In The Most Good You Can Do, philosopher Peter Singer tells us how we can all do better through “effective altruism”, which he describes as a solidly ethical way of living.
For those who are unfamiliar with Singer, he is a prominent ethicist, a utilitarian who has written about animal liberation and practical ethics, which is the practice of applying ethics to our daily decisions.
In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer takes on the roles of preacher, salesman and philosopher. The book is not about philosophy; instead, Singer writes to inspire people to become more qualified philanthropists. He wants to convince us that we should earn more money so we can donate more money. The premise is that living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.
What is the most good? Effective altruists think more about the number of people they can help than about helping particular individuals. The numbers are reflected in their donations; they give money to those organizations which they believe will do the most good. Effective altruism is ethical investment where the return on investment is the greater good of the many.
Singer mentions several individuals who are effective altruists and lists organizations that can help one decide where and how much money to donate. His message is that it is ethically good to earn to give, and one should use one’s reason more than one’s emotions when deciding where to donate.
“Earning to give is a distinctive way of doing good,” Singer writes. When I read that I can’t help thinking of the Catalonia region of Spain. Around 50 percent of the voting Catalans seek independence from Spain because, for example, the region pays 10 percent of its gross national product to the rest of Spain. Few mention that the rest of Spain is less fortunate compared with Catalonia, with its attractive Costa Brava coastline, numerous museums and frequent great football games. Sharing with non-Catalans doesn’t seem to be an attractive option.
Another way of illustrating this involves different forms of empathy, such as:
Empathic concern– the tendency to experience feelings of warmth and compassion for other people.
Personal distress– feelings of personal unease and discomfort in reaction to the emotions of others.
Perspective taking– tendency to adopt the point of view of other people.
Fantasy– tendency to imagine oneself experiencing the feelings of other people.
The first two terms refer to emotional empathy, or one’s manner of feeling about others. The last two refer to cognitive empathy, or “knowing what something is like for another being.”
Emotional empathy can be related to Catalans who want to become an independent country; they still seem traumatized by the Spanish Civil War, and define themselves negatively, as not Spanish. They feel warm toward full-blooded Catalans, but have varying degrees of discomfort about the rest.
Singer contrasts emotional empathy with cognitive empathy. This is where numbers affect us more than the individuals with whom we identify. For example, a cognitive empathizer would recognize that during the Spanish Civil War, the entire country suffered. The war was not a football match. Spain bled, not just one region.
Singer quotes psychologist Paul Bloom: “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family–that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”
Singer argues convincingly in favor of reason over emotion, but reason and emotion are not necessarily contradictory. Let me use Catalonia again as an example. Communism did not work worldwide because it was not based on compassion and love; it was based on class struggle and dictatorial control, which in the end failed, as the Dalai Lama once pointed out. Similarly, the Catalan project is based more on financial greed than compassion. If the Catalans were effective altruists they would still be proud of their industrious attitude, but only because they could do good with their money, for example, donating to regions in greater need. More developed empathy–all four varieties–combined with reason would make Catalans less protective. More generous.
Altruism, Singer writes, is contrasted with egoism. However, altruism does not require unrealistic self-sacrifice. One may realize that it is possible to share one’s fortune with those less fortunate. Perhaps, one might even realize how everything is interconnected.
Thomas Aquinas was quoted as saying “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need, because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.”
In that vein, Aquinas would not likely have thought it wrong of anybody to take what they need from Singer’s book, particularly if it meant learning how to help others. If you would like to see whether Singer’s book has something in it for you, visit these homepages: