In the last couple of years Peter Singer has set himself as spokesperson of a new movement called Effective Altruism.
His latest book, which to its last chapter we addressed in a post called “From Groundbreaking Animal Liberation to Neverending Animal Exploitation”, is called The Most Good You Can Do. It presents the movement’s basic idea,as he simply says in its preface -we should do the most good we can.
Unfortunately and disappointingly, by “we”Singer is referring to the already allegedly do gooders of the world. The book and movement, clearly aim at a small section of the population. He basically offers a practical instruction guide for donors and potential donors, calling them to think before they donate because there are tremendous differences in the effectiveness potential of different charities.
Singer points out that in the United States alone there are almost one million charities, receiving a total of approximately $200 billion a year with an additional $100 billion donated to religious congregations and all this money could be distributed much more effectively.
He is obviously right, but we certainly don’t want to hear it from him. It is very depressing that human society needs a bold thinker like Peter Singer for such embarrassingly elementary inferences.
Singer writes in the book’s preface that: “Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the great good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place.”
Even from more mainstream ethicists, we expect something more radical than this call for sharing spare resources with those who totally lack the most basic resources.
And maybe the saddest thing is that even this awfully low bar that singer sets for humanity, a standard that totally screams of underlying despair regarding humans’ ability to amend themselves, is considered radical and challenging by the general public who labels it as another provocative idea from peter Singer. That discouraging dissonance set us writing this post.
Besides thinking and conducting a research before donating, in order to donate as much as possible, Singer guides effective altruists to live modestly so they can give a large part of their income, and to choose the career in which they can earn the most.
Instead of convincing rich people to donate, Singer suggests that donators would get rich.
He explains this capitalistic reasoning arguing that someone will anyway hold the position in the financial industry earning millions of dollars, soit better be an effective altruist who would give some of it instead of someone who would probably give none of it.
It seems ironic that a movement that is highly concerned with extreme poverty (with Singer personally dealing with extreme poverty in his former books) supports capitalism, but it isn’t really.
The main characteristic of this movement is its despair of changing humanity and focusing on changing specific things in specific humans, preferably potentially rich and analytical minded ones.
This movement is a call to give up on the chance to fundamentally change the system for good and use it to do some good.
Singer’s career advice sends a depressive, but definitely not a surprising message.
He doesn’t seem to believe society can be changed dramatically and so he prefers to turn to the few good humans (on his standards) to be effective as they can (again, on his standards).
And additionally, if the call to accept that capitalism is here to stay so why not use it would catch and no one would fight against it, then it is definitely here to stay.
Obviously directing at private initiatives asking them to be more effective and asking private people to donate more and to more effective private initiatives, is essentially capitalistic but it is also a strong message of hopelessness.It is giving up on the chance for an institutional change, totally waiving off challenging the political system itself.
Not that we think otherwise about any of this, but still the underlying despair of humanity in the movement’s messages and moreover the pathetically low bar it sets for it, is extremely depressing.
It gets even worse as Singer not only thinks that capitalism is here to stay, he doesn’t seem to be as troubled as he should be: ”those who think the entire modern capitalist economy should be overthrown have conspicuously failed to demonstrate that there are ways of structuring an economy that have better outcomes. Neither have they indicated how, in the twenty-first century, a transition to an alternative economic system might occur. Like it or not, for the foreseeable future we seem to be stuck with some variety of capitalism, and along with it come markets in stocks, bonds, and commodities.
These markets serve a variety of roles, including raising investment capital, reducing risk, and smoothing out swings in commodity prices. They don’t seem inherently evil.”
To ward off foreseen criticism of his movement’s embrace of capitalism, Singer praises it. The only problem is that he “forgot” to add to his extremely short and selective list of capitalism features its major “contribution” to the most inherently violent system ever in history- factory farming.
He himself has broadly detailed some of these capitalistic features in his first book,which initiated the first movement he practically launched, that unfortunately he fails to see is in conflict with his new one and over much more than capitalism.
