Debate Magazine

Effective Altruism

By Carnun @Carnunmp

Early on, waiting for the hall to fill up.

Last Tuesday was a good day. Peter Singer gave a lecture.

I’d been looking forward to it for some time, early on securing a place on the Facebook first-come-first-served waiting list just to be sure of a seat. Of Singer, I knew fairly little. His name was familiar (as it turns out I have one of his books in my room), but I had no idea of his philosophy, opinions, or even personality.

I went into the hall fairly blind and un-opinionated, ready to ask myself some questions (and ready to potentially challenge Peter if I felt I needed to). Purposefully, I’d avoided doing research beforehand too: I didn’t want there to be any spoilers.

And, so, it was all pleasantly surprising.

Beginning the talk, entitled (as I should have mentioned) ‘The Life You Can Save‘, he opened with a straightforward ethical question. Showing us all a relatively infamous video (below) of a 2-year-old girl in China who was run over by a van and subsequently ignored by many passers-by, he asked: ‘Would you stop to help this girl?’

(Warning: upsetting scenes.)

Everyone’s answer, evident in their silent nodding, was yes. Of course they would. Walking past, like a good few actually did, would simply be immoral.

Then it got interesting.

Singer, using this agreed necessary compassion as a starting point, posed a follow-on question: ‘Ethically speaking, is there a difference between walking past this dying girl and not giving to an effective, life-saving charity when it’s well within your means?’

Or, in other words, does (or should) an arbitrary quantity such as ‘distance’ have any influence on how compassionate we are towards others who are genuinely suffering in real-time?*

No, he argued. And I don’t think anyone disagreed.

He conceded that there was indeed a certain psychological influence, though. After all, a child drowning in a lake in front of you provides a much bigger incentive to help than a child dying of malaria in a far-off country out of sight and out of mind. But, he stressed, there simply isn’t a moral distinction. In both cases, a life is in danger. And In both cases, you can help… So, why do people ‘walk past’ real, global problems such as poverty, especially when they can make a difference?

It may be down to ignorance, disbelief, or simple complacency – but that does not make selfishness ethical. The right thing to do is always to give when one can. There’s nothing else to it.

But, Singer adds, it’s essential that we give to effective charities if and when we do – organisations with which you can be sure your money is put to good, cost-efficient and direct use. He recommends the charities recommended by, a “nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities” who “conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent“. Obviously, there are some charities near impossible to assess, such as Oxfam (with it’s many ‘branches’ and specific departments), which are still endorsed by Singer – he simply encourages us to consider leaving the biggest mark possible with what we can/do give.

So, as soon as I am lucky enough to have an income, I will take Singer’s ‘pledge’. At ‘less than 105 000 USD‘, this translates to giving ‘at least 1% of your income‘ to effective charities. Why so low? Well, on the website for his ‘The Life You Can Save‘ campaign the FAQ section states that:

“… if we are to change the culture of giving, we have to start somewhere. At present very few people give even one percent of their income to help the poor. Better, I think, to start low and have more people giving than to insist on a standard so high that almost everyone will reject it.

Besides, one percent is significantly better than nothing. If all the world’s affluent people gave one percent of their income to help the extremely poor, that would be more than twice the amount of official (government) aid that is now given to fight global poverty. And since much government aid does not go to those who are truly poor, if this money went to organizations with a proven record of effectiveness in helping people in extreme poverty, it could do far more good than official aid does now.

He makes a good point – but I will, of course, aim for higher if my income permits it. Ten percent, to me, seems like a reasonable initial goal. Once reached, how ever long that takes, I will increase it… His ethical argument was simply too convincing for me to not look forward to writing the cheques.

Carnun :P


*Of course, as it was brought up in the Q&A afterwards, striving to look after the environment for the sake of the well-being of future generations is another way to simultaneously not ‘walk past’ people suffering. It’s just that, in this case, the arbitrary barrier in the way of our considering them is much more difficult for us to overcome: it’s not just distance in the way, but time itself.

The ethics are still constant and the argument still stands despite this difference though. There is just as much of an obligation (and perhaps an even more compelling one) to help prevent this future climate-related suffering as there is to tackle disproportionate displeasure in the here and now.

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