I’m Peter Singer.
I am currently since 1999 the Ira W. DeCamp professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and the author of 40 books. In 2005, Time magazine named me one of the world’s 100 most important people, and in 2013 I was third on the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute’s ranking of Global Thought Leaders. I am also Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. In 2012 I was made a companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest civic honor. I am also the founder of The Life You Can Save [http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org], an effective altruism group that encourages people to donate money to the most effective charities working today.
I am here to answer questions about my new book, The Most Good You Can Do, a book about effective altruism [http://www.mostgoodyoucando.com]. What is effective altruism? How is it practiced? Who follows it and how do we determine which causes to help? Why is it better to give your money to X instead of Y?
All these questions, and more, are tackled in my book, and I look forward to discussing them with you today.
I’m here at reddit NYC to answer your questions. AMA.
Photo proof: http://imgur.com/AD2wHzM
What’s your opinion on charities where you sponsor a child in the third world to cover their food and education costs, such as “Food for the Hungry”?
Sponsoring an individual child is unlikely to be the most cost-effective way of helping poor individuals. That kind of appeal plays on our empathy with identifiable individuals, but there are better things to do with your money, as indicated by http://www.givewell.org or http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org
What would you consider to be the greatest danger to a more ethical future?
We tend to be ethical only when our survival, and that of those we care about, is not at stake. One of the big present dangers to our present level of security is climate change, which could create a chaotic world with hundreds of millions of people who are unable to feed themselves, and become climate refugees, causing a chaotic world.
I recently completed my PhD in philosophy, but throughout grad school, I have become completely disillusioned with academic philosophy (no jobs, prestige-obsessed, intimidating/arrogant people, etc.). But I love philosophy very dearly, and I’ve been told I stand a decent chance at getting a postdoc. If you weren’t doing what you do now, what do you think you’d be doing? And do you think you’d have any regrets?
I suppose I might be a political activist of some kind. Back in Australia in the ’90s, I was a political candidate for the Greens. I didn’t get elected, but support for the Greens has grown since then, and Green candidates have won the Senate seat for which I stood. I’m not sorry that I lost, because it was after that that I was offered the position at Princeton that has enabled me to have a lot more influence in discussions of the issues raised both in Animal Liberation and in The Most Good You Can Do but I often wonder what my life would have been like if I’d won. (Incidentally, Australia has proportional voting for the Senate, so it’s not the case that I could have helped the worse candidate get elected, as Ralph Nader’s candidacy did in the 2000 presidential election between Bush and Gore. I would not stand as a minor party candidate under those circumstances.)
What are your thoughts on a universal basic income?
Nice idea, but it would need to be truly universal, i.e. I’d like to see everyone in the world have a guaranteed minimum that would mean that no one was unable to buy enough food to live. Unfortunately, I can’t see this being implemented in the near future, so in The Most Good You Can Do I focus on action that is cost-effective and practical right now.
What’s your go-to or best elevator-pitch for effective altruism? Or, more generally, what’s your best brief pitch for getting people to stop thinking that actively helping people, as opposed to just not directly harming them, is supererogatory?
Here’s one elevator pitch: before buying a new gizmo, e.g. a washing machine, you’d try to find out which one is the best value. Why don’t we do that before giving to a charity. And to that I would add what my late friend and animal rights campaigner Henry Spira used to say: do you really want to look back on your life and think “I consumed a lot of goods and left behind a big pile of garbage.” Or would you rather think: “I did what I could to make the world a better place?”
The view that one should not buy non-necessities when poverty-induced suffering exists seems to result in an ethical asceticism, a lifestyle where one consumes no more than one requires so that one has more money to donate. Do you concede this? If not, how do you justify not donating all that one can, provided that doing so reduces suffering and does not, in an unlikely event, cause the donor greater suffering than that experienced by the recipients, the extreme poor?
Good question. Yes, effective altruists will consume less than typical Americans, or people in other affluent societies. They will get their excitement in other ways that don’t cost a heap, or use a lot of fossil fuel. But we don’t claim to be saints, so we aren’t going around wearing sackcloth either.
