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Peter Singer’s Extremely Altruistic Heirs

Forty years after it was written, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” has spawned a radical new movement.

Indranil Mukherjee / Getty Images

How much money, time, and effort should you be giving to relieve dire poverty? And how should you allocate these precious goods? If we ask these questions more than we once did, there are several reasons why. The inescapable media gaze makes it harder to avoid being aware of poverty, domestic and global, than it used to be. Luxury and excess are also more rampant, and more visible too. And successful interventions lead many to see that poverty is tractable, and that we can do something to help rid the world of it. 

But another reason the question looms larger for us than it once did can be credited in no small part to the writings and activism of the Australian philosopher and Princeton University professor Peter Singer. Over the last forty-plus years, Singer has nagged at the conscience, and the reason, of thousands who have encountered his ideas in their college ethics courses, where his writings are staples; in his op-eds (430 and counting); or through his appearances on The Colbert Report. Singer has written famously on animal rights and medical ethics, but his best-known philosophical essay—published when he was twenty-six—argued that the haves of the world are morally obligated to transfer most of their wealth to the have-nots. In that groundbreaking 1972 article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” written in the wake of a Bangladesh famine, Singer drew the reader in with what may at first have seemed an innocuous premise:

if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

Do you have a moral obligation to save a drowning toddler if you’re the only one on the scene and all it would cost you is muddy clothes? Who would say no? (Some would, it turns out, but I’ll ignore them here.) Singer concludes without too much ado that “we ought to give until we reach the level…at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift.” Cut the cappuccinos, shun the (nth pair of) shoes, skip the ski trip. No goodies for us or our loved ones as long as others live below subsistence.

Singer’s essay set off a debate in philosophy, and beyond, that continues to this day. (The essay, which originally appeared in the then-new journal Philosophy & Public Affairs, has just been published as a book, with a couple of Singer’s other essays and a preface by Bill and Melinda Gates.) I was a first-year PhD student in philosophy when the essay appeared, and it left a permanent mark on my thinking, my research, and how I hoped to lead my life. When, two years later, Robert Nozick published his libertarian classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia—arguing that we have no moral duties to aid people, only duties not to harm them—these questions tightened their grip on me. They haven’t let go. Most people, I submit, find both extremes utterly implausible. But between the endpoints lie myriad positions, some very demanding and others hardly at all. Surely the truth must lie somewhere in between. But where?           

Now Singer’s work has spawned a new movement, effective altruism. Founded by two young Oxford philosophers, Toby Ord and William MacAskill, it aims to persuade the skeptical and help the well-meaning figure out how much to do and how to do it best. You can join Giving What We Can, whose members pledge to donate at least ten percent of what they earn to “whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others.” That’s the altruism part. On its own, tithing to help the poor is hardly a new idea. What’s new is the “effective” part—the insistence on rigorous outcome measures. If you don’t know where to donate, you can consult GiveWell, a meta-charity founded by two former hedge fund managers that evaluates the myriad NGOs dedicated to alleviating poverty and recommends the most successful. And you can get advice from 80,000 Hours, which helps people choose careers that do the most good for others in need.

Whatever its other virtues or defects, the movement helps rebut the scores of books and articles published in the last few decades—William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa are among the best known—arguing that “aid” is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Even its critics don’t really deny that it’s possible for affluent westerners to do good—improving health outcomes is the most obvious example—but that fact often gets lost in the rhetoric.

Singer and MacAskill have each written a new book about effective altruism that, among other things, sets this record straight. MacAskill’s, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, and Singer’s, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, show how without enormous efforts we can greatly improve the odds that our donations will be more effective. Both books contain useful information that can ease the way for those who want to give more but have been held back by financial or psychological obstacles or simple inertia.

Nevertheless, the outlook expressed in these books is in some ways disturbing. A common criticism of Singer’s position is that it’s unrealistic and even unreasonable to expect ordinary human beings to make the kinds of sacrifices extreme altruism demands. The deeper point is not just that people are in fact too selfish, and cannot be made otherwise; it’s that this vision requires people to sacrifice values we cherish, like loyalty and love. The world would be a worse—and almost unrecognizable—place if we always aimed at impartially producing the most good we could.

