Blog post

Peter Singer's The Most Good You Can Do

5 min read
12 May 2015

Peter Singer's new book on effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do, is now out in both the US and the UK. Visit the website for the book here and take part in the giving game to decide which effective charities the profits from selling the book get donated to - and encourage your friends to do the same - here.

Peter Singer presents the following case: suppose you can choose to visit an art museum. On one option, you will see the museum and visit an enticing new wing while on the other option you will see the museum without visiting the new wing. However, there is an evil demon that despises the new wing and so inflicts fifteen years of blindness on one random person out of every hundred people who visit the new wing. Would you visit the new wing? Definitely not!

If you wouldn’t then you are suggesting that the harm of fifteen years of blindness outweighs the benefit of one hundred people visiting the new wing. Now suppose you can make a donation to a museum that will allow one hundred people to see a new wing or donate to a charity that prevents fifteen years of blindness—which should you donate to?

These questions are of central importance to effective altruists. Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world. Singer’s book The Most Good You Can Do serves as a fine introduction to the emerging movement. The book is divided into four sections: the first defines and offers a backdrop for effective altruism, the second considers how to do the most good, the third focuses motivation and justification, and the fourth discusses choosing causes and organizations.

Aiming to do the most good, many effective altruists live fairly modestly and give the rest of their income to effective charities. One may earn to give, that is, attempt to make a very high income in order to give that income away. For example, by securing a job on Wall Street and giving one can save hundreds of lives. Others may advocate that others give and effectively make the world a better place. Promoting or working for groups like Giving What We Can, or even making an effective altruism meet-up could be a fantastic way to spread effective altruist ideas, and so make the world a better place through advocacy. Similarly, one may research causes or organizations in order to assess how effective they may be. Other promising routes include working as a bureaucrat, directing funds to the most effective projects, or starting an effective organization.

One of the best aspects of the book is that Singer focuses on actual people who carry out these strategies. These goals are not unattainable nor do they demand burdensome sacrifices. Nonetheless, one may worry that behaving as an effective altruist is too much of a sacrifice. Happily, however, effective altruists take joy in their altruistic projects and find doing good, as do most people, sincerely rewarding and meaningful. As Singer states, “We can regard people as altruists because of the kind of interests they have rather than because they are sacrificing their interests” (103).

Why should one be an effective altruist? Many altruists see it as a moral matter: we can give to others, without damaging our own lives in the process, in order to save lives—shouldn’t we do this? And shouldn’t we save as many lives and prevent as much suffering as we can? Singer and many others have, and continue to, persuasively argue that the answer to both questions is yes. But there are other reasons to be an effective altruist: as mentioned, most people find that doing good promotes meaning and happiness in their lives and others. This is illustrated by the altruists who “walk cheerfully over the world.”

But, if we are to give, where should we give to? What causes or organizations do the most good? Can we make judgements about what charities do more good than others? The initial case involving the new wing of a museum suggests that we can. We can compare the good of donating to a museum or to a charity which prevents blindness.

There will, however, be less clear cases. Effective altruists tend to be concerned about global poverty and health, animal welfare, and existential risk. They want to decrease the suffering of human and nonhuman animals as well as prevent the extinction of sentient life. There is much debate between effective altruists about which of these causes are the most important—where can we do the most good? Singer provides an excellent introduction to the nuances of this debate, though people who are familiar with and active within the community will find little new here.

Those who are not familiar with effective altruism will benefit greatly from this book. It is exceptionally lucid, engaging, and careful. Singer helpfully addresses some of the most prevalent concerns people tend to have about effective altruism and persuasively argues why it is such an important movement. I would encourage anyone who is unfamiliar with or who would like to know more about effective altruism to read this book. Similarly, those who want to peak others interest in effective altruism would do well to recommend or give this book to others.

As noted, with some exceptions, The Most Good You Can Do largely conveys ideas that many effective altruists will be familiar with. Nonetheless, I would still suggest that people already very familiar with effective altruism read the book. It is brilliantly inspiring and provides an excellent model for how to present effective altruist ideas.

Effective Altruism makes for an exciting movement and The Most Good You Can Do should propel this excitement as the movement grows.