The Australian philosopher on "effective altruism," immigration points systems and defining philosophyby Alex Dean / July 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
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“A Swedish composer asked if he could use some words from my articles as lyrics for choral music. I said ‘fine,’ of course, and he went and composed it and it is somewhere online. I think on YouTube you can actually listen to it!”
Such is the influence of Peter Singer—arguably the best-known living philosopher. In an exclusive interview with Prospect the Australian thinker, now 69, mounted a defence of “Effective Altruism”—a movement he is the main proponent of.
Singer is a controversial figure—indeed, he has previously argued in Prospect that we should grant rights to the great apes. In our interview he offered his thoughts on the “Australian-style points-based migration system” championed by Brexiteers during the run-up to the EU referendum. “In Australia… I think the points system can work well. One issue is clearly ‘what points do you allocate for what?’… A points system may be fair or unfair depending upon how you allocate the points.”
Effective Altruism had its break-through in Singer’s 1974 work Famine, Affluence and Morality, recently republished. “It is both a philosophy and a social movement that’s concerned with being as effective as possible in making the world a better place” Singer explained. “It draws on evidence and reasoning to work out how best to do that.”
Singer recounted the famous “muddy trousers” thought-experiment from this work. “You are walking across a park and you see a small child who’s fallen into a pond. You know that you can safely rescue the child: there’s no danger to you, but there is a cost: you are going to ruin the clothes that you’re wearing for a special occasion. Most people when they hear this example will think to themselves… that the right thing to do clearly is to save the child.
“But if we ought to do it in the case of the child drowning in the pond.” Singer continued, “why wouldn’t it also be the case that we ought to do it for people who are dying of malaria or unsafe drinking water or any other number of easily preventable poverty-related conditions?”
In a new introduction to Famine, Affluence and Morality, Singer argues that Effective Altruism was a new way of doing philosophy—focussed on real-world moral problems. “When I was an undergraduate back in the 60s, English language philosophy was very much about analysis of the meanings of moral terms… the business of philosophers was seen as explaining the meanings of concepts.
“AJ Ayer [Author of 1936’s Language, Truth and Logic, which argued for logical positivism] would probably be the leading example of a philosopher who argued that the proper role of philosophy is morally neutral…. But fortunately around the time… that I went to Oxford, which had been in the stronghold of this kind of language philosophy, things had started to change a little.
“I went to Oxford in 1969 and that was at the height of the student movement against the Vietnam war, against racism, and also the student demand for relevance in courses that we were being taught. One way in which philosophy could be relevant was by having something to say about these great problems. And of course there were philosophers who were well aware that traditionally philosophy had talked about vital questions.”
“The idea of getting clarity about a concept is so that we can do better in terms of the way we act.”
Singer’s argument has convinced many, and he is far from the only proponent of Effective Altruism. In August 2015, Prospect reviewed a new book by Effective Altruist William MacAskill, Doing Good Better. However, the movement has also been met with heavy criticism ever since it was put forward.
One might argue that the two situations that Singer attempts to establish an analogy between: the child drowning and “poverty-related conditions” in the third world—are in fact not similar. It could be that former tells us nothing morally significant about the latter. For instance, in “muddy trousers” it is only you who can save the child. When it comes to the problem of global poverty, there are millions of people who might step in and do good. Arguably, this lessens the responsibility on us.
When I put this to him, Singer was not convinced. “This is the “Fair share” idea. Let’s go back to the child and the pond…let’s say ten children have all fallen into the pond, and as well as you there are nine other adults in a similar situation as you. And so you think to yourself ‘Okay, well I’ll go and grab a child and everyone will do the same and the children will all be out.” You grab your child and then you look around and you see that five other people have just ignored the children, so there are still five children in the pond. Would you say “I’ve done my fair share so now it’s my turn to go home, dry off and have a nice shower—nobody can blame me?’ The obvious answer to that is no.”
“I don’t think our obligations stop at doing our fair share if we know that others are not doing their fair shares.”
I asked Singer which criticism of Effective Altruism he had most struggled with. “I probably had most trouble with a question that isn’t really philosophical but is more empirical. I’ve had some interesting discussions with my colleague Angus Deaton, who this year won the Nobel Prize for Economics, about the efficacy of aid. He doesn’t really disagree that some forms of aid have saved lives. But he’s sceptical about the long-term effects of a lot of the aid that’s given, let’s put it that way. So it’s very important to… select the right charities.”
I asked Singer to list the charities that he thought were most deserving of our money. “One of my favourites is the Against Malaria Foundation, which is very effective in distributing long-lasting insecticide-impregnated mosquito nests in areas with high rates of malaria… I’d also recommend something that’s a bit more innovative, and that people might have doubts about: it’s a charity called Give Directly. For every hundred dollars that you give they will donate 90 dollars as part of a larger package to an extremely poor family in East Africa. So basically they’re into cash transfers.”
I quiz Singer on one final objection to Effective Altruism. It is sometimes accused of compromising what is so wonderful about giving in the first place. Arguably, generosity from our fellow humans is a great thing because it comes from impulses grounded in human emotion. By reducing the process of giving to a rational calculation, might Effective Altruism, if subscribed to, make us a little less human?
“Human nature evolved in very different circumstances to those of today’s world: circumstances in which you didn’t really have much opportunity to help strangers far away,” Singer explained. “But I don’t think that has much to do with showing that we should not help them now. The right thing to do is to help them when we have the opportunity.”