Consider a story MacAskill tells. In 2009, while germinating the concept of effective altruism, he visited a hospital in Ethiopia that treats obstetric fistulas, a condition resulting from childbirth in young and malnourished women that causes “permanent incontinence of urine and/or feces.” According to the Fistula Foundation, which funds the hospital, “A majority of women who develop fistulas are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their communities because of their foul smell.”     

At the hospital MacAskill met some of the women who suffered from this condition. But several years later he concluded that although the organization was repairing fistulas at low cost and saving these young women from terrible fates, others working on different issues were making a bigger impact and that they should get his donations instead. (The methods used in determining impact are described in the book in detail.) MacAskill explains that by donating to the Fistula Foundation instead of a different organization he thought he “would be privileging the needs of some people over others merely because I happened to know them,” and that it “was arbitrary that I’d seen this problem close up rather than any of the other problems in the world.”

If we find this story a little chilling, that’s because to most of us it seems neither reasonable nor desirable to expect people to remain untouched by the particular individuals they know and the particular causes that affect them. Should we suppress the urge to bring dinner to our elderly neighbor because we could use those hours more effectively by researching charities and sending a check to the best one? That may sound like a rhetorical question (to which the answer is no). But it doesn’t sound that way to MacAskill. Effective altruists admire the kind of cool rationality that considers personal attachments arbitrary. Singer tells us that “many of the most prominent effective altruists…are particularly strong in areas that require abstract reasoning.” To do the most good we must ignore our natural sentiments and calculate, or else let others (like the analysts at GiveWell) do the calculating for us. A wealth of recent research in psychology and behavioral economics confirms what may seem obvious: people’s emotions and natural responses often lead them to make poor decisions, whether self-interested or altruistic. But to dismiss their role altogether seems misguided at best.

In The Most Good You Can Do Singer pulls back from the cold conclusion by showing how effective altruists can allow for values like loyalty and love. You are permitted to put your own children ahead of other children, he says, for a variety of reasons. First, it’s just unrealistic to expect parents to be impartial between their own children and others. Second, discouraging partiality would suppress a kind of love that’s important for children to thrive. Finally, effective altruists “are real people, not saints, and they don’t seek to maximize the good in every single thing they do, 24/7.” It’s often seemed that for Singer this is merely a concession—as if the best kind of person would always seek to maximize the good. How else to understand the utilitarian demand for doing the most good you can do?

Even if Singer permits partiality to loved ones for the wrong reasons, we should agree with him that there are limits to how much of it we should countenance in the face of the dire needs of others. Our children don’t have to get “the latest toys or lavish birthday parties,” and they shouldn’t. Singer will encounter more resistance with his suggestion that parents should bequeath much or most of what they own not to their own children but to those whose needs are much greater.

One of the effective altruism movement’s main strategies is called “earning to give.” Suppose you’re an idealistic young doctor-in-training disturbed by global poverty. This was the dilemma facing Greg Lewis, described in MacAskill’s book. A top medical student at Cambridge University, he considered moving to a poor country to practice medicine. But he eventually decided that he could make a bigger difference by becoming a medical oncologist in the UK, earning a lot of money, and donating half of his $200,000 annual income to the most effective charities. MacAskill explains confidently and in great detail the calculations showing that Lewis would save considerably more lives earning to give than working as a doctor in a developing country. He and Singer cite other examples too—like Matt Wage, a Princeton undergraduate who turned down a chance to study philosophy at Oxford and instead took a job at an arbitrage trading firm on Wall Street so he could earn more and give more away. It’s an odd reversal: where we might have thought of the altruistic person as one who forgoes a lucrative career to work with and for poor people, it turns out that the most altruistic, according to this view, will choose high-powered and prestigious careers instead.

Why might this approach make us uneasy? For one thing, there’s the supreme confidence with which MacAskill makes the calculations about the consequences of uncertain and highly complex career decisions. For another, there’s his neglect of the bad you might be doing while earning, even if you do good in giving. (According to Amia Srinivasan, a harsh critic of MacAskill, he no longer recommends that people go into banking jobs that cause direct harm, like creating risks that will be borne by taxpayers.)  MacAskill describes a documentary filmmaker who criticizes one of his own subjects, a cosmetic surgeon to the stars, for wasting his talent rather than saving lives. But MacAskill argues that the filmmaker’s attitude “is misplaced. It’s the cosmetic surgeon’s decision about how to spend his money that really matters.” Is that really all that matters?

