling others to give what they can but actually do it myself.

    Since I set the benchmark for myself I love it! I’m always looking forward to the next opportunity to give and I it showed me how much I thought I was giving and how much I actually wasn’t giving.

    Organise a sexy spreadsheet and give what we can… is my motto.

    I’ve connected with Giving What We Can and will be writing some blogs, visiting them when I get to the UK and sharing their aspirations and tools with my audiences through Teaspoons of Change presentations. I don’t give to ‘their’ charities as I have my own set of effective charities but I love the framework and practicality and it helps me answer the common question about charity – how will I know it will do what it is supposed to do? which is usually an excuse to not give. Giving What We Can is based in Oxford, look them up.

    1. Now we are looking at where and how best to give our money, I wish to point out that giving our own money and other resources, (even opinion), for the benefit of all, can be achieved in very many ways. We do not simply have to give money (or any resource), directly to others for them to use as appropriately as they can. We can also use money, time and energy directly, in our own ways, without passing the responsibilty on to a middle man. This sounds obvious, but, a it can often be overlooked by some, I like to mention it. It is all giving. (Perhaps the churches concerned ought to reconsider the matter of ‘tithing’?). It doesn’t all have to go to their paternalism.

      1. Exactly, and that was my point – I have long given everything else of myself to the goal of working towards the end of extreme poverty with as much effort and effectiveness as possible but hadn’t done it financially until interacting with Giving What We Can and effective altruism.
        Conversely those who do give financially might also like to consider giving time, expertise and learning…

        1. Thanks lunny06, Yes, I did see your reference to it in your own life, but, I wanted to explain how it applies generally and it so many ways (even opinions, even to the degree of when given in anger!) 🙂

          PS. I’d like to see the arrogance of paternalism removed where it exists in churches and individuals in so many ways – intellectually, and in the concept of charity which can be applied to ALL of our actions! I’m sure you see it too.

          1. One of the useful things about effective altruism is that it undercuts paternalism entirely. You give to what you know works, and if a charity can’t prove that they’re doing good, you give to someone else.

            The thing with churches is that if you give to the church, you’re giving to support the institution, maintain the building and pay the staff. If you value the institutional church, that’s fair enough, but I think it’s a shame if christians limit their giving to that when their money could be doing so much more. Personally, I prefer my religion less organised, and I feel no pressure to give a tithe to the church.

  4. I wonder if it’s easier for those who give a lot of time to neglect the money aspect. I work part time and do quite a lot of pro bono writing in lieu of donating money, but I realise that I could give more away if I was more deliberate about it.

    Looking forward to your posts for Giving What We Can Lunny. I need to join them too, and probably get a spreadsheet on the go as well.

    1. Oh yes Jeremy, My point precisely about effective altruism and not feeling obliged to give as much as a tenth of your income to the church, or anywhere. On the question of working more and then it perhaps being easier to think less about the finanacial side of giving. It is as it should be – a question of trade-offs and subsequent priorities for each and every one of us – Our will, our freedom to choose.

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