a book review of
The Most Good You Can Do:
Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically
by Pete Singer
(Yale University Press, 2015)
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 39, number 03 (2016). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Many of us who live in Western liberal democracies sometimes do not realize how good we have it. Compared to most of the world and most of human history, many of us, even if we are middle class, are in the top 1 percent. Although some of us have to live paycheck to paycheck, our lifestyles are luxurious when seen through the eyes of the vast majority who live in real poverty and deprivation. Our relatively easy and inexpensive access to clean food and water, sophisticated medicine, adequate shelter, and modern forms of communication, entertainment, and transportation has resulted in an extension and quality of our lives that most people throughout human history, including large swaths of our present world, would find unimaginable.
I have not even mentioned the fact that many of us possess a level of disposable income that we often use to purchase goods and services that are far from necessary for our survival. Do we really need to buy all the seasons of Seinfeld or purchase that double latte at Starbucks, when reading several books or making your coffee at home can fill the time less expensively? Better yet, wouldn’t it even be more virtuous if you took the cash you were going to spend on Seinfeld and Starbucks, and placed it in the Salvation Army kettle in front of Walgreens?
As Christians, we should take these sorts of questions seriously. Scripture commands us to care for the poor and to watch out for the snares of riches: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (Prov. 19:17).1 “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’” (Luke 12:15). The Bible connects the absence of spiritual growth with worldly affluence and all its entanglements: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:32–34). Among the seven deadly sins are envy and greed, both of which are explicitly condemned in Scripture (Prov. 15:27; Rom. 1:29; Gal. 5:19–21).
Weighing Worthiness. But as a practical matter, there are further questions we must ask. How much of our surplus should we give away and to whom? Depending on one’s own circumstances, is 5, 10, or 15 percent sufficient? Is it better to donate $1,000 to Make-AWish Foundation so that an American child stricken with cancer can spend a weekend in Disneyland, or is it better to donate the same amount to an international medical group that will save 500 Peruvian children from certain blindness? Should we buy that 3,000-square-foot dream home for $500,000 when we know we can live just as comfortably in a 2,300-square-foot house for $375,000 while donating the difference in mortgage payments to worthy causes and organizations that can save real lives? Also, if everyone stopped buying lattes, would that not lead to the end of Starbucks and the unemployment of baristas, resulting in more people needing handouts and less wealth for effective altruists to distribute?
To help us answer these questions is Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who is best known for his controversial work in bioethics and animal liberation. A defender of the moral permissibility of infanticide, voluntary active euthanasia, and attributing rights to nonhuman creatures, Singer’s work has been the subject of much critique, especially from traditional moralists, including serious Christians and Jews. In fact, in my most recent book, Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015), I have an entire chapter critical of the position Singer holds on prenatal life.
Nevertheless, in his new book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically (Yale University Press, 2015), Singer offers advice and insights with which many of his critics on these other issues will find themselves in agreement, as I do. However, as I note below, there are theoretical portions of the book—especially when he relies on utilitarian considerations to make his case—that the traditional moralist will reject.
Effective Altruism. Singer offers a case for what he calls effective altruism: “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world” (pp. 4–5).2 So, for example, before donating his money to his favorite charity, the effective altruist asks what causes are the most important and/or pressing and what charities for those causes are the most effective in accomplishing their goals. And in order to provide as much support as possible, the effective altruist assesses (or reassesses) his career options, lifestyle choices, and living situation. He may decide to become a hedge fund manager rather than a school teacher, even if he thinks the latter is more personally rewarding, since the former allows him to acquire greater wealth from which he can more effectively provide donations to those organizations that are in the best position to help those in the most need.
This sort of reasoning is not merely theoretical for Singer. He shares with the reader numerous stories of talented and accomplished professionals, some of whom are former students of his, who have in fact put the principles of effective altruism into practice. This, in my judgment, is the most inspirational aspect of Singer’s book. The reader is introduced to many wonderfully talented and innovative people who are committed to making the world a better place by employing evidence and reason, rather than relying on mere sentimentality and the power of a moving story. For example, the effective altruist who looks at the evidence and reasons dispassionately will conclude that it is better to donate $20,000 to save 500 lives in Nepal than it is to donate the same amount to a local charity that provides Christmas presents to elderly shut-ins at a nearby senior living center.
The Greater Good. For Christians, there is much to like in this book. Singer provides practical insights on how one can best live out the commands of Scripture. However, the Christian (and the traditional moralist) will part ways with some of Singer’s theoretical beliefs. (They will also be dismayed by Singer’s naïve and superficial understanding of the Bible, Christian moral theology, and some important figures in church history.) Take, for example, his heavy reliance on preference utilitarianism, the moral theory that states that we should try to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, where “good” is defined as the preferences of individuals. Although Singer is surely correct that “effective altruists…need not be utilitarians” (79), there is a sense in which Singerian utilitarians may not be effective altruists, if they faithfully apply the logic of his position.
Consider Singer’s way of explaining the special responsibility that parents have to their own children: “Effective altruists can accept that one’s own children are a special responsibility, ahead of the children of strangers. There are various possible grounds for this. Most parents love their children, and it would be unrealistic to require parents to be impartial between their own children and other children” (8). Given Singer’s thesis, there is a major problem with this account. If evidence, reason, and the absence of sentiment ought to ground the judgments of the effective altruist, it would seem that parents who want to be effective altruists ought not to prefer their own children over strangers’ children. Why should love matter if the greatest good for the greatest number is at stake? What if, for example, one’s child has a rare condition that if studied closely by scientists would likely result in a cure for pediatric cancer, though there is a 65 percent chance of the child dying as a result? According to the National Cancer Institute, “In 2014, it is estimated that 15,780 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 years will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,960 will die of the disease in the United States.”3 So, if you run the numbers, under Singer’s preference utilitarianism, the effective altruist should allow his child to be studied despite the high risk of perishing. Sacrificing one life is surely worth saving the lives of 2,000 American children, not to mention the thousands that will be saved internationally, every year. This should strike you as morally perverse, as apparently it does Singer. This explains his hesitation to apply the principles of effective altruism to debunk the special responsibility that parents have to their own children as he has done to the sanctity of human life ethic. But failure of nerve is not a philosophical argument.
Although Singer has the right reflexes when it comes to helping the poor and using our wealth and resources wisely, his preference utilitarianism—which reduces the good to what can be measured and quantified—eliminates from his moral vision much of what makes life worth living. When, for example, a group of American optometrists and ophthalmologists help Peruvian children to regain their sight, they are not merely increasing the number of satisfied preferences; they are making whole those for whom sight is an intrinsic good. But you can know that only if morality is more than just running the numbers, because a man who only measures can never know the measure of a man. —Francis J. Beckwith
Francis J. Beckwith is professor of philosophy and church–state studies, Baylor University, and the 2016–17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy, University of Colorado, Boulder. His most recent book is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
- All Scripture quotations are taken from NRSV.
- Singer is quoting from the article “Effective Altruism,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effective_altruism, April 15, 2014.
- “Cancer in Children and Adolescents,” National Cancer Institute, May 12, 2014, http://www.cancer.gov/types/childhood-cancers/child-adolescent-cancers-fact-sheet, accessed May 13, 2016.