How do you justify wearing anything but sackcloth, given that, by wearing it, you save money otherwise spent on clothes, money that can be donated to reduce the suffering of the extreme poor, a suffering greater than that of wearing sackcloth?
Look, in theory, we EAs ought to all be wearing sackcloth, except that that would ensure that there were very few of us. We want more people to join us, and doing absolutely everything that, in theory, we ought to do is not the best way to achieve that.
Are you arguing that there is actually a distinct ethical value in not going too far out of the mainstream, in order to avoid discouraging others from joining you? Or just excusing people who do less than they could because they’re still doing more than nothing?
From a utilitarian perspective, we should do what will have the best consequences. So in terms of public advocacy, we should advocate the standard that will have the best consequences, and in so far as we are setting an example, that is the example we should set.
Philosophers sometimes refer to this issue as “esoteric morality.” There is a much fuller discussion of it in The Point of View of the Universe which I co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek.
You mention in the new book that you have recently become more sympathetic to hedonistic utilitarianism (at least as of your 2014 book, The Point of View of the Universe) as an alternative to preference utilitarianism. Have your views on this continued to evolve in the last year or two, and do you think the difference has any practical significance for charitable giving?
My current thinking is that, as described in The Point of View of the Universe there are bigger problems with preference utilitarianism than with hedonistic utilitarianism. I’m not sure that the difference has practical significance for charitable giving, but I’m open to further thought and discussion about that.
Do you think that it’s wrong to buy lamb and beef that has come from sheep and cattle that have lived non-factory farmed lives outdoors in fields? It’s seems to me that the lives of such animals are worth living, i.e. that the world is better off for containing such animals than not, and therefore (from an animal welfare perspective at least) it is good and right to buy lamb and beef from these sources; this would not preclude simultaneously compaigning for improved treatment of these animals. Do you agree?
The lives of sheep and cows kept on grass rather than in feedlots may be worth living, but unfortunately these ruminants produce a lot of methane (essentially, belching and farting) and so make a big contribution to climate change. Despite the myth of this being “natural” grass-fed beef and lamb, on the scale on which we are producing it, is simply not sustainable.
What are your thoughts on the ALF? Do you believe direct action should be utilized in the animal rights movement?
I support non-violent direct action, in carefully selected circumstances. For more discussion, see some of the essays in two books I edited, In Defense of Animals and In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave.
My Fiancee tries to have cash to give to the homeless on the street. Would she be better off donating said money to a charity that assists them than to give them money? If so, which ones would be most effective?
Giving to the homeless in affluent countries isn’t the best use of your money. It”s really hard to make a significant difference to the lives of people who are homeless in affluent countries. On the other hand, there are many charities that are very effective in helping people who are poor in developing countries. For suggestions, please go to http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org
I love the parallels that you have drawn between sexism, racism and speciesism. However, I haven’t heard you talk so much about nationalism. How can we overcome the unjustifiably large weighting that a government gives to the welfare of its own citizens over the welfare of citizens in other nations? This problem seems particularly difficult to overcome as most people in a nation will not be willing to vote for a government that openly intends to dedicate a large proportion of its GDP to international aid.
You’re right, the issue is similar to the one about immigration that I answered here. Nationalist and racist attitudes lie behind both these problems. We can’t really overcome them – at least not in democracies – until people no longer have those attitudes.
What are the best things to look for when choosing a charity to donate to? I’d like to find one in my state that helps women and children who have been rescued from sexual slavery, and of course want to find the organization with “boots on the ground.” Any recommendations for finding a good one?
Why are you committed to helping people who have been rescued from sexual slavery? Don’t you want to know, before making that decision, how much it is possible to help them, and at what cost? Suppose that you could either help women who were once sexual slaves, or you could help women who have suffered from an obstetric fistula (by donating to the Fistula Foundation, one of the charities recommended at http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org). These women are mostly young, often undernourished, and have given birth without any access to health care (so they are in developing countries). Have an obstetric fistula means that urine and feces leak uncontrollably through the vagina. They smell bad and are unable to keep clean. Often their husband will throw them out, and if their family takes them in, they will still live the life of an outcast, in a separate hut. Without help, their lives are utterly ruined. Suppose that it costs $500 to repair an obstetric fistula, but $1000 to help a woman rescued from sexual slavery get a decent life back. Would you still prefer to help one woman rescued from sexual slavery rather than two women with obstetric fistulas? I wouldn’t.
