A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 26 February 2018

Review: The Most Good You Can Do

I originally wrote this review in June 2015 for what was intended to be a collection of reviews of books with interesting and/or provocative these. Unfortunately, the person who was organising the collection did not manage to publish it before they left the ASI; I was reminded of this book by another discussion, and so am making the review generally available. This is the review as I submitted it, without any changes.

Peter Singer achieved prominence as a moral philosopher in the 1970s with a series of books and articles arguing for controversial positions in impeccably logical fashion. One article in particular, Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972) argued that as members of rich, developed nations, we have strong duties of rescue to people living in less developed countries. This line of thinking has spawned the Effective Altruism movement, a set of groups whose members are pledged to ending poverty, saving the world, and in general averting suffering wherever they see it. Effective altruists, due to their focus upon concrete impact, think and act very differently from members of other charitable movements. The Most Good You Can Do functions as an introduction to this movement, presenting an introduction to and defence of its main beliefs and practices.

The opening chapters give a brief description of the movement and of how it came about. This includes some of the controversial claims to which effective altruists tend to subscribe – notably, that one is unlikely to achieve a great deal of good by working for a typical charity. When one is employed by a charity, this is likely to fill a role in the charity which could equally well have been done by any other volunteer. If one instead finds a well-paid job and donates money to the charity, the net positive impact of one’s career is likely to be far greater. This has led to some effective altruists seeking out employment in financial trading, despite the rather poor reputations held by financial firms regarding the morality of their practices.

The second section of the book deals with some of the specific actions taken by effective altruists. These include reducing one’s consumption in order to give more, seeking high-earning jobs, and donating organs. The chapter on earning to give contains the first seriously philosophical sections of the book, a response to objections made by David Brooks and by the ghost of Bernard Williams. In response to the idea that earning to give sacrifices one’s integrity and alienates a person from their personal goals and projects, Singer claims (without much in the way of argument) that merely “doing good” is a perfectly adequate goal for one’s life – in which case earning to give, far from representing the subjugation of one’s aims to an imperative to maximise global utility, can be the ultimate expression of authenticity.

In response to the idea that going into finance upholds and strengthens the system of capitalism which impoverishes many and drives inequality, Singer engages in a brief defence of capitalism, pointing to the fact that it has “lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty”. Finally he considers the idea that going into finance harms people, and that ‘do not harm’ ought to be prior to ‘do the most good’ as a principle of morality. Singer questions this priority with an example drawn from the London Blitz, but seems to devote more attention to attacking the account of harm upon which the objection rests. It is unclear that Singer needs to defend earning to give against these specific objections – while finance is one career path for someone who earns to give, there are after all a range of alternatives including law, consultancy, and entrepreneurship.

In addition to these, Singer discusses a range of other careers in which one’s impact might be directly through the work – among others effective altruist advocacy, jobs in aid organisations, and medical research. Finally, he discusses the good one can achieve by donating parts of one’s body. Since many people are unwilling to donate kidneys except in exchange for kidneys to save the lives of their own friends and family, someone who is willing to donate a kidney without attaching conditions can start a “kidney chain” of multiple donations, perhaps saving five or six lives through a single donation. Unfortunately the number of such donors is currently small (117 in the UK in 2013; the US figure, adjusted for population, is worse), not helped by the fact that until 2006 such donations were in fact illegal in the UK.

The third section of the book discusses the factors which motivate effective altruists to undertake apparently sacrificial actions purely in order to help others. Singer suggests that the emergence of effective altruism represents a triumph of reasoning over emotion, and presents a range of evidence to show that members of the wider population are usually moved to act altruistically more out of instinct than out of reasoned consideration. He also argues that we tend to overestimate how much happiness we will lose out on by giving away money and to fail to recognise the sense of purpose and self-esteem which many people gain from helping others.

The final section of the book presents perhaps the most controversial claims which effective altruists universally take for granted: that some charities and causes are simply better than others. Singer observes that, while poverty and suffering exist the whole world round, it is generally a lot easier to relieve them in the third world than in the first world. Singer compares a program of Rubella vaccination by philanthropist Ted Turner, estimated to have prevented around 13.8 million deaths between 2000-2012 at an average cost of $80 per life saved, with a 2007 operation which separated two conjoined twins from Costa Rica at a cost running into millions of dollars.

After sharply criticising the practice of spending megabucks on improving museums while there are starving children in Africa, Singer turns to some issues which are not universally accepted even by effective altruists. The first is animal rights; the second, the perhaps less familiar subject of existential risk. Given that (hopefully) the vast majority of humans have yet to exist, one of the biggest threats to the sum of human wellbeing is the risk of becoming extinct. Efforts to reduce the risks of nuclear war, asteroid impacts, and unfriendly artificial intelligence, then, could be a remarkably effective form of charitable giving.

All in all, The Most Good You Can Do is very readable and serves well as an introduction to the effective altruist movement. Even as someone who has been involved with effective altruism for almost two years, I learned things from reading it. Since the book is more a summary of existing arguments than an attempt to break new ground, the arguments made are perhaps not as strong as one might expect, with an often unnecessary reliance upon utilitarianism.

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