What is the most good you can do?

Dr Tom Farsides (University of Sussex) reviews Peter Singer’s 'The most good you can do: How effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically'.

08 September 2015

You disappoint Peter Singer. He wants you to do the most good you can and you don’t. No one does. We are all sinners.

The main reason for this is probably our partiality. We prioritise the welfare of ourselves and of others who are in special relationships with us. Singer would like us all to be more objective; to see the world with a God’s-eye view or “from the point of view of the universe”. From such a distance, says Singer, all pleasure is good and all pain is bad, with each being good or bad according to how much of it there is rather than according to how much of it we feel.

Another problem is our frequently slipshod attitude to evidence and action. It is hard to be very confident about what consequences any act will have and always trying to work out the best possible act to ultimately optimise world happiness looks like a mug’s game! Au contraire, says Singer. That is exactly what we should be doing.

Yet other problems are caused by us often failing to pursue or prioritise morality of any kind. Singer would ideally like the goal of maximising world happiness to be an omnipresent and unopposed source of motivation. Nevertheless, people routinely value and prioritise other things and very often seem to act on autopilot without appearing to think or care about anything very much.

In his latest book, Singer’s offers to forgive and accommodate such human frailties. Recognising that his earlier writings may have been somewhat extremist and fundamentalist (“Utilitarianism and nothing but utilitarianism!”), he now implores us merely to “use a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place” (p. vii).

In itself, this is not a particularly contentious suggestion. Many people seek to do exactly that and it is surely obvious that this is best done by limiting the effect of tendencies such as those listed above. We need to take care not to be too parochial in our altruism and we should particularly consider trying to help those especially likely to benefit from our help. We should make reasonable efforts to make sure that attempts to help do help and if alternative ways of helping are available we should choose the one that seems most likely to do the most good. And we should take steps to overcome the fact that our altruistic and moral will is often dormant or swamped, e.g., by setting up automatic regular payments to favoured charities rather than giving as and when the mood takes us.

However, such increases in effective altruism are actually not what Singer or many of his growing band of disciples really want. In truth, a substantial faction of the Effective Altruism movement would be more honestly named the Radical Utilitarians.

To the extent that they are utilitarian, Radical Utilitarians are concerned with only one specific form of altruism; that aimed at “whole world welfare”. To the extent that they are radical, Radical Utilitarians see little value in anything else.

Singer spends a lot of time in his book describing and defending the sorts of choices Radical Utilitarians make. The defence takes two forms. The first correctly point out that being utilitarian can be hugely satisfying if you value utilitarianism, especially if you don’t care too much about anything that might seem incompatible with it. The second is to argue that anything that looks suspicious on utilitarian grounds might actually be defensible using utilitarian reasoning. Utilitarianism is an extremely demanding doctrine and it is possibly self-defeating if attempted in its most obvious form. Therefore, the (sometimes amusingly convoluted) reasoning goes, people might actually be better at optimising world happiness if they occasionally permit themselves some seemingly more parochial pleasures, e.g., buying ice cream, doing a job they enjoy, having kids, helping out at the school fete, or whatever.

Singer also spends a fair amount of time attacking anyone who unapologetically engages in any form of activity that seems incompatible with the doctrine of “Utilitarianism and nothing but utilitarianism”. This includes attacking any form of altruism other than that which explicitly seeks impartial optimisation of world happiness. Here, Singer adopts his most ‘God-like’ stance and does most to alienate those with different views of “humanity”. He appears to literally begrudge blind Americans their guide dogs and local children their donated sports kits because he thinks the costs involved could be spent in ways that do more to maximise world happiness.

Singer thus reveals himself to still be standing on the slippery slope of extremist and fundamentalist utilitarianism - which ends only when there is nothing more one can do to help those worse off that you. While he continues to think as he does, Singer will struggle not to feel guilty about still having two kidneys.

Extremist fundamentalists such as Singer are often attracted to ideas such as “Good ends justify otherwise potentially suspect means”. Maybe this is why much of the data and many of the arguments in this book seem so partial. Maybe any commitment he has to science, scholarship, and genuine debate pales into insignificance when he thinks that rhetoric might better promote world happiness. When recently asked about his writing goals, Singer said, “I’ve become a bit more strategic. Not just how do you mount a cogent academic article … but … how do you persuade people to act…?” (Nolan, 2015).

Singer asks important questions and has enormous commitment to engrossing conclusions that many find challenging and some find repellent. He also writes beautifully. If you care about morality, Singer’s writing is more or less required reading. I’d encourage you to read it a bit more critically than Singer might like, though.

Nolan, H. (2015, April 17). How to save lives: A conversation with Peter Singer. Gawker. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/how-to-save-lives-a-conversation-with-peter-singer-1698055810