Five years ago Peter Singer made a compelling case for giving in The Life You Can Save. A large number of people paid attention to that book, and along with other pioneers and experimenters, Singer now finds himself at the forefront of a movement towards ‘effective altruism’. This follow up book explores what this emerging movement is and why it matters. And to put his money where his mouth is, Singer will be giving away all the royalties.
‘Effective altruism’ is giving that is based on “rational insight rather than emotional impulse”. Most people who give to charity do so out of emotion. They are moved by the photo of a child or the story of an abandoned pet. Effective altruists take a much more calculating approach to their philanthropy. They apply logic, randomised trials, cost benefit analysis, putting more emphasis on maths than empathy.
By doing so, they’re more likely to get more for their money, and Singer explains why. Effective altruists tend to target their donations to the very poorest rather than supporting local causes. They look for overlooked or undersupported causes and unusual strategies, little interventions that offer the biggest impact for the smallest amount of money. The foremost question in their minds is the one Singer adapts as his title – ‘what’s the most good I can do?’
To take one of Singer’s examples, training and providing a seeing dog for a blind person in the US costs $40,000. Preventing someone from going blind from trachoma can cost $20-$100. “If you do the math, you will see the choice we face is to provide one person with a guide dog or prevent anywhere between four hundred and two thousand cases of blindness in developing countries.”
The book is full of such examples, not wishing to diminish the importance of local causes, or giving to the arts, but if we’re looking to do as much good as we can, it’s only logical.
Since writing The Life You Can Save, plenty of people have furnished Singer with their own stories, so this follow up is full of real people with a passion for giving their money away. Some of them give hefty percentages of their incomes, or have pursued high-paying careers in order to give more away. Some live simply to free up income. Through the internet, many have got together to discuss the best strategies, and to form new organisations and charities. I’ve mentioned some of them before – the Giving Pledge, Giving What We Can, or Give Directly. I’ll mention some more in a separate post, as there are some intriguing projects out there.
Effective altruists are concerned with data, transparency, and impact. They research how they give in detail, and expect charities to be able to prove how effective their programmes are. This is a bit of a shift in philanthropy. Big donors and trusts have tended to do that more, but casual donors haven’t. Many of those taking an interest in effective altruism aren’t particularly wealthy or radical in the way they live. They just want to do more good in the world, and they come from a broad range of backgrounds – Christians, atheists, Buddhists, bankers, tech millionaires, charity workers, even a professional poker player who enters the biggest tournaments in the business and gives away his winnings.
The book includes ethical and philosophical considerations, stories of ordinary people making a difference, practical things to consider, and radical examples to provoke. (We have two kidneys but only need one. Should we give one away? Singer still has both of his, but he introduces a couple of people who have taken possibly the most altruistic act one can imagine and donated a kidney to a stranger – an gift so outrageous that it was illegal in the UK until 2006, as it was presumed you’d need to be psychopathic to consider it.)
I’m going to write more about effective altruism, as I find it a challenging idea. I consider myself fairly generous, but I know that I’m not very organised or strategic in what I give, so I don’t give as much as I think I do or achieve much with it. The Most Good You Can Do – a book that had me at the title, I’ll admit – has made me want to do better.