Effective Deontological Utilitarianism
After making lots of money,effective altruists are asked to live modestly so they can give much of it. Singer tries to convince them by arguing (unfashionably late and in continuation with the banal insights), that more possessions won’t make them happy, an argument made by many activists against the consumerist society many years ago. He doesn’t even mention the primal reason for modest living – the suffering involved with consumption.
As written in the post regarding the last chapter, every human has a tremendous price tag expressed in tremendous suffering of thousands of nonhumans. And that’s only if you count animals consumed as food. If you count animals consumed for food, meaning every victim during every production process of every food item, the number is significantly higher, and even that is only partial.
Despite the declaration that effective altruism is blind not only to geography, race and religion but also to species, the book systematically disregards the complete effect of certain actions, mainly saving human lives,with no mention of its cost.
Human life seems sacred despite the allegedly utilitarian inclination of the movement. A truly utilitarian, non-speciesist, non-sacred and non-deontological perspective of human life can’t ignore the fact that saving humans is condemning the animals they will consume to a life of suffering, many of them from birth to death.
The offered utilitarian approach is very partial. It refers only to the sufferers and not to the suffering they will cause. The aim is saving as many humans as possible, ignoring that it means condemning as many animals as possible.
Singer doesn’t stipulate his charities recommendations to ones who don’t exploit animals. He doesn’t even mention the issue. That’s a significant element that we would expect the world’s most famous utilitarian to notice.
Not only that he evasively avoided the theoretical ethical challenge regarding the clash of interests, exemplified in balancing humans and nonhumans problems when trying to decide which to focus on (which is supposed to be a rather basic and banal challenge for a utilitarian considering the animals’ state), he blatantly ignores the practical clash of interests exemplified in humans’ consumption of animals.
As long as humans consume animals, donating money to save their lives is supporting animal suffering. So the utilitarian arguing for human charity must prove that not only are humans’ problems bigger than animals’ but also that the gap is big enough to outdo the suffering that the donation money would cause. But not only are animals’ problems incomparably bigger than humans’ problems, animals’ biggest problem is humans.
In addition to be capitalistic oriented and human oriented the movement is also much more donators oriented than victims oriented.
The message is not ‘please give your money to this charity since it can help more creatures who need it more’. It’s you have the power to save lives, many of them and easily just by giving a little of what you got to the most effective charities, wouldn’t you do it?’
The donator’s oriented approach could already be observed by Singer’s argument about consumerism, but it is even more evident with his emphasis on the well-being of the donators, detailing field psychological studies proving that donators are happier people. The spirit is the more you give the more you receive.
Singer knows how crucial it is to emphasis on the donators’ happiness and arguing that it is not at all a sacrifice but rather the opposite, it is not giving up something but filling your lives with meaning.
Another very strong example of the donator’s oriented attitude is a whole chapter dedicated to kidney donation to a stranger. Singer presents it as one of the most inspiring altruistic things to do while emphasizing, probably out of fear of losing some of his readers, that this kind of extreme sacrifice is not necessarily needed to do the most good you can do.
However, donating a kidney to a stranger is not the most good you can do, because it is an extreme sacrifice, an extreme sacrifice of the animals the receiver would harm.
Given that only about 2% of humans are vegans, the chances that the stranger isn’t vegan are 98 of 100.
For a movement who constantly brags about its rationality and analytical thinking and relying on data before acting, donating a kidney to humans, who you have absolutely no data on or any idea what they are going to do with the life they got from you, proves how it is about the givers more than about the receivers or about the overall effectiveness, since they have no idea if that decision made the world better or worse. The data, which effective altruists love to brag about but,is lacking from this specific “altruistic” decision, is that most likely they made this horrible world a little bit worse, given the so low chances that the stranger is vegan.
It is not only the low chances of the receiver to be vegan which should be considered, but also what if that person will be a great chef, a restauranter, a vivisector, a hunter,a fisherman, or “just” a big meat consumer?
