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The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Joel Marks critiques Peter Singer’s popular ethics.

The Most Good You Can Do is a marvelously provocative and intriguing book. We would expect no less from Peter Singer, who has been bringing out such books for forty years, at the rate of one per annum. He has become downright notorious for defending positions such as infanticide, euthanasia, sports doping, and bestiality, and yet anyone who has heard him speak can attest to his dispassionate, open-minded, and rational manner.

The key to Singer’s particular beliefs has always been his uncompromising espousal of the ethical philosophy called utilitarianism. Thus, his breakout book, Animal Liberation (1975), about the cause with which he is most identified, derived from his simply having taken utilitarianism seriously. Utilitarianism holds that one ought always to do that which will have the best overall consequences. Singer’s insight – which in fact was shared by utilitarianism’s classic expounders, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick – was that this dictum embraces all sentient beings. What matters, then, are the consequences of one’s actions for all animals, and not just for human beings. From this it follows, by Singer’s reasoning, that almost all current use of other animals for human purposes should cease forthwith.

In a similarly straightforward way, the present book draws out practical implications from the central utilitarian imperative to maximize the good. This time the focus is on philanthropy. Right off the bat we can see that the notion could pose a problem for Singer because the very word ‘philanthropy’ literally means love (phílos in Greek) for humanity (ánthropos in Greek), but of course Singer would want us to be concerned about nonhumans as well. (Oddly Singer does not mention this, although he devotes a chapter to the substance of this point, if not its etymology.) But Singer also has an issue with the ‘phil’ part of the word (although, again, he does not comment on the etymology). For Singer is at pains to impress on us the importance of numerical calculation over emotional responsiveness. ‘Is Love All We Need?’ is the title of one of his chapters, and Singer’s answer is decidedly: quite the contrary. Singer maintains – indeed, this is the book’s main claim – that in order to be truly ethical in our giving, we should take a cold-eyed, actuarial approach to philanthropy. Singer labels this ‘effective altruism’, and what this book does is take that green eyeshade and, so to speak, run with it.

blindness malaria
Is money better spent on preventing malaria than on helping the blind?
Blind man photo © Ravishankar Ayyakkannu 2011. Malaria patient photo © Rodd Waddington 2014

The results are sweeping. They are also often sufficiently counterintuitive to raise the eyebrows of anyone not wearing Singer’s eyeshade. So for example, Singer frowns on donating to an art museum when you might instead contribute to a charity that saves lives in a developing country. By the same token, albeit seemingly at odds with the do-gooder stereotype, Singer applauds earning gobs of money on Wall Street rather than being a social worker or even a medical doctor, provided you will donate most of your earnings to helping the poorest of the poor in the most cost-effective ways. And, he notes, this could be so even if some of your investments caused harm, provided only that the good accomplished by your philanthropy will ‘outweigh’ it (p.51). Never one to avoid controversy, Singer also turns a jaundiced eye on charities that provide guide dogs to the blind or that give cows to poor people, in this case not because of animal exploitation, but because the same money could do so much more good if spent on bednets to prevent malaria.

Effective altruism is nothing short of an entire ethics of how to live life. Philanthropy (so-called) is thereby transformed from a residual component of our existence into its guiding theme. It is the full flowering and implementation of utilitarianism. From deciding whether to eat out, to deciding whether to have children, from choosing a mate to choosing an occupation, every facet of one’s life is to be assessed in terms of its payoff for the welfare of all sentient beings on this planet (and on others if we could affect them). And since resources are finite, this will mean in practice that our focus should always be on those in the most need. Specifically for someone, say, in the United States, this will likely mean helping impoverished human beings overseas and nonhuman beings in all countries where habitats of wild animals are being destroyed and/or domestic animals are caught up in industrial commodification. I am also pleased to see that Singer has put planetary defense against asteroids (he might even better have mentioned comets) on the ethical map.

Feelings & Calculations

Clearly there is much to like and also much to be astonished if not outright outraged by in Singer’s proposals. Certainly nothing that he says can be blithely dismissed; his ideas always merit thoughtful engagement equivalent to his own. For example, it would be easy enough to label him ‘hard-hearted’. But despite appearances, and at times even despite his own statements, I see in Singer’s philosophy a powerful core of feelings. Thus, while he dismisses ‘warm-glow’ giving, such as to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which, sometimes at significant expense, grants the wishes of children suffering from life-threatening diseases, Singer approvingly tells the tale of a graduate student who donates five percent of her modest income to the Fistula Foundation, “which, for about $450, performs surgery [in the developing world] to repair… a condition that causes young women … to leak urine and feces… as a result of which they often become social outcasts for the rest of their lives” (p.33). Now if that doesn’t pack a punch, what would?

