Can altruism be more effective?

  Moral philosopher Peter Singer gave a compelling argument today at the RSA for the utilitarian approach to charity. He believes that not only should we give more of our incomes away but we should make sure it is as effective as possible. 

You get much better value for your money investing in developing countries than in developed. It costs much more money to make an equivalent difference in Britain than in a developing country. 

He is a supporter of the Effective Altruism movement which he says originated in Oxford and has been growing in influence for the past decade. He cited organisations such as Giving What We Can which encourage  people to give 10% of salary but also promote an analytical approach to its allocation. 

The idea which initially sounds very appealing isn’t without its problems, however. Singer himself raised several questions: How do you decide what the best thing to do? How do you compare cataract removal with maleria net? How to treat non-human animals compared to humans?  How do you measure the value of giving to organisations which try to change government policy rather than directly intervene? 

Despite these challenges he believes trying to allocate resources based on effectiveness could transform philanthropy. 

“Most people don’t research and even those who do mostly do very little,” he said. Any improvement would be a good thing. Similarly he resists giving out a target for the percentage of income which should be given. Much better to start somewhere and then review. 

His ideas create discomfort though. Do they mean we shouldn’t invest in charities serving developed countries? Isn’t the logical conclusion a reductionist one where the single most effective organisation gets all the money? How do you value volunteering rather than cash? 

His answer is again pragmatic – applying an evidence-based approach to giving (time or money) will make the world better, even if it is far from perfectly implemented. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *