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The Most Good You Can DoReview - The Most Good You Can Do
How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically
by Peter Singer
Yale University Press, 2015
Review by Gail Merten
Mar 1st 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 9)

Peter Singer is one of those philosophers who takes on topics of more than just academic interest and whose work has a real impact on what his readers do in the world.  He has pointed out that if the essence of morality is to not weigh your own interests more heavily than the interests of others in making choices, then we should not subject other animals to deplorable treatment on factory farms just so we can indulge in cheap animal products, and we should not spend our money on luxuries for ourselves when there are people in the world who lack necessities.  In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer encourages us to think about how we might do the most good with our lives, and he profiles some individuals whom he knows and considers "effective altruists."

While the idea that we should do the most good we can do (or can bring ourselves to do) is unassailable, probably no reader will agree with all aspects of the book as reading it makes plain that we all have different notions of what the best and most important outcomes are and of how best to achieve them.  The book discusses both what career one should pursue (and in this regard is sometimes written in a way more applicable to the students Singer teaches than to the average member of the public) and what one should do with the money one makes.  In each arena, though the general points are sound, not all of the specifics are well-taken.  While hopefully all will agree with Singer that it is better to donate money to prevent or cure trachoma-caused blindness than to fund a new wing of an art museum (pp. 118-23), a lot of other comparisons are not as easy.

Unagreed upon issues and values and the difficulties in making these calculations are particularly prominent in the last chapter of the book in which Singer entertains the idea that perhaps effective altruists should spend money on trying to prevent human extinction.  For most of this chapter, Singer assumes that the extinction of our species would be bad.  That may be a conventional view, but its truth is far from obvious.  Currently, there are upwards of seven billion of us on the planet.  Singer states that 9.1 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food annually in the United States alone (p. 137).  While all of these animals do not live simultaneously, this is the number from just one country, which suggests that the amount of suffering our species causes may well outweigh whatever value we think attaches to our existence.  Even the best-situated human may not experience enough of value in an average day to outweigh the suffering of an average factory-farmed animal on an average day.  Furthermore, many of the seven billion humans existing on the planet themselves have more suffering than pleasant or otherwise valuable experiences in an average day.  In addition, anyone who has seen March of the Penguins knows that, even apart from anything humans have done, there are other species existing on earth who seem to experience more suffering than pleasure or anything else of value.  Evolution cares nothing about the quality of lives, and a species can survive even if the most rational thing for each member of that species to do is to commit suicide as long as enough members of the species do not do it or at least procreate first.

Right now much of sentient life on earth is dominated by our species.  We have already destroyed the environment and continue to inflict great amounts of violence on ourselves and on other species.  If as the result of evolution in general and our behavior in particular, the earth currently contains more suffering than happiness or whatever else one values, a large asteroid or comet colliding with the planet--one of the scenarios discussed by Singer (p. 165)--might be something to hope for rather than try to prevent.


Even if one believes that the positive outweighs the negative on earth, some of Singer's calculations do not make much sense.  For instance, Singer says that according to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a large asteroid or comet collides with the earth on average every 100,000 years or less often (p. 165).  The only collision with an extinction-size asteroid that Singer mentions happened 65 million years ago, so "or less" might be the better bet.  In any event, Singer sometimes seems to calculate as if he assumes that if current earthlings were annihilated, no species that would have lives of value would ever evolve on earth again (pp. 169-71).  It is not clear why he believes this.  He says that the collision 65 million years ago killed the dinosaurs (p. 165).  Perhaps this is part of what made our existence possible.  If an asteroid killed us, maybe a better species far less violent than ours would happen to evolve the next time around.


The oddities of the calculations in this chapter do not end there.  At one point, Singer talks about how U.S. government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have put dollar values on lives when deciding what regulations and safety measures are worth pursuing (p. 168).  He says these agencies have come up with a value of between $6 and $9.1 million per life, and we might be able to save ourselves from extinction via asteroid for the "relatively modest" sum of $1 million per life (p. 169).  The calculation seems to entirely ignore the fact that, as he had mentioned earlier, there are many ways in which our extinction could come about (pp. 166-67).  All the money spent on the technology to blow up an asteroid does not save any lives if we destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons before the asteroid we spent billions to avoid hits.  So the correct calculations are much more complicated than the ones in Singer's book.  If we are interested in avoiding our extinction, how much it is rational to spend on avoiding one possible means of extinction depends, in part, on how much we're spending on avoiding all the other possible means of extinction.  We recognize these kinds of choices in medicine occasionally.  We do not spend a lot of money trying to cure an elderly person of some slow-growing cancer if we know she is probably going to die of her heart disease first.  Furthermore, earlier in the book, Singer talks about lives that can be saved for as little as $2500 by providing mosquito nets to children who would otherwise die of malaria (p. 6).  Relative to that figure, spending $1 million per life saved to avoid colliding with an asteroid is far from modest.


Singer tries to save this last chapter from undermining the values that seem to underpin the rest of the book by suggesting in the final paragraph that if we contribute to such causes as eliminating factory farms and educating and empowering women, we can both help sentient beings right now and reduce the chance of human extinction via climate change, catastrophic viruses, or nuclear war (pp. 177-78).  Indeed, there is a great deal of convergence between the things we can do to make the world better now and the things we can do to make the world better in the future.  But some people think the only thing that matters is the quality of lives that are lived, and other people think the number of lives that are lived matters; and where the topic is what avoiding the extinction of the species is worth, it is not really possible to address both of these groups in any sensible fashion simultaneously.  For those who do not think death, non-existence, or extinction is intrinsically bad but who care only about the quality of lives, this chapter seems largely counterproductive.  In fact, if what one really cares about is preventing or alleviating suffering, the chapter does not even mention the most important aspect of the asteroid scenario--viz., the manner and timeframe in which we would die--i.e., how gruesome our end would be.  For some people, these matters are important to how much we should worry about this scenario and spend trying to avoid it.  And if one does not value the persistence of the species but cares only about the experiences of individuals, a system for insuring the end is not too prolonged and horrible might be a cheaper and more favorable alternative than spending possibly greater sums to avoid a collision with an asteroid altogether.

Another area of the book that goes awry is the discussion of otherwise effective altruists who decide to have a child even though this means they will have less time, income, and energy to devote to good causes (pp. 28-31).  Singer seems to accept the argument--made by one of the effective altruists he profiles--that effective altruists can reasonably hope that their children will benefit the world (p. 31).  He thinks these children may end up doing more good than harm, which will offset part of the cost of raising them (p. 31).  He says:

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? (p. 31)

Almost no one is accurately described as not caring about anyone else and almost everyone has children, so the argument ends up being more offensive than realistic.  Giving meaningful amounts to good causes may be a lot like being vegan, most people do not do it, but it seems harsh and false to assume this is because they do not care about anyone else.  Singer himself has effectively devoted much of his life to convincing people besides those he has brought into existence to give meaningful amounts to charity and to become vegan.  In some cases, little more is necessary than educating the person about the treatment of factory farm animals and stimulating thinking about what really positive things money wisely donated can accomplish.  People's parents do not sentence them to being unable to grasp or unwilling to act on these things.

Furthermore, Singer overlooks the toll that each of us takes on the environment.  Surely the biggest single thing a person can do to keep her carbon footprint small is not have a child.  Having a child does not just divert resources away from helpful projects, it invests them in a project that will only increase the toll our species is taking on our environment and climate.  The lifestyle of effective altruists may take less of a toll, but it still takes a toll.  It seems unlikely that any child of effective altruists is going to go on to do so much good as to outweigh the negative not only of their own existence but of the good their parents did not do because they were devoting themselves to their child.  All a couple has to do is change the mind of one existing person with the time, money, energy, or caring they would have put into raising a child to make it clear that not having a child is a benefit in every way.  If one believes that there are already too many humans on the planet, increasing the number of effective altruists by converting existing people is clearly preferable to increasing the number of effective altruists by increasing the number of people.  When an altruist has a baby, it does not stop a selfish person from having a baby.  If anything, it supports the selfish person in having a baby as it shows support for making that choice.  So for those who believe that seven billion people is too many, effective altruists are those who do not have children and who argue against procreation, not those who suggest by example that having babies is an acceptable project.