It is remarkable indeed that in a book which is all about doing the math to figure out how to give most effectively, the bulk of the text seems devoted to anecdotes. But even when the math really does make a difference, heartstrings must be pulled in the end. For example, if you found out that $10,000 would grant the wish of one dying child in the U.S. but save the lives of fifty children in another country, why would you give to the overseas charity if you simply didn’t care about people in other countries?

This sort of question is precisely what so exercises Singer. Research has shown that we are far more sensitive to local suffering or vivid images of individual pain than to statistics. We can also understand evolutionarily why this would be the case, given the small-group settings in which our species evolved. This is why Singer is so mistrustful of a reliance on feelings for doing the right thing, which for him means maximizing the good. But how can our feelings or other psychic tendencies be overridden if they are, as it were, hard-wired?

Peter Singer
Peter Singer

Singer argues that this is a job for quantitative reasoning. But why should reason work where emotion has failed? In fact Singer’s book is addressed, explicitly at times, to people who are already disposed to quantitative thinking, such as students at MIT. But these, apparently, are a definite minority. So his proposal can sound elitist, as if to say, we ‘brights’ (to use Daniel Dennett’s word) will strategize the most effective actions from our abstract heights, while the plebs, who can be motivated only be feelings – the aid workers toiling in the field, etc – will carry them out on the ground. But even more to the critical point is that (as seems obvious to me) reason must itself appeal to feelings if it is to have traction. Perhaps Singer would not deny this. His bottom line may simply be that reason and emotion need to work in concert. And since emotion tends to receive the most press, he has taken to emphasizing the contribution reason, and in particular the numbers, must make to enable us to do the most good. If this is what Singer is about, I can only applaud it.

Facts & Theories

What dissatisfactions with Singer’s argument remain, could then be attributed to some of its particulars rather than to his general thesis. Those particulars have to do with both facts and theory. Regarding the facts, there are obviously countless occasions when what is actually the case will have crucial bearing on the legitimacy of our ethical response. Thus, in the example above, if the cost of granting children’s wishes or of performing fistula surgery has been miscalculated, then the ethical conclusion Singer draws might not follow. But this would in no way affect the validity of his general prescription to decide on the basis of comparative costs and benefits.

However, that prescription could itself come under fire on theoretical grounds. I note, for instance, that a great many of Singer’s particular arguments in this book are not only anecdotal but also involve speculations about the relevant facts. The sad fact is that we know very few facts about the effects of our actions. In fact, the particular kind of facts that utilitarianism calls on us to consider – the long-term consequences of our actions, projects and policies – may be utterly beyond human reach. For one thing, consequences tend to branch out at an exponential rate as time goes by. For another, assessing the net benefit of these consequences becomes problematic when you consider that different people value outcomes differently. Finally, it is not only the net result of such a mushrooming sequence that must be known, but ultimately its value relative to the net results of all alternative options. Only that action whose consequences have the highest relative net value would be the one recommended, indeed required, by utilitarianism. But which action this was could never be known.

Singer has certainly adopted a less rigorous approach to calculating consequences in this book, but to me this only highlights the ultimate inadequacy of utilitarianism as a guide to life. For if it is the facts and nothing but the facts that can decide ethical issues, but these facts can never be known, then there is always going to be a lot of room for special pleading and casuistry to use whatever facts lie ready to hand or are seeming-plausibly prognosticated to support whatever happens to be one’s favored policy. It is well-traveled territory in philosophy that such analyses can lead even to outrageous ethical conclusions (eg eugenics, slavery). But even without going down that route, to show the problem of calculating ethical consequences I need only observe that two of Singer’s own philanthropic heroes – Bill Gates and Bono – have reached their superstar, and hence super-beneficent, statuses by their single-minded and all-consuming devotion to their geek pastime, or to making music. Had they instead devoted themselves to doing the most good, they might still be tinkering or jamming in their garages.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer does not in fact insist that every one of us strive to do the most good, not to mention actually achieve it. He admits his own shortcomings in this regard, even when he believes the best thing to do is known and doable by him. Instead, the book can be read simply as urging us – with enlightening and compelling examples, as well as references to helpful resources – to try to live in accordance with informed and rational reflection on our major and minor life choices; and who could argue with that?

© Prof. Joel Marks 2016

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven, and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. Read other pieces by Joel at www.docsoc.com.

The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer, Yale UP, 224 pps, £15, 2015, ISBN:0300180276

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