Is it ok to have nice things?
July 8, 2015 10:51 AM   Subscribe

As Peter Singer's new book is released, the Boston Review hosts a forum on "The Logic of Effective Altruism."

Peter Singer himself opens the discussion.
Daron Acemoglu has "a few misgivings." Matt Zwolinski replies.
Angus Deaton thinks that it is an "illusion that lives can be bought like cars."
Jennifer Rubenstein worries that the effective altruism movement, as it is currently organized, "excludes poor people."
Larissa MacFarquhar thinks that effective altruism is the "drone program of altruism."
Leila Janah thinks that there is a "fundamental problem with Singer’s approach," viz., it "reinforces prevailing beliefs about the best way to generate and distribute wealth instead of questioning what led us here in the first place."
Emma Saunders-Hastings says that "To prove politically progressive," effective altruism must "avoid the familiar philanthropic problem of giving donors too much power over beneficiaries."
Rob Reich thinks that there is a deep sense in which "effective altruism is apolitical."
Paul Brest points out that while we "venerate ancient saints, we tend to resent contemporary aspirants."
Iason Gabriel says that if effective altruistis are too scrupulously utilitarian, they will "alienate many potential supporters". Instead, they should "embrace greater pluralism".
András Miklós argues that "effective altruism could have even greater impact if it did not focus exclusively on individual philanthropy. Firms also need guidance in order to do the most good."
Catherine Tumber takes Singer to task for "regarding people as abstract units".
Singer replies.

And elsewhere on the web ...
Jason Brennan says that is probably is okay to have nice things.
There is some discussion of Peter Singer on this thread on the Daily Nous blog. (Notice, in particular, the posts by Elizabeth Barnes.) Perhaps Peter Singer is no longer the best spokesperson for the effective altruism movement?
posted by HoraceH (43 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh my dear sweet Jesus, it's Peter Singer. The guy who was quoted in the New Yorker as saying,
When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.
And yet, rather than euthanize his mother when she was suffering from Alzheimer's, Peter Singer instead spent a fairly substantial amount of money for her end-of-life care.

A good summary of this man's contradictions can be found here, and I particularly like this quote:
One of the most “charitable and candid” things that can be said about Singer is that he may not truly believe some of his arguments’ conclusions. His decision to scrap his entire philosophical stance because it interferes with his views on climate change is just, one supposes, “Singer being Singer.” Tossing out a controversial premise but refusing to follow it to the rational conclusion is his modus operandi . It’s as if he enjoys the gasps of horror heard while he gives a sly wink that signals even he is not outlandish enough to believe such nonsense. For example, Singer has claimed that “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person.” He later adds that this doesn’t mean that it’s all right to kill such a child. Killing a child, in his view, is only wrong inasmuch as it offends and hinders the wishes of its parents.

Perhaps Peter Singer is no longer the best spokesperson for anything?
posted by math at 11:02 AM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I would have found this all more compelling if:

1. Singer didn't start off with "look at this guy working on Wall Street so he can donate his money and save lives" as if working on Wall Street and making hundreds of thousands of dollars didn't enmesh you in a horrible system that immiserates people all over the world. By this logic, I should move to Stillwater and become a prison guard, since I'd make more money than I do now and could donate more. By this logic, in fact, it's actively good that I have the opportunity to become a prison guard.

2. It didn't rely super heavily on the most handwavey part of utilitarianism - the idea that you can quantify human existences and balance them against each other by mere assertion. Let's say that I become a prison guard and donate money to save a hundred children, all of whom are reasonably content and none of whom fall into absolute immiseration. But as a prison guard, I end up beating on and tazing prisoners, using abusive language, etc. My membership in the prison guards' union strengthens the prison industrial complex. The stress of being a prison guard destroys my relationship. Being in a racist and violent milieu all the time slowly erodes my anti-racist beliefs until I am acting in racist ways all the time, voting for racist policies, etc. To some degree, my behavior as an effective prison guard enables the prison industrial complex to keep running.....So how do we weigh those two things against each other without insisting on things not susceptible to proof?

3. It didn't seem to play into the whole "I am super rich from my one percenter job and I live in a tiny expensive "green" house, have minimal expensive "green" possessions, sit on a bunch of boards and donate lots of money...and of course, I would never, ever quit my fancy job and work toward a system where there was less wage inequality".