40 years ago Singer probably rolled his eyes impatiently hearing again and again the annoying worn out question –what if it is sacrificing your mother for some stranger animal?… and now he is praising sacrificing thousands of animals for some stranger human.
And probably the strongest evidence of how donators and not victims oriented the movement is, how human oriented and not animal oriented, how deontologist and not utilitarian, how capitalistic it is, and how life cherishing it is, is the relation towards having children, which Singer, a father of four, specifically refers to the issue using the personal story of an effective altruist couple who were “struggling” with the ”dilemma”…
A woman called Julia decided not to have children since they would take too much of her time and money, that she can use to do the most good that she can.
But her decision not to have a child was making her miserable. She talked to her partner Jeff, and they decided they could afford to raise a child and still give plenty.
Instead of arguing that a child doesn’t only cost a lot of time and money that could be better spent let along by someone who would give that money to charity, first and most important a child cost a lot of suffering. This book is so human oriented and so speciesist that the thousands of animals that this child would hurt are absolutely absent from the discussion.
Obviously if they can afford to raise a child and still give plenty, they can choose not to raise a child and give plenty more. Too basic for Singer to miss. Only that he can’t ask humans to take such a rational and moral decision. Because the world is not rational and moral. And it is not going to be, certainly not if a movement pretending to base all its decisions on reason and efficiency is failing even to suggest that.
The movement as opposed to its pretenses is nevertheless irrational, with such a low bar of expectations of humans, that he can easily advise people to choose their entire career solely on the size of the paycheck so they could give as much as possible,but couldn’t advise people not to have children so they could give as much as possible and take as little as possible.
It would simply be non-effective to ask humans for such an effective altruism. So he excuses the decision by arguing that everyone has boundaries. “If you find yourself doing something that makes you bitter, it is time to reconsider.”
But apparently if you find yourself doing something that makes someone else entire life bitter (and unfortunately that’s an extreme understatement) there is no room for consideration.
And finally Singer gives another ridiculous excuse in clearly a desperate move, arguing that not only is it ok for effective altruists, contrary to basically everything the movement is about,to have children,they even should: “Having a child undoubtedly takes both money and time, but against this, effective altruists can reasonably hope that having a child will benefit the world. Both cognitive abilities and characteristics like empathy have a significant inherited component, and we can also expect that children will be influenced by the values their parents hold and practice in their daily lives. Although there can be no certainty that the children of effective altruists will, over their lifetimes, do more good than harm, there is a reasonable probability that they will, and this helps to offset the extra costs of raising them. We can put it another way: If all those who are concerned to do the most good decide not to have children, while those who do not care about anyone else continue to have children, can we really expect that, a few generations on, the world will be a better place than it would have been if those who care about others had had children?”
The world’s most famous utilitarian who made plenty of effective calculations to show how wasteful is our resource distribution, when he reached defending his fellow effective altruists and his own decision to have 4 children, forgets how to calculate.
To outdo the one potential effective altruist that Julia and Jeff procreate, all they need to do is convince one existing person to become one. If they would invest the time and money they do on that one person they brought into the world, on some of the billions that are already here, it is probable that they would convince more than one. So having children even without considering the most important thing to consider, all the suffering that they would inflict, is not at all the most effective thing to do.
All this precious time can be used to convert many more to effective altruism and all this valuable money can be used to help many existing creatures instead of being wasted on one that didn’t and wouldn’t exist if not for this selfish decision.
And regarding Singer’s final question, given the suffering each human is responsible for, having children is the cruelest decision one can make. If we can’t ask those who are concerned to do the most good not to have children, how can we expect those who do not care about anyone else,not to?
One of the ways Singer explains what effective altruism is, is by what it is not, using The Make-A-Wish Foundation – an organization that fulfills ill children wishes, as an example.
