Peter Singer on Effective Altruism

Peter Singer (by Derek Goodwin for the New York Times)

Peter Singer (by Derek Goodwin for the New York Times)

With the humanities under assault from those who confuse the higher purpose of higher ed with vocational training for a high-paying career, philosophy majors need to be especially thick-skinned these days. Or maybe deep pocketed, since the market value of deep thinking is deeply discounted in today’s economy. Only a philosopher could construct a logical argument for why an undergraduate degree in philosophy might be worth as much as one in, say, economics or engineering. After all, if colleges are to be evaluated and ranked, and their endowments plumped up, by the earning power of their alumni, they can hardly fault their debt-saddled students for choosing majors with the maximum income potential. These days, studying philosophy amounts to taking a vow of poverty, unless you plan to go to law school, but the job prospects for young lawyers are much diminished, too.

So it was something of a surprise to see Harvard’s Science Center D auditorium filled to capacity with students eager to hear career advice from a philosophy professor visiting from Princeton. Of course, Peter Singer is something of a rock star among contemporary philosophers, the more so since his widely viewed TED Talk last March promoting his book and social movement, The Life You Can Save.  Earlier the same day Singer had spoken at Harvard Law School about his other passion, animal rights, but the topic of the lecture I attended last week was “effective altruism,” particularly as it pertains to choosing a career to maximize the means to lead an altruistic life.

The high-impact philanthropy club sponsored the lecture, and it would seem that a good many Harvard undergrads are confident enough of their future wealth that they are already planning how to get the biggest bang for their charitable bucks. Social entrepreneurship is a buzzword on many campuses, but launching any type of start-up can be risky, especially one where maximizing profits is not the first priority. So perhaps a safer path to doing good by doing well is through a more conventional career. Professor Singer’s message for the future i-bankers, petroleum engineers, and Mark Zuckerbergs in the audience: it’s fine to aspire to join the 1% — so long as you are also willing to donate most of your earnings toward ending global poverty. Even better, give away most of your income and one of your kidneys, as a number of Singer’s disciples in effective altruism have done.

Professor Singer cited as an exemplar one of his former Princeton students, a young man earning over $200,000 a year in San Francisco who has pledged to live on just $9,000 a year (is that possible anywhere in the U.S.?!) and to donate the rest to charity. Saving for retirement or a child’s college tuition was not mentioned, but those costs may be somewhat less daunting in the U.K., where another Singer disciple, Toby Ord, has pledged to live on about $30,000 per annum and to give away any other earnings. Ord runs Giving What We Can, a society dedicated to eradicating world poverty, and he expects to be able to donate $1 million of his lifetime earnings to the cause.

Singer also hailed one of Ord’s colleagues, Will MacAskill, the founder of Oxford’s Centre for Effective Altruism. MacAskill’s website, 80,000 Hours, provides a mathematical formula (Career Value = Potential for Impact + Career Capital) and offers personal coaching on how to choose a career with the greatest potential for social impact. One surprise: becoming a doctor is not a high impact career by MacAskill’s calculus, and I imagine a teacher makes even less of an impact by his reckoning. Better to be a hedge fund manager, so long as you are earning to give, rather than to consume. That means no mansion in Greenwich, or as Lorde sings in “Royals,” no “Crystal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece/ Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash/ We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.”

Altruism alone is not enough. To be an effective altruist, you should choose a charity that meets the extremely high standards set by Give Well, a charity evaluator that Singer endorses. Give Well sets the bar so high that it recommends only three charities among the dozens it has scrutinized. Its #1 ranking goes to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets treated with insecticides in developing nations.

Preventing malaria is all well and good, but doesn’t charity begin at home? Hunger and disease know no borders, so shouldn’t we support local food banks and hospitals, too? Not according to Singer. Suppose, for example, that you are interested in helping the blind. Singer said that the $40,000 it costs to train a guide dog in the U.S. would be more effectively deployed in stopping the spread of trachoma, which causes blindness in millions of people in regions with poor sanitation. Like Warren Buffet, Professor Singer gives his stamp of approval to the Gates Foundation, whose mission (“All lives have equal value”) is strongly focused on improving global health and development. The Gates Foundation does not support well-endowed cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum, which spent $45 million in 2004 to acquire an 8 by 11 inch Italian Renaissance painting (Duccio’s “Madonna and Child”) — money that could have been far better spent in Singer’s estimation.

The elephant in the room, a question of giving ethics that Singer was diplomatic enough not to raise in this forum, is whether to support wealthy private universities — like Harvard, which has just launched a $6.5 billion fundraising campaign, or Princeton, which pays Singer’s salary, and where I have donated $100 annually since I graduated 32 years ago. Doubtless Harvard’s $6.5 billion and my $3,200 would have a far greater global impact if it were directed to, say, preventing malaria or disaster relief in the Philippines, yet messy human emotions, not a philosopher’s cold logic, drive most of our giving decisions. Watch the ASPCA’s commercial with images of sad-eyed shelters dogs and the Sarah MacLachan soundtrack, and I defy you to resist dialing 1-800-628-0028 to help a save a dog’s life. As the forefather of the animal rights movement, Singer might give us a pass on this one.

Peter Singer at Harvard

Peter Singer at Harvard

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1 Response to “Peter Singer on Effective Altruism”


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