In addition, one of the people Singer profiles who decides to have a child is not vegan (p. 30).  On Singer's theory, that child will adopt her parents' values, so we can expect the suffering of farm animals at the hands of this family to go on for at least another generation.

Singer asks in his preface whether our rational capacities do little more than lay a justificatory veneer over actions that we were already going to do anyway because of our innate needs and emotional responses (p. ix).  He does not think this need be the case, but he succumbs to it himself when he assesses people who doubtless actually want to have children for selfish reasons as somehow making the future brighter because they will be adding their allegedly superior babies to all the babies others are having.  Singer recognizes elsewhere that we all have some selfish things we are not willing to give up.  This would seem to be the more accurate way to analyze these otherwise effective altruists who have children--having their own babies was just something they were not willing to give up for the sake of the greater good.  Not even the effective altruists profiled in this book are perfect (though some of them come very close).

One of the most important and useful points of the book also can end up getting weakened by the particular calculations Singer makes with respect to it.  The important and useful point is that many of us can do more good by donating our money to good causes than by working for them ourselves.  This may be sort of obviously true for people who do not have the talents or experience good causes are looking for and who are already enmeshed and advanced in other kinds of careers.  It seems important to point out to people who are not doing a job they consider particularly socially important that they should not necessarily feel bad about this because they can nevertheless accomplish so much good if they just resolve to donate a meaningful amount of their income to good causes.  Singer does not so much address these sorts of people as advise the young and talented with a lot of options that they might be able to accomplish more good by pursuing a lucrative career and donating much of the salary than by working for a good cause.  This may generally be true because nonprofits seem to be able to find employees, and very few people give substantial amounts of their income to charity.  So while anyone who would take an altruist's place working for a good cause would be working for the good cause, few people who would take an altruist's place working for some other kind of employer would be giving a substantial portion of their income to a good cause.  So, in general, it may be better for an altruist to take a better-paying job with another employer and donate a large portion of her income to a good cause than to take a job working for a good cause.

Still, Singer may overstate the case, and he makes some rather unlikely empirical assumptions along the way.  He apparently thinks employers can correctly rank job applicants according to who will end up being the best employee, and he thinks the person who would be best at the job can safely assume that whoever will take the job if she does not will be almost as good at it as she would be (p. 41).  Singer does not cite any evidence for this claim, so it is not clear on what basis someone who wants to work for a good cause should believe it.  If a person thinks she will happily work nights and weekends, has no family or hobby to divide her attention, would work for the organization in question for her entire career, and has all the right personality traits, talents, education and experience to do a great job, maybe she should not assume that the organization will manage to hire just as devoted and talented an employee if she takes a better-paying job instead.

In addition, Singer does not discuss endeavors such as teaching in a school district unattractive to most teachers, which could make a significant impact on the quality of people's lives and for which there do not seem to be long lines of dedicated and talented people lining up.  One could also do a lot of good in the United States by being a police officer who treated everyone appropriately, a school principal who did not turn student misbehavior into a law enforcement issue, or an elected official who effectively worked to make people's lives better.  Judging from the quality of some members of these professions now, there does not seem to be any assurance in these fields that if an effective altruist with the relevant talents and qualifications does not do the job someone just as good will.

There are two very interesting and harder questions Singer raises in the context of choosing a job that he does not end up answering in a straightforward manner.  The first is whether it is good to take a lucrative job doing a little bit of bad if the good one can do with the income from the job is greater than the bad involved in the job.  The second is whether it is good to take a lucrative job doing more bad than the good one can do with the income from the job if otherwise someone else would take the job and do just as much bad in the job but not donate the income from it.  Singer talks all around these issues but always hedges what he says in some way.

One of the effective altruists he profiles works for a bank, but instead of arguing that the bad of working for a bank (if there is any--Singer never discusses exactly what this person does at the bank) is outweighed by the good the person's donations do, Singer makes it plain that he does not see anything wrong with working for a bank (p. 50).  He seems to argue that some form of banking is necessary for capitalism and, in effect, at least, seems to jump straight from that premise to the conclusion that it is fine to work for the banking industry as it currently exists in the United States.  This ignores that the industry does such things as lobby against needed reforms, that capitalism predates the invention of many types of financial transactions that people make money off of today that really may not be salutary, the possibility of nationalizing banks rather than forcing taxpayers to underwrite the losses while the bankers pocket the profits, and the problem of the continued existence of institutions that remain "too big to fail" and so pose a continued risk to the economy.  In any event, regardless of whether one shares Singer's view of banks, since he takes a rather positive view, it is not clear what he would think about an effective altruist taking a job doing something bad because they will give more of their income to good causes than their replacement would.