The basic argument is that with $7,500 which is the average cost of making one child’s wish come true, you can protect families from malaria, saving the lives of at least three children and maybe many more. “Saving a child’s life has to be better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid” Singer argues and further explains why despite what should be totally obvious, humans’ tendency is opposite:
“Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish, when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bednets to families in malaria-prone regions? The answer lies in part in the emotional pull of knowing that you are helping this child, one whose face you can see on television, rather than the unknown and unknowable children who would have died from malaria if your donation had not provided the nets under which they sleep. It also lies in part in the fact that Make-A-Wish appeals to Americans, and Miles (the Batkid) is an American child.
Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do. They know that saving a life is better than making a wish come true and that saving three lives is better than saving one. So they don’t give to whatever cause tugs most strongly at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have available.”
Asking philanthropy to be more rational than emotional and seeking effectiveness more than heart-warmingmoments, is obviously great and clearly essential. However, even the better versions of humans need the appreciativeness and gratefulness of the receivers and of society, and even they prefer their kin and alike. That motive is not going to change. As Singer himself points out the Make-A-Wish Foundation is much richer than the Against Malaria Foundation and it is not for rational nor effectiveness reasons. It is because it is the donators’ feeling that counts not the receivers’.
Singer himself argues that counting yourself and your kin and alike more than those that are not, is a very basic evolutionary element:
“We now know that we are the product of a long process of genetic selection that eliminated those unable to survive, reproduce, and have surviving offspring. Love of those with a “relation to oneself,” that is, our kin, is easily explained by our understanding of evolution because it promotes the survival of genes like ours. Love toward those with whom we are in a cooperative relationship or who, in Hume’s language, provide us with “services” is explicable because such relationships benefit those who are involved in them. The evolutionary process would, however, seem likely to eliminate those who love and assist all humans as much as they love and assist their kin and those with whom they are in a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Singer is well aware of the powerful biological-psychological force acting in contrast to his movements’ basic ideas. Even effective altruism is more about the donators than about the receivers as we argued earlier, and it is certainly the case with the average donators, not to mention the average humans who keep everything to themselves.
Strong evolutionary elements might be stretched but not torn. The movement pretends to stretch humans’ basic biological boundaries, which is of course blessed, but it can’t knock them down. It is hard to see how such an impersonal, rational, counter intuitive and counter biology perspective can become common.
Despite that the whole point of the movement is to direct donations to the most effective causes by inspiring humans to do the most good they can, ironically Singer barley details causes in the book and ironically he does detail many personal stories of several effective altruists along the book, to inspire and encourage his readers to join the movement. Knowing how small the chances are for people to be convinced by figures, he turns to personal stories, the exact incentive the movement objects.
And don’t get us wrong, the problem is not Singer’s internal contradiction but the fact that even a movement calling humans to donate rationally is using irrational tactics. The movement, who essentially stands for rationally donating to non-identifiable causes based on “dry” facts, uses emotional tactics such as personal stories, and of other effective altruists, not of effective charities or of the ones who need them.
“Emotional empathy is, in most situations, a good thing, but it is usually at its strongest when we can identify and relate to an individual. People are more willing to donate to help hungry children if they are shown a photo of one of the children and told her name and age. Telling people that there are thousands of children in need does not produce as many positive responses. We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individuals.”
And it is much worse when the victim is from a different species and certainly when there are billions of them. Animals in factory farms are of the least identifiable creatures on earth. They are a number.
And since the best thing you can do for animals is preventing their birth, they are even more non-identifiable. They are so non-identifiable that they don’t even exist but as a product of supply and demand, so helping them is by reducing the demand so as to prevent their existence. You can’t get more non-identifiable than that.
Singer cites another study about the irrational way empathy works:
“In one study, people were shown a photo of a child and told her name and age. They were then informed that to save her life, she needed a new, expensive drug that would cost about $300,000 to produce, and a fund was being established in an attempt to raise this sum. They were asked to donate to the fund. Another group was shown photos of eight children, given their names and ages, and told that the same sum, $300,000, was needed to produce a drug that would save all of their lives. They too were asked to donate. Those shown the single child gave more than those shown the eight children, presumably because they empathized with the individual child but were unable to empathize with the larger number of children.“
Singer knows that most humans don’t donate at all, and the ones who donate prefer an identifiable cause over a non-identifiable cause.