4. We already know how large donors can completely fuck things up even if they're smart and careful.

5. We already know that, like, giving poor people actual money - not via loans, just via state disbursements - is one of the most effective things you can do to end poverty [and as a result save lives]. We know that works. Where is that in this basically non-state, elite-driven solution? I mean, I'm an anarchist, but if the choice is "a state giving money to all in need or a bunch of elites doling out money according to their priorities" I will take the state every time. And the idea that we entrench elites precisely so that they can become effective altruists - it's almost science fictional, so bad is it.
posted by Frowner at 11:14 AM on July 8, 2015 [29 favorites]


I'm really glad you posted this. I first heard of Singer recently when watching Examined Life (streaming on Netflix), where I found him to be extremely compelling and convincing. He seemed motivated by a deep ethics that appeared absolutely heartfelt. Next I watched his TED talk which I found horrible. He seemed to reduce the value of human experience only to the state of being alive - so the idea that you could keep more people alive would trump anything about the quality of human life. By that logic, art should not matter, culture should not matter, individual agency is meaningless.

Put your money into helping others instead of buying crap is a laudable goal. The idea that our passive decisions that harm others are as damaging as actively choosing to harm others - absolutely worth exploring. But the idea that your money should only go to the organization that saves the most babies, without regard to what life they lead, seems ridiculous. Changing the systems that value some lives more than others seems much more "effective", even if efficacy is all you care about (or even possible to measure).
posted by latkes at 11:16 AM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


A minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of one’s spare resources to make the world a better place.

Spare resources! Ha ha ha.
posted by Sternmeyer at 11:17 AM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I knew your quotes looked like the kind of cherry-picked scare lists you find on fundie websites (and forwarded re: re: re: style by everyone's kooky older relative), math, so I followed your link.

The site you linked describes marriage equality as a "death knell" and apparently is in favor of criminalizing divorce, too.

Can you try again please with a reputable source and not a hate site?
posted by Xavier Xavier at 11:18 AM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


. Singer didn't start off with "look at this guy working on Wall Street so he can donate his money and save lives" as if working on Wall Street and making hundreds of thousands of dollars didn't enmesh you in a horrible system that immiserates people all over the world. By this logic, I should move to Stillwater and become a prison guard, since I'd make more money than I do now and could donate more. By this logic, in fact, it's actively good that I have the opportunity to become a prison guard.

Yeah, I totally forgot this part! It's such utter bullshit - as if giving money is the highest and most valuable, perhaps the only valuable way to contribute to the project of human experience!
posted by latkes at 11:19 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


math,

Singer being a hypocrite isn't an argument against his ideas. Hypocrites can still be right. The problems with his ideas the ones Frowner notes, which are the same critiques that have long been leveled at utilitarian philosophy.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:19 AM on July 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


Singer being a hypocrite isn't an argument against his ideas.

True, but it does suggest that his ideas aren't actually possible to adhere to.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:22 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


No it doesn't. It just means Singer doesn't adhere to them. I can argue hitting people is wrong, but if I then hit you it doesn't mean refraining from hitting people isn't actually possible to adhere to.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:25 AM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


I can argue hitting people is wrong

Yes but that is not your idea. Singer is the truest believer and espouser of Singer's ideas. Even he cannot put his ideas into practice. That says something.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:29 AM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Xavier Xavier, my apologies for that link; I just did a quick google search for some nice pull quotes and that one popped up. If I can find a better link, I'll try to do so later tonight.
posted by math at 11:31 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Even he cannot put his ideas into practice. That says something.

He does put his ideas into practice. He gives away a lot of his money.

But I guess you mean that he's not satisfying all the obligations that he thinks he has. Well, so what? He thinks that we have an obligation to do as much good as possible, and that no matter how much good you do in the world, you can always be doing more. Those both seem totally right to me, even though they imply that everyone is not meeting their moral obligations.

Moral theories that suppose we just have some minimum bar to clear are... a little convenient. And arguments about Singer's hypocrisy are just arguments for a convenient morality. But why should there be a minimum bar, and why should morality be easy? We can always do better.
posted by painquale at 11:52 AM on July 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


Sorry but giving money away isn't an original idea of Peter Singer's: its a pretty universal value even if its not fulfilled all the time.

Singer's original ideas are: killing disabled kids may be not as bad as we think it is, if it makes others happier. Shockingly, he interprets this conclusion not as a reductio ad absurdum, but as a logically necessary moral prescirption from his premises.