Singer also talks about philosopher Bernard Williams's example in which a person works on the development of new chemical weapons but makes less of a contribution to this endeavor than would the person who would have taken the job if she had not (p. 48).  Likewise, he talks about a concentration camp guard who is a less brutal guard than his replacement would be (p. 52).  Since these people are rather clearly doing something good in that they are doing less harm than would be done by their replacements, these examples also do not tell us what Singer would think of someone who takes a job doing something bad and justifies it solely on the basis that she donates a large share of her income to a good cause and makes more money at it than at other possible occupations while her replacement probably would not donate as much of the income from the job.

How one should feel about taking a job doing something bad is not a trivial issue because jobs doing bad things abound.  In the United States, for instance, there are a lot of well-paying jobs in the "defense" industry.  If one believes that one of the worst problems in the world is our tendency to try to solve disputes with violence, and if one believes that the amount of money the United States pours into its military is one of its worst faults, it seems it might not be a good idea to work for a military contractor even if one could make more money in that field than in any other and donate it to good causes, and even if someone else would take the job if the altruist did not.

It is always hard to know how to capture and weigh the more diffuse and intangible consequences of the things we do.  If an effective altruist took a job designing drones for the U.S. military and gave most of her earnings to a good cause, she might be able to set a good example for her coworkers with respect to giving, but she would be setting a bad example for her coworkers by being willing to work in this area and affirming the idea that it is a fine thing to do.  Suppose one of her friends tried to convince one of their mutual friends that she should be impressed with how much money the effective altruist donates.  It seems likely the reply would be "yeah, but she earns all that money by designing drones so that we can kill people."  Rightly or wrongly, such a person might end up inspiring fewer people to follow her example than she would if she took a more benign job because fewer people will admire her and want to be like her.  Moreover, it is quite likely that more people will find out what she does for a living than how much she donates to good causes.  So for many people, the only proposition her life will stand for is that it is not absurd to try to stop violence with more violence.

It seems obviously correct to divert a trolley so that it kills one person instead of five (p. 79) and to lie to the Nazis so they bomb a less populated part of England rather than London (p. 51), but in these examples discussed by Singer, it is clear the person is trying to minimize killing.  In these cases, the justification of the action does not depend at any point on the claim that if one person did not do it, someone else would.  It seems likely that it rarely maximizes good consequences to do something that one justifies in part on this basis.  It is important to oppose some pursuits, and it is hard to credibly do this if one is engaged in them regardless of what use one makes of the salary.

Throughout the book, Singer seems to emphasize the extreme poverty existing in poor countries as the source of human misery, but, of course, there are many others, and some of them exist in wealthy countries.  For example, people serving lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes in the United States have food, shelter, and some medical care, but this injustice may nevertheless be one a resident of the United States should be concerned to do something about.  The United States is also plagued by racism, gun violence, a very violent culture in general, rampant drug addiction, crazy people running for president, inhumane and unrealistic immigration laws, and inequality in education, opportunity, and income.  Curing these social ills is valuable too, and it is almost arrogant to set out to solve the problems of other countries when we have yet to solve our own.  In addition, some of the charities Singer mentions do not even seem to aim at long-term solutions to root problems.  And as discussed above, anyone who thinks there is value in making lives better but no value in making lives will disagree with some of the ways in which Singer works out how effective altruists can do the most good.  Still, if readers of the book are inspired to think about devoting a more substantial portion of their income to accomplishing something good in the world, then Singer's calculation that the most good he could do with some of his time recently was to write this book will have been a sound one.


© 2016 Gail Merten


Gail Merten has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona and a J.D. from Arizona State University.  She works as an attorney in Washington, D.C., and does not spend much of her time worrying about asteroids.


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