That concern led him to focus on a small high potentiality group of humans who try overcome their tendency to help an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group and ask themselves if that is the best thing to do.
We know that if eight children are non-identifiable there is no chance for 90 billion fishes.
That concern led us to focus on a small high potentiality group of humans who try to overcome their tendency to ask humans to stop abusing animals and ask themselves if that is the best thing to do.
If the whole identifiable issue wasn’t a strong enough blow, in the following chapter Singer argues that abstract moral thinking, including the ability for overcoming the tendency to prefer the kin, the alike or at least the identifiable, is far from universal.
And specifically effective altruists are ones who were blessed with this ability:
“many of the most prominent effective altruists have backgrounds in or are particularly strong in areas that require abstract reasoning, like mathematics and computing.”
Singer explains why there are relatively few of them by arguing that such a moral approach requires a high ability for abstract reasoning. And he supports his extremely depressing argument with some studies. Here are two important examples:
“The hypothesis that effective altruists tend, to a higher degree than many other people, to allow their reasoning abilities to override and redirect their emotions is consistent with more than a decade of psychological research on Joshua Greene’s suggestion that we use two distinct processes when we make moral judgments. Greene suggests that the way most people make moral judgments can be thought of as akin to taking photographs with a camera that is normally used in “point-and-shoot” mode but can be switched to a manual mode that overrides the automatic settings. When we are confronted with a situation calling for moral judgment, we usually have an instinctive gut reaction that tells us when something is wrong. Like a point-and-shoot camera, our intuitive responses are quick and easy to operate and in normal conditions yield good results; but in rare situations with special features, they can lead us astray. In that case we will do better if we switch to manual mode, in other words, put aside our instinctive reactions and think the issue through.
Point-and-shoot cameras were designed to enable people who are not expert photographers to take good photographs in most circumstances. Our quick moral responses were not designed but evolved by natural selection. Given that for most of our evolutionary history we lived in small tribal groups, it is no surprise that we developed instinctive responses that led us to help our kin and those with whom we could form cooperative relationships but did not favor helping distant strangers or animals.”
“The most controversial aspect of this model is that it links moral judgments characteristically based on the idea that something is just wrong in itself, independently of its consequences, to the instinctive, emotionally based point-and-shoot mode of reaching a moral judgment and links characteristically utilitarian judgments to the manual mode, which draws on our conscious thought processes, or reasoning, as well as on emotional attitudes. An early piece of evidence for this view came from a study in which Greene and his colleagues asked people to make judgments about trolley problems and similar moral dilemmas while images were being taken of their brain activity. The study showed increased activity in brain areas associated with cognitive control before a subject made a utilitarian judgment but not before making a nonutilitarian judgment. This suggestive finding has since been supported by a wide variety of further evidence. For example, in another study some subjects were asked, before they were presented with the moral dilemma, to memorize a string of letters, digits, and special characters, such as n63#m1Q, before each dilemma. They were told they would be asked to repeat the sequence after the experiment was over. This is known as cognitive loading—it puts a load on the parts of the brain associated with reasoning. When these subjects were then presented with the moral dilemmas, they were more likely than similar subjects who were not cognitively loaded to make judgments suggesting that some acts are just wrong, irrespective of their consequences. Remembering the sequence made it more difficult for them to reason adequately, and so they gave a more intuitive response. Similarly, when subjects were shown a photo of the single individual who would be harmed if they did not choose to act so as to save the larger number of individuals, they were less likely to give a utilitarian response, presumably because the photo aroused their empathy with the victim. Other studies of cognitive loading have yielded similar results. Many other studies also support Greene’s dual-process theory of how we make moral judgments. These studies bolster as well the more specific claim that associates characteristically consequentialist judgments with greater use of conscious reasoning processes.”