My point is that Singer isn't really trying to make a new ethics or figure shit out, he's trying to make us think, which is admirable. The alternative is that he is morally abhorrent.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:08 PM on July 8, 2015


I'm going for Singer as morally abhorrent.
posted by math at 12:31 PM on July 8, 2015


The discussion so far rather illustrates my point about Singer not being the best spokesperson for the effective altruism movement. The central claim of the effective altruism movement is something like this:

> Anyone who lives in a wealthy country (e.g. the US) and
> is comfortably off (say, is in the top half of the income
> distribution) has a moral duty to give a substantial proportion
> of his/her income (say, 10% or more) to effective charities
> (e.g. those recommended by GiveWell).

It ought to be possible to discuss this idea without getting sidetracked into a discussion of Singer's views about disability. But as long as Singer is *the* spokesperson for the effective altruism movement, the movement is besmirched.
posted by HoraceH at 12:57 PM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


“spare resources” is a tough phrase to wrap one’s head around to begin with. You kind of have to not have the wolves at the door to begin with.

This is a worthwhile conversation to have tho. Lively discussions at universities can help change things and it’d be nice to veer away from materialism and self-justifying ideology as uncontested goods.

But practice has to be done with high stakes close to the bone. It’s one thing to talk poker and theorize – even when perfectly correct – strategy, it’s another when it’s your children’s necks and the people across from you have the wallet to make you go all in every hand.

Unspoken here is the dominant position. If you’re at Princeton University talking philosophical and social methods of improving the world, you’ve pretty much already got the world by the throat. All the rest are just details (to ungrammatically 1/2 quote Einstein)

The utilitarian 'most good' loses its coherence as soon as you’re forced to lay down suppressive fire on a run. And I don’t mean that in any mean military sense. Not all violence is domination. But all domination has violence lurking somewhere nearby, either as a lapdog in the drawing room or as the steel in the glove standing next to El Presidente.
And that’s alluded to here, he’s saying no one wants to be Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot using the vision of a utopian future society to perpetuate atrocities.
But then, are atrocities perpetuated for their own merits? Perhaps. But such sadists are thankfully rare.

There is always the potential for grievous destruction when prioritizing one good over another.
Violence can be used to protect human rights from the violence that destroys human rights.
But both are precluded by dominance. And violence has largely been divorced from the exercise of power by the diversity and complexity of the techniques of subjugations.
That’s about as far as my apprehension takes me.

But reading this stuff I am reminded of Achille Mbembe insofar as what we’re talking about here – or rather what we’re not talking about but is a big chest-thumping gorilla if not an elephant in the room – is a kind of sovereignty in defining who and what matters. The who/what being the issue at hand but the act of doing the defining being the unspoken of gorilla.

The physical destruction of bodies and population is touched on as something to be avoided in effective altruism, but it’s a logical consequence of exerting dominance whether that dominance is altruistic, selfish or nihilistic. You gotta give *something* up.
Some people, and I’ve had ‘em shoot at me, resist any form of dominance if it means relinquishing … well, almost any damn thing. No matter what someone on the other side of the table is willing to sacrifice.

The “show me the harm”/ “earning to give” link delves into the question of what altruism within the framework does or doesn’t do.
Leaves it unsettled but brings up the:
“I don’t support the system, but I think that engaging with the system is currently the best way for me to make the world better” issue.

I think we have the tools for coordination. At least, it’s gotten easier with technology. But so often it’s like herding cats – regardless of who might opt out of the program for a selfish (thinking games theory) advantage – that it seems inevitable that such programs dissolve into chaos and impotency or someone says to hell with it, takes the collective power and starts slitting throats.

TLDR: avoiding damage is still pegged to glaringly obvious indicators like violence, when violence, at least where transparent, can be used in support of quality of life issues such as human rights or arbitrarily just in mule-headed resistance to change (justified or not culturally, religiously, etc).

Many people are talking in terms of lives as the main (if not sole) metric. It’s not the whole enchilada from the top. Discussions of Singer's character aside, Robert Wiblin brings up Witold Pilecki. Anyone who can reference him (or Corporal Wojtek) can't be all bad.

But saying, in effect, “I’m working to save lives” has that whole pulpy, comic-book (in a bad way) “bad guys v good guys” simple minded shorthand we seem to use so much as our thinking tools.

That said, changing the definition from personal success away from a monetary basis (to ethical performance) is an unmixed good. It might not be fun to live in a society where people zealously enjoy the smell of their own flatulence. But it beats all the hell out of seeing people genuinely support someone like Donald Trump for public office.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:58 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow, that turned ad-hominem quickly!

To my mind the basic beliefs of effective altruism are rather simple:
  1. If you are doing reasonably well you ought to help out people who are doing less well;
  2. It's not "just the thought that counts": we should make an attempt to increase the good we do with our resources where possible;
  3. It is possible to use the tools of social science to measure how much good we are doing.
These seem very reasonable to me!

One very good argument against the way that these beliefs are put into practice -- one provided by many of the essayists -- is that the way we are measuring how we do good skews our actions and ultimately results in less good. For instance, people tend to focus on the measurable. But also, people tend to ignore things like political action and attempts to collaboratively solve larger problems like climate change, even if the amount of good these things *could* do is potentially much greater. These are interesting and important arguments to have but I don't think they are arguments against the beliefs themselves.

However, I think that these arguments often turn into the position that merely trying to measure the good or bad that we do is an inherently destructive thing. I don't think that this is true, nor is it helpful to the argument, and it dismays me that this is a discussion that people are even having. I wonder if people worry that attempts at measurement will threaten their core political or moral beliefs?
posted by goingonit at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


The discussion so far rather illustrates my point about Singer not being the best spokesperson for the effective altruism movement. [...] It ought to be possible to discuss this idea without getting sidetracked into a discussion of Singer's views about disability.

Well, respectfully, I think that outcome was all but guaranteed by the link and quote choices and the framing of the post.
posted by painquale at 1:32 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Singer wouldn't walk away from Omelas, I don't think. This doesn't stand as an indictment of his approach to ethics. But I don't think he's seriously considered it, and I am fairly sure that the effective altruism people haven't seriously considered it either. This, I think, does stand as an indictment of effective altruism as an approach.

We're all here on metafilter. We're using machines, machines made by people whose lives would be better spent doing anything other than building machine parts, to talk endlessly about nothing. Most of us are wearing clothes sewn by little girls who sew for over half of every day and who are forbidden to talk or hum too loudly while doing it.

I mean right now, look at your shirt, if you're wearing a shirt. If not, go to your closet and look at any of the shirts you're not wearing. Look at any stitch on that shirt. A little girl whose life is devoted entirely to making that stitch put it there. Then another little girl whose life is entirely devoted to cutting dangling threads off shirts made sure there were no dangling threads. This is normal. This is what people do. This is, on the whole, what we humans are for.

It is a grim world we've made for ourselves. We, who wear the wasted lives of children every day.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that the problem with "effective altruism" is that it's predicated on the idea that the global capitalist mechanisms that we in America depend upon for our supply of clothes and computers and food won't go out of its way to manufacture poverty in order to get cheap labor. And, well, I don't believe it. Impoverished people are weak, impoverished people will take a shitty deal because it appears to be the best they can get, impoverished people are a valuable resource. I know I'm edging up to one of those lame "reform is meaningless we need revolution!!" arguments, but even so, this "effective altruism" business seems like a scheme that will yield great results up to the moment where might start making a meaningful difference, at which point it will be suppressed or circumvented due to its negative effects on business.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:32 PM on July 8, 2015 [19 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: so then what do you do? When you are fatalistic about anything that works being suppressed by the "powers that be", you end up in the same place as the effective altruists, only in the meantime some of those kids in the sweatshops have died who wouldn't have. Or maybe instead of donating money you spend your time protesting or, y'know, setting up a militia. Well, maybe we can ask the question of how we stack up the benefits of these activities versus donating your money? Once you do, you're an effective altruist, and if you don't, I think you've abdicated a big part of your moral duty.

Incedentally sweatshops in Bangladesh are kind of an interesting case because, among other things, NGOs like ICDDR,B have essentially eliminated deaths from diarrheal diseases like cholera there. Bangladesh has lowered its infant mortality rate by over 75% since 1980, the same period of time where its garment industry has expanded. Children are staying in school much longer, especially girls; people are living longer, better lives; they're eating better food; they have access to contraception and even things like electricity and sewer systems.

