Review: The Most Good You Can Do

The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Summary: Singer’s argument for living a life of effective altruism, using evidence and reason to make the most effective decisions to improve the world.

The holidays are often spoken of as the giving season. Indeed, charities make a flurry of appeals during this season, capitalizing both on the holiday spirit, and for most people, the end of the tax year. Peter Singer would contend for a much more thoughtful approach to a lifestyle of giving, deliberate rather than episodic. He speaks of this approach as effective altruism, which he defines as “a philosophy or social movement which applies evidence and reason to work out the most effective ways to improve the world.” For many, far from sacrifice, this life of giving brings deep fulfillment and satisfaction.

It involves some or all of the following:

  • Adopting a modest lifestyle enabling one to donate a large part of one’s income, even more than a tenth.
  • Researching the most effective charities working in the most critical fields toward which one directs one’s giving.
  • Making career choices that allow one to earn as much as they can so they can give as much as they can, rather than living affluently.
  • Spreading the gospel of effective altruism to others so the movement will spread.
  • Consider donations of part of one’s own body to help others–blood, bone marrow, and a kidney.

This life is hedged about by commitments to justice, freedom, equality, and knowledge. Furthermore, it avoids the violation of human rights as a means to some proposed good end.

Singer elaborates these choices of doing the most good one can and defends the one of the most attacked proposals of taking high paying jobs to give more by, among others, citing John Wesley who said, “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” He then turns to our motivations and justifications for giving. He argues that love is not all of what we need. Using reason rather than just responding for emotional appeals allows us to have the greatest impact in our giving and other life decisions.

The last part of his book talks about choosing causes. He introduces organizations that study charitable effectiveness. He argues that many of the things to which we donate, such as cultural and arts organizations do not make “the cut” when we consider the dire needs of people in many parts of the world, people who are often “them” rather than “us.” Here, as elsewhere, Singer includes animal suffering in his argument and contends that supporting efforts to reduce animal suffering at factory farms, including making changes in our diets are part of the movement of effective altruism.

One of the most fascinating implications of this way of thinking is that he believes that, on a rationale basis, there are good reasons to spend money to prevent the possibility of mass extinction events, like an asteroid collision.

It is fascinating, as a Christian, to read Singer’s argument. If the examples he cites are true, there are many individuals who do not share Christian beliefs (and one he mentions who does) who are both more intentional and generous in their giving than most Christians, many of whom do not even give a tithe, or tenth of their income, considered traditionally to be a baseline of giving (one study, commissioned by Christianity Today, indicates that the average is more like 2.5 percent). Furthermore, the intentionality toward making one’s gifts count stands as a challenge to our appeals grounded in evoking sympathetic emotions. Likewise, the rigor of evaluating the effectiveness of what people are being asked to give to is worth attention.

My most significant reservation would have to do with the tight focus on only supporting efforts that alleviate poverty or human or animal suffering. I would affirm his arguments that on the basis of reason and impact alone, these deserve far more attention than they receive. But I am reminded of Mary’s extravagant anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume before his death. I’ve always argued that Mary would likely be the last person to be indifferent to the poor. Might extravagant givers be able to both walk and chew gum, to generously support both the arts, for example, and efforts to alleviate poverty and suffering? Might a community of such givers, bringing tp bear the careful assessments Singer encourages, have far more impact than similar donors in the past, both in the arts and with human poverty and suffering. Theoretically, this would still seem to provide less to efforts to alleviate suffering and poverty. But actually? I wonder if this would be the story. Is this a zero sum game?

Still, the lifestyle Singer describes stands as a challenge to many of us, Christian or not, in the affluent West. For Christians, the challenge is if anything greater. Singer asks us where our treasure is, and how that shapes what we do with our lives. He challenges our consumerism, proposing the greater fulfillment of living modestly and giving extravagantly, though intelligently. For those of us who proclaim pro-life commitments, he challenges how far we will go to pursue a consistently pro-life ethic. Will we give blood, or even a kidney to save the life of someone we don’t know? Will we change our diet if it means fewer creatures suffering in factory farms?

Singer is known for asking uncomfortable questions and for provocative stances. He does not accept the sanctity of all life and has come under criticism for arguing for the choice of euthanizing disabled infants and has argued for newborns not having the same qualities of personhood as adults, differentiating the significance of killing a newborn or fetus from killing an adult. Similarly, there are aspects of his argument foe effective altruism one might disagree with. Whether we concur with his arguments, we must admire him and those like him who live consistently with those arguments and ask whether we are doing as well living by the principles and beliefs we embrace.

One thought on “Review: The Most Good You Can Do

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2022 | Bob on Books

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