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What Charity Without God Looks Like


Michael Cook - published on 06/04/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Peter Singer's new book on philanthropy reveals a dark side to utilitarianism

Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been described as “a man of principles and towering intellect”. Both qualities are at centre stage in his latest book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.

Although he is better known as the leading theorist of animal liberation and for his controversial ideas about bioethics, philanthropy is one of Singer’s passions. As early as 1972 he had already formulated most of the arguments which he showcases in this book and in a 2010 book, The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty.

Doing the most good you can do with limited resources is an ethical challenge which utilitarianism is almost designed to handle. Input your resources, a community’s needs and your personal preferences, press a button and the “felicific calculus” cranks out an ethical response. An interactive game on the book’s website even displays a “charity impact calculator” which estimates how much your donation will buy when you give to a particular foundation.

Singer’s idea is that we are ethically bound to be effectively altruistic. It is immoral to allow waste, to splurge on ourselves, or to support projects like museums which do nothing to lessen the world’s misery.

This is great PR for utilitarianism, which has suffered from the perception that its adherents are crabby gentlemen with green eye-shades who are always doing cost-benefit analyses. The Most Good That You Can Do shows that utilitarians are not baked in the mould of Mr Gradgrind, Dickens’ parody of utilitarianism in Hard Times. Like Christians, and even more than Christians, they take the wretched of the earth seriously. As a utilitarian, you can be altruistic without airy-fairy ideals. Even more, you can live with all the austerity of a Franciscan without believing in God, but with the satisfaction of witnessing that your generosity has bettered the lives of others.

His approach has stellar supporters. "An optimistic and compelling look at the positive impact that giving can have on the world,” say Bill and Melinda Gates. “Singer’s argument is powerful, provocative and, I think, basically right,” says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

But does this prove that utilitarianism is a sound moral guide through life’s trackless wilderness? There is more to ethics than altruism. Does Singer handle other moral dilemmas convincingly?

Perhaps not.

There is a very, very peculiar passage in the book which Bill and Melinda appear not to have read. If they had, they would have thought twice about adopting Singer as the intellectual patron of their philanthropic foundation. If you had unearthed a letter of Martin Luther King Jr expressing his admiration for Mein Kampf, or an interview with Mother Teresa criticizing the poor for being dirty and stupid, you could not be more surprised.

What is an ethical career, Singer asks. This is a more difficult question than it seems at first blush. Working for Oxfam gets a tick. But how about for Goldman Sachs (or Microsoft)? That also gets a tick. Why? Because you can distribute your high (or even obscenely high) salary according to the principles of effective altruism.

So far so good.

But when Singer asks whether someone can work for Goldman Sachs even if it supports an abomination like, say, tobacco companies, he comes up with an astonishing conclusion:

For someone who judges actions by their consequences, to be complicit in wrongful harm requires that one make a difference to the likelihood of the harm occurring. As we saw earlier, if you do not take the position offered by the investment bank, someone else will, and from the bank’s perspective that person will probably be nearly as good as you would have been. …. you may have a better chance of altering the bank’s actions-or, through the bank, the actions of the corporation for which it is raising money-if you are on the inside than if you are protesting from outside. 

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