This doesn't mean that we're not all complicit in terrible things, but we can be complicit in terrible things while at the same time having a positive impact for many of the people in the world. We are large, we contain contain multitudes.
posted by goingonit at 1:43 PM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


But how much altruism is necessitated because Americans want $8 t-shirts? If those shirts were made in Bangladesh by adults working under 1st world labor standards... they'd cost $25 (if not more). What was the complaint about those Dove beauty ads? "Creating the problem, then providing the solution"
posted by mrbigmuscles at 2:35 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


goingonit: You're probably right. It's not like personally going pure freegan or whatever would make anything better in global terms, and, well, purity is an inherently fascist concept anyway.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:36 PM on July 8, 2015


acemoglu gets at one of my issues with philanthropy: "although greater altruistic feeling and behavior should be an unmitigated good, assigning to individuals and groups the roles typically reserved for societal institutions poses some dangers... replacing the government's role in, say, providing health care."

like for most things, wouldn't it just be better to have more effective gov't services (in the provision of public goods) and, like janah mentions, tax the rich question the levels of inequality that makes 'effective philanthropy' or whatever necessary in the first place? like i get that gov't isn't always what it's cracked up to be and people get frustrated by it, and that nonprofits and stuff can often be more focused and innovative, which is fine and great, but it seems like making gov't better should in almost all cases remain the priority and preferable outcome.

reich elaborates:
Some effective altruists believe that, under certain circumstances, giving in support of particular candidates for office, ballot initiatives, or policy advocacy can be as or more effective than giving to alleviate poverty...

In my experience, effective altruists are unabashed technocrats. They seek to maximize good in the world, and they deploy the best evidence they can marshal to identify the mechanisms by which one can pursue that goal. Effective altruists might locate instrumental value in politics—to the extent that political engagement is necessary to promote good—but not, I suspect, intrinsic value...

Would effective altruists attach any independent value to democracy? Given the chance to craft social and political arrangements from scratch, would effective altruists select democratic rather than technocratic rule? I suspect the answer is no, and to that extent, effective altruism is in tension with the commonplace philosophy that identifies in democracy a powerful normative force.
and then back to acemoglu: "None of these objections will have much force if effective altruists remain a small, marginal tribe. But we may yet see the best and brightest in our colleges and high-prestige professions join them. If that happens, the unforeseen consequences of this powerful but flawed idea could be stark."

like if the gates' are setting the standard, you also have:
-Pierre Omidyar aims to be a more entrepreneurial philanthropist than his predecessors
-Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen reinventing philanthropy, with a Silicon Valley blueprint
-Sean Parker plans to spend his fortune disrupting philanthropy

maybe this is all water under the bridge when you have well-funded think tanks and whatnot influencing public policy, corporate news (fox, bloomberg and bezos' WP), etc? but i was just reading Peter Thiel channeling Girard's anthropological theory of the scapegoat where he basically advocates neofeudalism as the most effective form of organization to bring about progress -- see various 'dark enlightenment' types of great man theory -- and one wonders whether we're not indeed already living in such a dystopia an era?

thiel concludes: "The usual narrative is that society should be organized to cater to and reward the people who play by the rules. Things should be as easy as possible for them. But perhaps we should focus more on the people who don't play by the rules. Maybe they are, in some key way, the most important. Maybe we should let them off the hook."

i guess the questions then are (as always) to what extent is this desirable and what, if anything, do we do about it?
posted by kliuless at 2:46 PM on July 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


mrbigmuscles: less than you'd think. If you look at the areas where, for instance, GiveWell's charities do most of their work (I know that name has a checkered Metafilter-y past, but you can't not talk about it when you talk about effective philanthropy), places like rural Uganda and Kenya, they're not big sweatshop hotspots. They're places where they don't have the infrastructure that would attract sweatshops, even.

I mean, our society is still complicit in causing these terrible conditions, via things like colonialism and slavery, but not directly via hiring people to work in factories. (I know less about natural-resource-extraction industries like mining but I gather they are miles worse than sweatshops in general, so there may be an argument there, but still if you look at the world's worst-off places they are almost universally reliant on subsistence agriculture).

(As an aside, the impact that labor costs have on the end cost of your T-shirt is remarkably low! You could double the wages of every worker in Bangladesh and the shirt would cost, maybe, $10 instead of $8. But there are plenty of other issues down that road...)
posted by goingonit at 2:46 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


MisantropicPainforest: "True, but it does suggest that his ideas aren't actually possible to adhere to."

If it were possible to completely adhere to, it wouldn't be ethics. If you think you can live perfectly within your perfectly rational ethical system, you either have not examined ethical systems (yours and others') very much or you are not honest with yourself about your life.