MacAskill also considers the concern that those who choose earning to give will along the way become less interested in the giving than the earning. One of his responses is to point to people like Bill Gates and others who have joined the Giving Pledge—a group of billionaires who have promised to give at least half their earnings to charity—as examples of altruists who haven’t lost their values. Although MacAskill offers a few bits of advice to those without college degrees—helpfully suggesting, for example, that they too should get the highest paying jobs they can so they can give more money away—the great bulk of his attention goes to a tiny group of the most privileged people in the world.

But are billionaires, who after giving still have billions to spare, the best model for most of us? Perhaps, it will be argued, this emphasis is justified: after all, those with high incomes can make the biggest difference in reducing poverty globally. Certainly they should be encouraged (and perhaps shamed if they fall short). Yet focusing so heavily on what elites can do denigrates the contributions of ordinary people, who cannot make huge differences understood in the quantitative and aggregative terms the effective altruism movement prizes. Those with excess income—including the non-rich—should often give more and give better, and the effective altruism movement provides some useful advice about how to do that. But there are ways of making a difference that can only be achieved by getting your hands dirty—in soup kitchens, clinics, prisons, schools, and neighborhoods, not to mention through political action and lobbying. For many people, this is the best or the only way they can contribute.  

The movement also underestimates the seriousness of poverty in the U.S. and other advanced countries. By ignoring relative deprivation and inequality and their effects on both material and psychic well-being, effective altruists fail to acknowledge the intolerable deprivations and indignities poor people in rich countries often face. These cannot simply be moved to the back burner until global poverty disappears. But they will be if effective altruists get their way, because, as they often point out, every dollar we donate buys more poverty relief abroad than at home.

You might think that people who take altruism seriously would go mad, incessantly asking themselves if they are doing enough, if they are doing the most good they could be doing. Some of those whose stories Larissa MacFarquhar tells in her riveting new book, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, do seem obsessed. (MacFarquhar’s decision to use the pejorative term “do-gooders” struck me as the only false note in the book.) After Aaron Pitkin read Singer’s original essay, everything he bought, “even the smallest, cheapest thing, felt to him like food or medicine snatched from someone dying.” Julia Wise felt guilty when her fiancé bought her a candy-apple; the money could have helped someone in need. She eventually chased the demons away without giving up her principles, seeing that she had “to make a budget rather than asking ‘Should I donate this money instead?’ every time I was in a checkout line.”  (Julia is a social worker, not a surgeon or a banker. She’s discussed in both MacFarquhar’s and Singer’s books; apparently there aren’t that many extreme altruists to go around.)

Then there’s Hector and Sue Badeau, the un-rich married couple who have two biological children and then adopt twenty more, after which they take in a couple of refugee families. (MacFarquhar published their story last summer in The New Yorker.) Most of us will find what they do unimaginable, and some are as likely to think them crazy as altruistic. Leaving that aside, we can ask: did they make the most difference they could have? You might doubt it, since most of their children became parents in their teens, and some ended up in prison. Still, these children are almost certainly better off than they would have been had Hector and Sue not adopted them. But what if the parents could have made a bigger difference, considered “from the point of view of the universe” (in the philosopher Henry Sidgwick’s phrase), by donating the money they spent on all these children to the Against Malaria Foundation? Would effective altruists really insist that they should have done that instead?

Setting MacFarquhar’s stories alongside MacAskill’s and Singer’s books suggests a distinction between an altruism of the head—the conclusion of moral theorizing and rational calculation—and an altruism of the heart, driven by empathy and the pain of realizing the distress of others. The distinction isn’t sharp and the two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. But altruists of the head are less likely to suffer personally and feel guilty; and altruists of the heart will rarely be effective altruists.

On the last page of The Most Good You Can Do Singer reassures the reader that most effective altruists “still have both their kidneys, are continuing in the career paths they had or planned to have before they heard of effective altruism, and are more likely to be giving about one-tenth of their income than half of it.”