Singer and these few examples of how moral thinking works, clearly implies that most humans are incapable of the sort of thinking required to be an effective altruist. And effective altruists are still far from the required moral thinking.
Most humans can’t live their lives asking what is the most good they can do. Not because they don’t have the money to give but because they don’t have the motivation.
The derived fact from these studies, that most humans don’t choose a very narrow moral perspective, but simply can’t otherwise, makes them less “evil”, but the fact that they never chose to be so ethically depraved and can’t help it, makes the world much worse and much more hopeless. These studies and many similar ones regarding humans’ ability for abstract rational moral thinking, are evidences that the required change the animal rights movement is seeking for, is impossible.
The book is seemingly very optimistic and positive and so are the lectures and the related websites. The “feel good” atmosphere is all around, as in‘look at these shiny happy people who are making the world a better place’.
However, coming from the person who proclaimed he was sure that his groundbreaking book from 1975 would revolutionize the way every human is seizing every animal, and is now addressing a very small group of humans who are already doing (supposedly) good to doing (supposedly) excellent, is deeply depressing.
Behind the smile and optimism there is a very strong statement of despair. Singer practically admits there is no chance to change the world. It’s possible to scratch the surface. It’s possible to change the way a few humans are trying to change the lives of a few humans. It’s possible to make good people better by directing them to more effective charities, but it’s impossible to make bad people better or these charities unnecessary.
40 years after Animal Liberation, Singer sets his bar so low, he no longer addresses all of humanity but only a small part of its better variants, urging them to better get better since the others are not.
Singer wrote what became a classical article famine, affluence and morality 43 years ago and we are still very far from a solution to a problem that, on the face of it, doesn’t require humanity to fundamentally change its point of view. Ending world hunger is much more banal than liberating all the animals,it’s already something everyone agrees on. It doesn’t require a conceptual shift of humans’ moral perceptions and more importantly it doesn’t require a serious shift in their everyday lives.
It is supposed to be elementary, obvious and self-evident. But in our world, for humans to give 10% of their excess money to humans who are going blind, are infected with malaria and are constantly thirsty and starving because they don’t have any money, you need a book by one of the forward thinking and bravest humans alive and a whole movement.
What does this say about our world that such a pioneering, exceptional, maverick philosopher is needed to tell humans such basic, elementary, obvious and self-evident notions as sharing spare resources with those who need them?
And what does it say about our world that the same philosopher who 40 years ago wrote a book he himself stated he was sure would revolutionize the way each human seizes each non-human, is now calling to revolutionize the way donors donate?
It says how deeply corrupt the world is. There is too much suffering and too few humans who are willing to help. This world is beyond repair, and the achievements will always be very partial and narrow. To believe otherwise is either naïve or making compromises on the victims’ expense.
Not the oppressive power structure and not humans are going to change, definitely not by a movement who doesn’t even pretend to try to change them all, and barely has the courage to ask for a change from the more caring and same minded ones.
Usually it sets as an excuse not to take responsibility over anything, but we are asking to take responsibility over everything.
And Finally Some Common Ground
Having said all that we have in this post, there is also a common ground between the effective altruism movement and the End All Suffering movement.
There is something bold and radical in some of the theoretical arguments singer makes, despite that they are used to justify coward and conservative practices. One of the movement’s central viewpoints is that there is no justification to prefer the closer over the farer, the related over the foreigner, the one who can thank me over the one who is not even aware of my existence, the one who screams the hardest over the voiceless, the ones you can see over the ones you don’t but know are there.
Another key element of the movement’s ethical ground is that we are responsible both for what we do and for what we refrain from doing.
We know the suffering is there and we know it will never go away unless we’ll take responsibility over it, so we cannot refrain from doing everything we can to stop all of it.
Another common ground is that the effective altruism movement has acknowledged that most humans are selfish and apathetic, and so there is an urgent need to focus on the tiny minority that does care and get the most out of them.
The difference is that we don’t ask you to give 10% of your income so some charities would solve some problems, but 100% of yourselves to solve all of them.
That is truly the most good you can do.