(After five years of teaching ethics to freshman who frequently asked me at the end of the unit, "But which system is the RIGHT one?" I concluded that they were better thought of not as comprehensive systems that can encompass within their rationality all of messy human life, but as tools to help you think through problems and judge solutions. Applying two or three ethical systems to a particularly intractable dilemma often helps clarify better and worse courses of action, as well as your own feelings.)

math: "Oh my dear sweet Jesus, it's Peter Singer. The guy who was quoted"

Oh, come on, it's Utilitarianism! A major purpose of its existence is to challenge "common sense" conclusions made emotionally with heartless "rational" weighing of outcomes. It works great for some things, extremely poorly for others, and a Utilitarian who isn't talking about killing babies or stealing organs from drunks in the ER or letting buildings full of a thousand people burn down to cure cancer is Utilitarianing wrong. That's like their #1 thought experiment.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:51 PM on July 8, 2015 [22 favorites]


I'm grateful for groups who will tell me how much good my money does, in relation to particular goals, but I don't accept the need for the kind of global calculation that Singer appears to be advocating. His model of effective altruism seems to suggest that I should decide what goals to aim for - not just the most effective way of achieving them - based on maximising the raw amount of return on my investment of time and money. I don't accept that.

Malaria is an easy case -- I definitely want the total number of malaria infections to go down, and GiveWell has helpfully given me the data on the effectiveness of mosquito nets for achieving that goal. Yay, thanks to them I spend my anti-malaria money on nets and not on some less-effective strategy. But I also want a particular economically disadvantaged child in my neighbourhood to do well in his GSCE exams. My personal idea of how to do that "effectively" is to investigate the interventions that are more likely to bring about the outcome in the case of the particular child. Singer's theory seems to require me to instead measure the "effectiveness" of educating the child at all vs the "effectiveness" of fighting malaria, in terms of a welfare maximisation goal. If I adopted that strategy, I would quit tutoring the kid for free and instead use my time to make money I could use to buy mosquito nets. One random British child's exam success is less important, in the grand scheme of total welfare maximisation, than the amount of malaria in the world so it's always going to be "ineffective" to invest time and money in focusing on that one child. Except I'm not a utilitarian, I think it's fine to focus on the welfare of particular individuals within my reach as well as doing what I can for other individuals who, eg, are at risk of malaria. There's always going to be a moral choice to be made in determining how much help to give the people you can see, in your immediate community, and how much to give to the people you can't see, and don't know, whose suffering nevertheless demands a response. I don't think the welfare maximisation calculation does a good job in helping to strike that balance.

Perhaps I've misunderstood the concept and it's actually more modest and more valuable - simply about making sure your chosen ends are being achieved by the most effective means possible. But Singer's framing does make it seem like he's offering it as a tool for the much more ambitious project of choosing which ends are worth trying for at all.
posted by Aravis76 at 3:00 PM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


. A little girl whose life is devoted entirely to making that stitch put it there.

You Can't Tip a Buick: so then what do you do?

Spend slightly more on clothes made by workers operating in good conditions?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:04 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


New Yorker article on Singer from 1999 - The Dangerous Philosopher.

"You can't make these calculations and comparisons in real life. It's bluff,'' Williams told me. "One of the reasons his approach is so popular is that it reduces all moral puzzlement to a formula. You remove puzzlement and doubt and conflict of values, and it's in the scientific spirit. People seem to think it will all add up, but it never does, because humans never do.''
posted by Cassford at 3:55 PM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


I would have found this all more compelling if ... We already [didn't] know that, like, giving poor people actual money - not via loans, just via state disbursements - is one of the most effective things you can do to end poverty [and as a result save lives]

In fairness to the EA movement, one of the most frequently recommended charities, Give Directly, does just that, giving straightforward cash transfers, not loans, to poor people overseas. I have problems with the movement (while acknowledging that I, personally, in fact do have a responsibility to donate a significant portion of my income), but they do tend to respond to evidence.
posted by Acheman at 3:55 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think the observer effect and the history of rebellion being co-opted can be seen as genuine realities without engaging in moral derogation.

Doing violence and suffering it for the sake of others is something people do (and let's face it, forcing someone to work in a sweatshop is ultimately backed by the threat of force).
But presenting that sacrifice is something we’ve (slowly) found intolerable.
Asking the fat man to die for five others - just bringing it up as a social option, is an invasive act.

