Peter Singer’s latest book challenges us to give not just with our hearts, but with our brains.
“Suppose you see a burning building, and you run through the flames and kick a door open, and let 100 people out. That would be the greatest moment in your life. And I could do as much good as that!”
Early in his new book The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically, Peter Singer shares the above quote from a student of his, Matt Wage.
Matt used the scenario of saving people from a burning building to imagine the good he could do if he donated 10 percent of an average income to a highly effective poverty-fighting organization. For those of us who want to do good in the world (since you’re reading this, I’ll count you among us!), here’s how Singer challenges us to respond to the needs of the world not only with our hearts, but also with our brains.
1. Embrace effective altruism
Building on ideas presented in The Life You Can Save, Singer presents inspiring examples of people who have embraced the ideas in that book and call themselves effective altruists. Effective altruism is “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world.”
Who are effective altruists? People like Julia Wise and her partner Jeff Kaufman, a social worker and computer programmer, who sat down with their expenses and decided, as their combined income grew, they wanted to donate at least a third of it. Or Rhema Hokama, who realizing that even her modest income while studying for her doctorate puts her in the richest 4.4% of the world’s population, began gradually increasing the percentage she would donate—setting aside a portion of each paycheck into a separate bank account.
These people are passionate about doing good in the world. They made a conscious decision to hold those emotions accountable with reason. They’ve decided to factor giving into their lives in the same way that we might factor in everyday living expenses.
It looks something like this: I have to pay for groceries to eat each month, among other services like electricity and internet. They will cost X dollars. I also need to help save lives this month, and that will cost Y dollars. In both instances, I can research to figure out how my money will go furthest. I’ll shop at a store that provides quality food at a reasonable price. I’ll research to find an organization that has the most impact with every dollar I donate.
Singer explains that effective altruists “need not be utilitarians, but they share a number of moral judgments with utilitarians. In particular, they agree with utilitarians that, other things being equal, we ought to do the most good we can.”
2. Analyze giving like any other expense
To that end, our donations should be driven not only by an emotional response or personal connection, but by an analysis of the cause and its impact on people’s lives. I am a cancer survivor. Cancer research saved my life and I proudly support that cause. I also know that millions of children die every year because they lack things as basic as clean water—an issue with a more straightforward and less expensive remedy. So I have made the decision to focus more of my donations towards fighting poverty.
As an example, I know that my $50 donation to Oxfam can train a family to sustainably grow food. That knowledge will help feed that family for the long term, not only because it will help them grow more food to eat, but because they can also potentially earn additional income by selling their crops. It’s that type of high-impact, long-term work that I choose to focus on. My gift could mean the difference between a family struggling to scrape by and a family that has a real chance at a better future.
To be clear, I’m not a fan of either/or thinking. I’m a both/and kind of guy, and doing this kind of utilitarian analysis doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s why I found The Most Good You Can Do a challenging read. But at the end of the day, I know that the limited amount of dollars that I donate can’t do everything. I’ve got to make choices. And that leads to the third step…
3. Find personal meaning
The primary principle behind effective altruism is to make the most difference in the world. But there is another important component. As Singer writes, “Effective altruism is a way of giving meaning to our own lives and finding fulfillment in what we do.”
Looking at the world today, it can be overwhelming to imagine how the contributions of an individual can make a difference. What I appreciate about this book is that it puts into context the incredible difference that we can make, even as individuals, when we actually do out the math and consider each life that is changed by our efforts. And by considering this contribution core to our identity—by claiming that title of effective altruist—our lives feel a whole lot more whole.
As Matt figured in the scenario in the beginning of the book, it’d be an incredible accomplishment to have saved 100 lives. It’d be heroic. Our actions, by supporting effective causes, are no less heroic. I get that I’m not a firefighter, literally rescuing people. I also get that I’m not the person who, with some help, is doing the hard work of transforming their life and lifting their family from poverty. But I’m also proud to work at Oxfam and personally give to a variety of causes that I believe support people all over the world as they transform their lives. As a fellow human being, I think I owe it to them.
And so the question that remains for me, as I think more about the ideas laid out in this book, is how can I challenge myself to do more good in this world?