Do your charitable donations suck? Are you failing to save lives due to greed you don't even realize you have? Do poor people have the right to take all of our stuff? One of the world's most famous philosophers talked about these very topics with us.
The Australian-born Peter Singer is a professor at Princeton, a founder of the animal rights movement, and one of the most prominent advocates of utilitarian ethics, which call for doing the greatest possible good. He has written extensively on the obligation of the world's wealthy people to help the poor. In his latest book, The Most Good You Can Do, Singer advocates "effective altruism"—using data to direct your charitable giving to the most effective possible charities. (A selection of those effective charities can be found here.)
Earlier this week, we met Singer in a Manhattan coffee shop to talk about charitable giving, inequality, and the inherent absurdity of Lincoln Center.
Gawker: Is the topic of altruism something your thinking has evolved on?
Peter Singer: It certainly has, but it's also something I think the thinking of other people has evolved on. On Sunday evening, I was speaking at Harvard... when [the speaker introducing me] was an undergraduate in philosophy at Harvard, he said they represented my article "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," but it was represented as, "Here's an argument that looks very plausible, but obviously the conclusion's wrong, so spot the fallacy." Whereas now, there's a whole lot of people who are saying, "Here's an argument, the conclusion seems right, and how are we gonna take that into account in our lives?"
Do you feel like the impulse towards altruism has increased in the new generation?
Singer: I think it has, or at least people feel freer to express it. I presume that there's always been some sort of impulse towards altruism, but it's been shut off very often. There were some studies years ago that showed that Americans, in particular, often denied that they were acting altruistically when they clearly were. They sort of thought that if they showed they were acting altruistically, their friends would think they were suckers, or silly or something.
You think people should give away about a third of what they earn, is that right?
Singer: I want people to make a start. I'm not that specific about where they start. I would like people to do something substantial, and I think if people are daunted by the idea of beginning with a high level—even ten percent is very daunting to some people who haven't given much at all before—then start lower. Start with something small, and try to build up from there. Treat it as a kind of personal best. "Last year I gave X percent, this year I'll give X+Y percent."
Do you feel like your thinking on this has moderated a bit over the years, as you try to bring these ideals into the real world?
Singer: Yes, I think I've become a bit more strategic. Not just how do you mount a cogent academic article for an academic journal, but how do you bring this into the real world? How do you persuade people to start acting on it? So that's what's moderated the way I talk about it.
The backlash against your ideas seems to be consistently strong—people seem to have an inherent touchiness about the implication that they're not charitable enough.
Singer: I certainly have found that backlash—not only that they shouldn't feel guilty about not giving enough, but also that I shouldn't be suggesting that some causes to give to are better than others. I'm not really trying to make people feel guilty. There would be no point. From a utilitarian perspective, it would be a bad thing if people just felt guilty and nothing came of that except they felt worse about their lives than they did before. I'd really like people to find that they feel good about giving significantly, because it adds an additional layer of meaning to their lives that's fulfilling.
Do you ever get frustrated by the opposition that your ideas seem to encounter, and the repetitive nature of that opposition?
Singer: It's very frustrating to find my views distorted, whether it's just a crude oversimplification or an out and out falsehood. That's frustrating, because I know when those things appear in the media, I've really got no way of undoing the damage that gets done.
If you accept the benefits of effective altruism, does it not follow that it should just be done by the government? Why not just use the tax system to fund all these good causes?
Singer: The advantage of higher taxes would be that everybody would contribute on a fair basis proportionate to their income. The disadvantage is that governments may not be as effective as smaller NGOs. Governments tend to be more conservative, they're more worried about having some negative PR than they are about actually doing good. And also, of course, they're influenced by the idea of the United States' geopolitical influence. There are exceptions. There are countries that have much more effective aid programs. They tend to be smaller nations without political fingers in such a lot of pies. And in those cases, I could see that as an answer, especially since it's the same countries that historically have had higher tax rates and are not as averse as the Americans to getting taxed. But I really can't see that working for the United States.
Can capitalism solve these problems, ultimately? Is capitalism equipped to address human poverty in the long run?
Singer: I don't think capitalism alone is going to solve the problems, but capitalism supplemented by enough concerned individuals who would both donate some of their resources and lobby governments to prevent some of the possible abuses of capitalism, I think that could deal with the problem of poverty. If we're going to wait for capitalism to disappear, people are going to wait a long time. I think most of them will be dead before that happens. So I don't think that's the right approach. We have to try to do things within the framework we have.
With the U.S. presidential election coming up, do you have any endorsements? Any issues you'd like to see get attention?
Singer: I don't know that any candidate wants my endorsement! I certainly think that America's aid to the global poor is shamefully low, and most Americans have no idea how low it is. All the surveys that ask Americans "How much of the federal budget do you think goes to foreign aid?" they come back with a median figure of 15%. And if you ask them what they think would be the right level, they're somewhere between 5-10%. And the actual level, of course, is 1%... The other big issue is climate change. Climate change needs to come up. That's one of the critical moral challenges we face in this century.
Economic inequality has become a big part of the political conversation in America. How does that tie into the poverty and altruism issues you're writing about?
Singer: I agree that inequality in America is a problem, but I think that what a lot of Americans don't realize is that if you look at the picture globally, they're the top 1%. Not all Americans, but if you're $52,000 a year, that puts you in the top 1% globally. So if people think it's bad that there's this top 1% in the United States, they should think it's much worse that there is this much steeper inequality.
What do you think poor people are justified in doing to change their situation? Is it time for revolutions across the world?
Singer: Even though I think that we're wrong to share so little with them, and perpetuate systems that are unfair to them, if you start saying that entitles them to revolutions, you're really endorsing the use of violence, and I fear that's just going to lead to more violence, and the result is not going to be better for the poor or for the rich. So I don't see violent revolution as having any real hope of changing the situation. The poor just don't have the means to carry that out. They might have the means to embrace terrorism, but I think that would be a terrible thing to do, both for its direct consequences, and because it would make life much more difficult for people who are proposing that we should be helping people. You don't want to help people if even only a small minority of them are killing innocent people. So I think that would be a disaster. I would like to see them make their voices heard in non-violent ways.
Do you believe the world is constantly progressing towards utopia as time moves on?
Singer: Well I believe the world is progressing. I don't know about towards utopia. Steven Pinker assembles the evidence in "Better Angels of Our Nature" that the chances that any child born today will die a violent death at the hands of fellow humans are lower than they've ever been before. And that is progress. We see [progress also] in the falling child mortality documented by the United Nations.
You like to use donations to the arts as an example of a sort of bad choice of charity. What is the allure of charities like that, rather than lifesaving charities?
Singer: With a lot of people—not people who are giving many millions, but smaller donors—they seem to be giving on impulse. They seem to be giving in an emotionally directed way, without having that reflective check on whether the charity that they're emotionally attracted to is really as good as it seems to be.
A lot of people don't think that one charity can be compared to another—that they're all good in their own way.
Singer: Do you think there are people who actually think that having a renovated concert hall for wealthy Manhattanites is as important as, let's say, restoring sight for blind people? For the $500 million [that it will take to restore Lincoln Center], you could have 5 million people able to see, or prevented from going blind [through an aid group like Hellen Keller International]. You could have a million women who are social outcasts because they suffer from fistula have their lives back together again. I don't think anybody who sits down and understands, on the one hand, you can renovate this concert hall, on the other hand, you can do this or this or this, would really think that the renovated concert hall is somehow just as good, or that you can't say one is better than the other. That doesn't seem plausible.