Conscription is much the same proposition. And social pressure, ethical challenges (you love your country, don’t you?), etc. have been used to push it. And it's just too complex. The fat guy have kids? Who looks after them? etc.

I guess the difference here is between forcing a specific formula vs. forcing people to consider ethical action in their daily lives. Looking at right and wrong vs. a specific mandate.

Derail the trolley, kill the fat man? I don't know.

But maybe call the civil engineers in the planning office...
not to go Capt. Kirk here, but y'know, reduction of complexity in ethical conundrums isn't always an ideal
posted by Smedleyman at 4:31 PM on July 8, 2015


A good summary of this man's contradictions can be found here, and I particularly like this quote:

This overheated outrage piece? Even the story about his mother - what does that really say? That he couldn't handle, emotionally, following through on the implications of his arguments doesn't in itself refute them - everybody already knows and acknowledges that his brand of utilitarianism leads to some conclusions that are at odds with most peoples' moral instincts. Arguably that's why it's worth writing about. It's more than fair for disability activists to challenge his premises about which lives are worth living. And I don't blame anyone for finding his career of constant counterintuitive controversialism tiresome. This:

Oh, come on, it's Utilitarianism! A major purpose of its existence is to challenge "common sense" conclusions made emotionally with heartless "rational" weighing of outcomes. It works great for some things, extremely poorly for others, and a Utilitarian who isn't talking about killing babies or stealing organs from drunks in the ER or letting buildings full of a thousand people burn down to cure cancer is Utilitarianing wrong. That's like their #1 thought experiment.

is a good description. But that article is basically - "nuh uh, killing babies is bad." Thanks Joe, I almost forgot that we are conventionally against that!

And hey, I guess he's doing it all for charity!
posted by atoxyl at 5:31 PM on July 8, 2015


And yet, rather than euthanize his mother when she was suffering from Alzheimer's, Peter Singer instead spent a fairly substantial amount of money for her end-of-life care.

Also I mean is he the only family member who would have a say in this?
posted by atoxyl at 5:37 PM on July 8, 2015


Asking the fat man to die for five others - just bringing it up as a social option, is an invasive act.

Conscription is much the same proposition. And social pressure, ethical challenges (you love your country, don’t you?), etc. have been used to push it. And it's just too complex. The fat guy have kids? Who looks after them? etc.

I guess the difference here is between forcing a specific formula vs. forcing people to consider ethical action in their daily lives. Looking at right and wrong vs. a specific mandate.

Derail the trolley, kill the fat man? I don't know.


Heh. Seems like we were just having this discussion.

The thing about Peter Singer is that the positive elements of his philosophical stance are neither original to nor unique to him - nor to utilitarianism. Radical giving and/or restructuring of the architecture of power and wealth as ways to alleviate suffering have been around for ages. Nor is the idea of ruthless cost-benefit analysis.

The only unique bits seem to be the ones where he rides his epistemological hobby-horse into killing babies and such. Which, okay, thought experiment, fair enough. But when the shock-value thought experiments are all you're really bringing to the table, the fact that people focus on them isn't necessarily just sensationalism.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:45 PM on July 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


The only unique bits seem to be the ones where he rides his epistemological hobby-horse into killing babies and such. Which, okay, thought experiment, fair enough. But when the shock-value thought experiments are all you're really bringing to the table, the fact that people focus on them isn't necessarily just sensationalism.

I think it's completely fair to accuse him of shit-stirring for the sake of shit-stirring. I'm just saying the value contributed by other commentators wagging their fingers saying "can you believe what they're teaching at Princeton these days?" is pretty much nil.
posted by atoxyl at 5:51 PM on July 8, 2015


Peter Singer's sister was in charge of his mother's care, and he said that he would probably have made different choices if it were up to him.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:03 PM on July 8, 2015


I'm not a Peter Singer fan because I think his way of quantifying human life is way too limited - it's like with NICU babies, where you get a huge price tag attached to them for their first year of care, but they are actually health system-wise a good investment because additional resources in the first year result in big improvement, lower health costs and more earning potential in their lifetime as the preemies grow up. And somewhat unsurprisingly, dead babies result in a cost of productivity from grieving family members too. He doesn't quantify enough.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:16 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Peter Singer's sister was in charge of his mother's care, and he said that he would probably have made different choices if it were up to him.

