This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and co-author of Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction.
Project Syndicate: It is easier to empathize with a single recognizable individual than with the many faceless individuals behind a statistic. This “empathy trap,” you observe, often leads to bad public policy and bad philanthropy, which, in your view, should aim to do the “most good.” For example, you recently suggested that Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion donation to his wealthy alma mater to provide scholarships to low-income students would have been better spent helping universities without large endowments. Spending that money on malaria-preventing bed nets, you point out, could have saved over 400,000 lives.
How do you – or the organization you founded, The Life You Can Save – assess how much “good” a given intervention would do? Do material needs always take precedence over higher-level needs like education? Should Bloomberg have financed bed nets, rather than donate to any university at all?
Peter Singer: For me, “good” has to be understood in terms of benefits to conscious beings – reducing their pain and suffering, or enabling them to live richer and more satisfying lives. The benefits do not have to be to beings who exist now; we should also be concerned with the welfare of beings who will live at some future date. That makes it difficult to compare the benefits of education, which can have long-term benefits, with bed nets, which have immediate, often life-saving benefits.
In general, though, my judgment is that well-targeted donations to low-income countries are likely to go further and do more good than any donations to high-income countries. The needs are greater, and any given sum of money goes further.
PS: You argue that the poor in, say, Africa are not really concerned about where support comes from, as long as it comes. Complaints about the White Savior narrative distract from that reality. But surely you agree that narratives matter, especially when it comes to empowering – even just psychologically – the historically marginalized. You yourself advocate using the preposition “who,” rather than “that,” in reference to animals, or “sex worker” rather than “prostitute,” as a means of shifting our perspectives.
So, should we retire the photo ops with white Western celebrities surrounded by poor African children, or would that amount to allowing emotion to cloud reason, threatening what really counts – the amount of money raised?
Singer: Of course things other than money are significant. But before we take a decision like retiring the photos of white celebrities helping African children, we need to ask ourselves whether there is convincing evidence that such photos really do harm to anyone.
We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Singer's picks:
by Larissa MacFarquhar
This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It is a beautifully written portrayal of people who go to extraordinary lengths to help others that is based on a sound understanding of the relevant ethical issues.
by Will MacAskill
This is an excellent introduction to Effective Altruism written by a key figure in getting this exciting new movement off the ground.
by Anthony Grayling
Grayling has written a masterful and often entertaining chronicle of the epic intellectual journey we humans have taken, in different periods, countries and cultures, to understand ourselves, our world, and how we ought to live.
From the PS Archive
As the world was waking up to the danger posed by “fake news,” Singer asked whether, in the Internet age, the legal pendulum should swing back toward the offense of criminal libel. Read his full commentary here.
As difficult as developing artificial intelligence might be, Singer argued three years ago, teaching our creations to be ethical is likely to be even more daunting. Read his full commentary here.
Around the web
Singer – an atheist moral philosopher – discusses the relationship between religion and morality with a Christian thinker, exploring issues of human rights, dignity, and disability along the way. Watch the debate here.
There are good reasons not to treat our corner of space as nothing more than a quarry, a rubbish dump, and a lawless frontier. In fact, Singer argues in a recent commentary, when it comes to space, we should be applying the principles of sustainable development. Read the article here
Why are so many of us unhappy? In an hour-long podcast, Singer explores the connections between money, charity, and happiness, and offers some advice for living a happy life. Listen to the discussion here.