Would you rather save the life of 1 horse-size duck or 100 duck-size horses?
An effective altruist would always prefer to save 100 lives rather than just one.
In an interview you did with Tyler Cowen back when you wrote The Life You Can Save, you were asked what you think about immigration as an anti-poverty tool. At the time you said you need to think about it more. It seems to me that allowing more immigration may be the most effective political change we can make toward reducing poverty, so I’m curious if you’ve spent more time on that question since then and have an opinion on it?
Yes, I’ve thought about it some more, and looked at some of the arguments in favor of Open Borders. To me, though, the problem is that any political party that advocated this would lose the next election, and that election contest would probably bring out all the racist elements in society in a very nasty way. So until people in affluent nations are much more accepting of large-scale immigration than they are now, in any country that I am familiar with, I don’t think a large increase in immigrants from developing nations is feasible.
Is it right for a brand to profit off aligning themselves with certain causes that resonate with their target audience solely because they know it will be profitable and not because they actually believe in the cause? Are they making suckers of their customers, or does it not matter because in the end, a good cause is getting funded?
Depends how much the good cause really gets. If the brand just says “a percentage of our profits are donated to…” be suspicious, it might be a tiny percentage. And if you are being asked to buy bottled water because it will help people in developing countries get water, ask yourself whether it wouldn’t be better to drink water out of the tap, and give ALL the cost of the bottled water to an effective charity.
Incidentally, speaking of profiting from good causes… I’m donating all of the royalties from The Most Good You Can Do to effective charities, and you can get to decide which ones. Go to http://www.mostgoodyoucando.com/the-movement/ and click on Giving Games for more details.
What are your thoughts on Gary Francione’s vegan abolitionist movement?
I think it’s a real pity that people waste so much of their time and energy on attacking others within the animal movement, instead of those who are exploiting animals.
What do you think is the game-changing next step for effective altruism to have major growth?
Get The Most Good You Can Do onto the bestseller lists around the world! 🙂 Seriously, we need to grow the movement to the point where EA becomes mainstream. Then it gets a lot easier. I’m old enough to remember when if you rode a bike to work you were thought very odd (and it was even dangerous to do so than it is today, because there were no bike lanes and motorists didn’t expect to see bikes.) Sheer numbers changed that. We need to get a critical mass of EAs.
What would be your one piece of advice for a university student who wants to live their life as an effective altruist?
Join an effective altruism group, or if there isn’t one at your university, find some fellow EAs and form one. You could have a big influence on your fellow students, and over the long-term, that could lead to a lot more effective giving.
Can you explain how you view the aggregation of utility? Imagine there are two people in a room, one is “very happy” and the other is “very sad”. You can’t “add up” those feelings to get a sum of “OK” (or would that be the average?). It is not a question of quantifiability, but additivity. The reason that is nonsensical is because states of mind are internal, personal things. Abstractions (e.g. groups of people) do not have any state of mind at all. In exactly the same way, even if we could measure utils and everybody experienced them in the same way: how can we meaningfully speak about util aggregates?
I don’t see an “in principle” problem here. Health economists use “quality-adjusted life-years” (QALYs) to compare the value of different health interventions (including some that save lives and others that reduce pain). There are some reasonable objections that can be made to QALYs, and the methodology could be improved, but it seems to me to be going in the right direction.
What are the best charities to donate to, and can you point to a good, accessible summary of them and/or the case for donating to them rather than others?
I like several of GiveWell”s top-ranked charities, e.g. Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, and the Schistosomiasis Control initiative (despite that ugly name). But for other reasons, described in The Most Good You Can Do I also like Oxfam. For summaries see http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org