Why does Singer suddenly seem to give people permission to do what he has spent his career insisting is wrong? There’s a delicate juggling act at work here. Clearly effective altruists can disagree among themselves—and perhaps even within themselves!—about how much to demand or even recommend. There’s the radical view, driven by bewitching philosophical theory or moral purity, that each individual has a moral duty to do everything she can to maximize well-being and minimize suffering overall. This is the view that Singer set out beginning in 1972 and that endures in the title of his latest book—The Most Good You Can Do—despite the forgiving tone just quoted. Among less radical stances there’s still a great deal of room for disagreement about just how much regular people should give up to alleviate the suffering of others. MacAskill’s title, Doing Good Better, suggests something quite modest: whatever amount you’ve set aside for altruistic giving, take care to invest it as effectively as possible. But clearly MacAskill is asking for more: not only should you do what you’ve been doing more effectively, you should be setting aside more—a lot more, in fact.

At the same time, effective altruists must always consider the likely effects of their advice and exhortations. Will they turn off some who think “That’s way too much to ask, that’s crazy, so I’ll continue as before”? The prospect of this reaction among my students always worried me when I taught Singer’s article. These are tricky problems to navigate. But it means you can’t always take effective altruists’ pronouncements at face value.

In our house we’re in the midst of making our end-of-year charitable contributions. As we decide, some practical implications of effective altruism press against habit and reflection. Take first the suggestion to tithe. Remember that effective altruists like MacAskill and Singer urge giving ten percent of one’s (gross) income to global poverty relief. That means that contributions to domestic poverty relief, racial justice, prison reform, disease research, religious organizations, public radio, the opera, your alma mater, and whatever other causes you care about must come after and above that ten percent. If these normally comprise half of your annual contributions (just to take a number out of a hat), you’d have to donate 20 percent. That starts to look like a lot to demand of people—but so does forgoing giving to these causes. 

Effective altruists, as we’ve seen, also recommend contributing to the most effective global poverty relief organizations. Singer and MacAskill realize that few people have the time, talent, or resources to arrive at reliable conclusions about these matters themselves, so they strongly recommend turning to GiveWell for guidance. At the moment GiveWell lists four organizations as its top choices (Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Deworm the World Initiative, GiveDirectly) and four more as “standout charities.” They don’t recommend Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, or UNICEF—to name just a few—because, as both Singer and MacAskill note, it’s very difficult to determine the efficacy of organizations with many different programs, and of specific programs that are not susceptible to testing by randomized controlled trials.

That may be, but it raises some worries. First, this conclusion conflicts with what seems like a reasonable strategy in light of the enormous uncertainty and rapid change inherent in these matters: diversify, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Second, GiveWell’s judgments of effectiveness would seem to depend on background conditions that include the operations of large charities like Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders. If contributions to those organizations declined significantly, it seems likely that serious consequences would ensue for poor people around the world.

Finally, the maximum effectiveness strategy means neglecting programs that support advocacy for political and structural change, which are essential for addressing the deeper roots of poverty. Singer describes sympathetically several Oxfam programs of this kind but concludes that, although if successful their return on investment would probably be very large, “we do not, at present, know enough to say whether policy advocacy offers better or worse value for money than direct aid programs.” The point also applies to domestic poverty. People across the political spectrum should agree that structural changes that allow all workers to earn a decent living are preferable to welfare programs and private charity.

Some people in this world are lucky and others very unlucky—in the families, the neighborhoods, the countries they were born and raised in, and more generally in the deck they’ve been dealt. To some that’s just the way it is. To others it’s unacceptable or even unjust. To those in the latter camp, the most important questions remain. How much should we do? What exactly should we do? Clearly the answers will vary depending on a giver’s needs, resources, abilities, proclivities. The effective altruists have shown that, without undue burdens, many of us can and should do a lot more than we do now. But in their zeal to maximize effectiveness, they distort human psychology, undervalue the contributions made by ordinary people, and neglect the kind of structural and political change that is ultimately necessary to redress the suffering and radical inequality we see around us. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Giving What We Can urges its members to donate ten percent of their income to “causes dedicated to relieving global poverty.” In fact, the organization does not specify that those funds have to go to global poverty relief. Instead, it encourages members to donate ten percent of their income to “whichever organizations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others.”