There was another interview - the New Yorker one? - where he did admit that it's hard to have to make those choices when they are real choices about one's own mother. But again I mean of course it is.
posted by atoxyl at 6:46 PM on July 8, 2015


It seems like every discussion of "effective altruism" blatantly ignores and slags the institution we already have for this: government. Despite your crazy uncle's talking points and the blathering of intellectual infants like libertarians, government is an effective tool for claiming from society the means to correct ills and then actually getting the work done, when given a chance to do so.

The idea that business or private organizations are "leaner" or "more effective" or whatever is laughable on its face and does not hold up except in very specific circumstances--often groups applying band-aids to gaping societal stab wounds when working on taking away the knives would be more effective and lead to better long-term results. (It's like no one has ever actually worked for a big company, and that's what aid organizations end up being.)

Our government agencies are not as effective as they could be is often because some elected shit-stain, playing to the prejudices of their (scared, ignorant and therefore hateful) electorate, hampers the actual experts with stupid mandates...or takes away funding so rich people can keep more of their wealth (ie, "we can't afford it").

You can look to a completely private system, such as a large private university, to see the toxic effects that donors have on the institution as a whole when those donors get to dictate what their largesse is spent on. Mostly shiny new buildings and other unneeded claptrap, while basic services go wanting and tuition rises despite insane cash reserves earmarked for other uses.

So much of "effective altruism" is just ego stroking of the givers. It's hard to take personal credit for the workings of good government (though it really should be an enormous source of pride for every citizen). But it's easy to drop "well, I'm a member of Pious Religious Douches Forcefully Indoctrinating Gross Others While Providing Third-World Tourism for Their Members (Who Also Occasionally Build a House Thereby Robbing Local Craftspeople of Even That), have you seen the photos of our work in Costa Rica? Isn't young Reagan cute playing with the non-whites?"
posted by maxwelton at 7:02 PM on July 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


maxwelton: I don't think that's fair. There's a reason the effective altruism types focus on giving in particular third-world countries: they recognize (quite explicitly) that the places where philanthropy can be most effective are those where government doesn't have the capacity to step in. Plus, the kinds of research that these organizations do are often used to inform the design of government programs. Some well-regarded organizations like Deworm the World are even designed to provide advice and expertise to governments on particular challenges.

If anything the whole effective altruism movement is designed to prevent exactly the things you are calling out: building buildings, for instance! Peter Singer's article calls this out directly: "When the entertainment mogul David Geffen gave $100 million for the renovation of the Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center (now to be renamed David Geffen Hall) he could have found better things to do with his money."
posted by goingonit at 7:09 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Government is not some abstract concept that exists to provide "effective altruism". Never has been, never will be - given that governments are, first of all, national (and thus all ways priviledge their own citizens, however defined, first), second of all, outgrowths of cultural and economic forces which shape the society they govern and, at better moments, serve.

I've noticed that when people talk about the virtues of government or of the private sector they are talking about an idealized construction (an uncorrupted democratic state, unpolluted by any real-world flaws; a perfect market architecture in which no one seeks monopoly, everyone plays by the rules without any need of enforcement) which has little to no relation to what government or corporate instutions are in the real world today.

The issue isn't, and never has been, "government or private sector?" Neither side of that equation has some sort of magic advantage. The question is always, "who does this institution (public or private) serve? What constraints are placed on its ability to act? Who enforces those constraints?" Non-governmental actors can be democratic (some unions, NGOs, civil society organizations) and governmental actors can be non-democratic, often using the excuse of those actual experts with stupid mandates you're so fond of to get rid of opposition from those pesky, pesky electorates.

It's not really possible to have Daddy Knows Best and Power To The People as your motto at the same time.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:12 PM on July 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm not the only one that read it as "Pete Seeger" am I?

I was so happy for a moment.
posted by DigDoug at 9:22 AM on July 9, 2015




"In a series of empirical studies ... I have empirically explored the moral behaviour of ethics professors. ... Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany."

"Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) ... Nonetheless, ethicists do embrace more stringent moral norms on some issues, especially vegetarianism and charitable donation."
Honestly a little surprised ethicists don't behave worse than other socioeconomic peers, as in my experience, an awful lot of ethicists are complete dicks. But they didn't actually measure completely dickery, just things like blood donation. But I also generally agree with this:
"I thought, but did not say, B+ sounds good. Maybe that’s what I’m aiming for, too. B+ on the great moral curve of white middle-class college-educated North Americans. Let others get the As."
The more complicated your understanding of morality and ethics gets, the more often you're forced to score yourself a B+.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:09 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


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