Derek Goodwin

Peter Singer at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter for rescued farm animals, Watkins Glen, New York, 2006

For Peter Singer, “effective altruism” is “an emerging movement” with the potential of spreading to a point when “people all over the world” may be ready to commit themselves to “a new ethical ideal: to do the most good they can.” Singer is clear that applying this ideal will involve departures from normal practice, including choosing to live very modestly in order to be able to give a substantial part of one’s income to good causes, adopting a high-earning profession in order to give still more, and being ready to donate a part of oneself (blood, bone marrow, or a kidney, for example) so that others can live longer.

Altruists may not feel that what they are doing is a sacrifice; they may find personal fulfillment in giving away much of their income and some of their body parts. This does not detract from their altruism, since “their overriding concern is to do the most good they can.” At present “there are still relatively few effective altruists”; but Singer believes this situation could change. He is associated with the Centre for Effective Altruism at Oxford University, which appears to be in the business of preparing people for what Singer describes as “ethical careers.” Once the idea of devoting one’s life to doing the most good no longer seems strange, he believes, effective altruism may “become mainstream.” If this happens, Singer expects that the new ideal would “spread more rapidly.”

Currently teaching at Princeton and the University of Melbourne, Singer is known for his attacks on “speciesism,” a term he popularized. In his 1975 book, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, Singer condemned speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of other species.” In books and articles he has argued that it would be wrong to give greater weight to the interests of some profoundly disabled human beings than to normally functioning dogs or chimpanzees. He reiterates this view in The Most Good You Can Do, where he writes: “We wrong animals whenever we give less weight to their interests than we would, in the same circumstances, give to a human with similar capacities.”

Singer bases these views on a version of utilitarianism—the philosophy, associated with nineteenth-century British thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, according to which the purpose of morality is to maximize value wherever it exists in the world. Utilitarian thinkers have differed about what exactly it is that has value. Some have believed the fundamental good to be the satisfaction of preferences—Singer’s view—while for others it has been pleasure or happiness.

What utilitarian thinkers are agreed on is that more of what is good is always better than less, and we should live so that we do as much good as possible. Some have maintained that maximizing the good is compatible with retaining much of generally accepted morality, while others (such as Bentham and Mill) have demanded radical revisions in prevailing moral beliefs. Singer’s version of utilitarianism is of the radical variety. He has little interest in squaring utilitarianism with prevailing moral attitudes. Instead he views the morally counterintuitive results of utilitarianism as signs of its superior rationality.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer tells us that one of the sources of the movement for effective altruism was an article that he wrote in 1972 while he was a junior lecturer in Oxford called “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” in which he argued that “given the great suffering that occurs during famines and similar disasters, we ought to give large portions of our income to disaster relief funds.” In the article he suggested that “there is no logical stopping place” in giving away one’s income for such a cause “until we reach the point of marginal utility—that is, the point at which by giving more, one would cause oneself and one’s family to lose as much as the recipients of one’s aid would gain.” Judged by the test of marginal utility, Singer admits he may be failing to live ethically. He and his wife, he tells us, were only giving away “about ten percent of our modest income” when he wrote the article. Since then the percentage has increased, and they are now “giving away about one-third of what we earn and aiming to get to half, but that still isn’t anywhere near the point of marginal utility.”

Singer goes on to describe the lives of others who have taken up effective altruism. We learn of Julia Wise, who believes that “every dollar she spends is taken out of the hands of someone who needs it more than she does,” and who when considering buying a portion of ice cream “would constantly ask herself, ‘Do I need this ice cream as much as a woman living in poverty elsewhere in the world needs to get her child vaccinated?’” This “made grocery shopping a maddening experience,” until she and her husband decided how much they would give away, drew up a budget based on what was left, and Julia no longer had to scrimp on ice cream. Addressing Singer’s class, she confessed that “ice cream is really important to my happiness.” Similar reasoning led her to overcome her belief that it would be immoral to have children, which she strongly wished to do: she decided that if she could look forward to being a parent she would be “of more use to the world” than she would be “if she were ‘a broken-down altruist.’”


Aaron Moore, an Australian international aid worker and artist, on discovering he was in the top one percent of the human species as measured by income (though he didn’t own a house or car), sold his possessions and donated those he believed would not sell to the Salvation Army, so that he was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. “Is it okay, he asked, for us to be going to movies and drinking chai lattes while 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty?”

Zell Kravinsky, another speaker at Singer’s class and a real estate multimillionaire, gave almost his entire fortune to charity, but feeling he still had not done enough to help others, he arranged with a hospital to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger. Citing scientific studies, Kravinsky reasoned that not making a donation of his kidney would mean he valued his life four thousand times more than that of a stranger. Singer writes approvingly that Kravinsky “puts his altruism in mathematical terms.”

In a similar vein, Singer quotes from an e-mail he received from a student at another university, who wrote: “Last Tuesday, I bit the utilitarian bullet: I anonymously donated my right kidney to whoever could use it the most…. The idea of donating a kidney popped into my head in an Ethics class.”

From the tone of Singer’s descriptions of these and others he regards as effective altruists, it is clear that he expects his readers to share his admiration for them. Why Singer thinks these people are admirable is an interesting question. The reason is not that they have strong emotions of empathy for the people they benefit. In a chapter entitled “Is Love All We Need?,” Singer is explicit that effective altruism “does not require the kind of strong emotional empathy that people feel for identifiable individuals.”

Indeed, in Singer’s view empathy can be an obstacle to effective altruism. Citing a study in which one group of people was shown a photograph of a single child who needed an expensive life-saving drug and another group was shown photographs of eight children all of whose lives could be saved for the same sum, he reports that those who were shown the photo of the single child gave more. Singer is indignant:

To effective altruists, this is an absurd outcome, and if emotional empathy is responsible for it, then so much the worse for that kind of empathy. Effective altruists are sensitive to numbers and to cost per life saved or year of suffering prevented.

For Singer, the appeal of altruism comes from the fact that in his view it is required by reason. When effective altruists feel empathy, it is because “their recognition of the importance of acting for the good of the whole brings about an emotional response within them.” In holding this rationalistic view Singer departs from earlier thinkers who have promoted altruism as a social movement. Though we hear nothing of its history in this book, the belief that organized altruism can be a means of improving human life is not new. The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889–1968) founded the Center for Creative Altruism at Harvard University in the late 1940s, in the belief that altruism could be organized as a force for good. Unlike Singer, Sorokin thought of altruism as concern for others motivated by love and empathy, the study of which he termed “amitology.” Sorokin did not claim to be the first to have suggested that altruism could be turned into a social movement. Correctly, he credited the idea to the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who in fact invented the term “altruism” (from the Latin alteri, or “others”).

An exponent of what he called positive philosophy—a system of ideas based on the belief that science alone can provide genuine knowledge—Comte created an influential movement, now largely forgotten, that in its heyday helped shape the thinking of figures such as the novelist George Eliot and the Social Darwinist theorist Herbert Spencer. Comte did not believe that altruism could be promoted simply, or even mainly, by an improvement in human powers of reasoning.1 A complex system of practices was needed, including daily rituals, which Comte propagated as part of a positivist church that he founded. Some of these practices—such as touching at regular intervals the parts of one’s skull that were associated, according to theories of phrenology that were popular at the time, with altruistic impulses—may seem eccentric today.


Singer makes no reference, here or so far as I know in any of his writings, to Comte, and he differs from the French thinker in suggesting that strong emotions of empathy may be detrimental to effective altruism. Yet there are some clear parallels between Comte’s way of thinking and Singer’s version of utilitarianism. One of the central tenets of positivism was that ethics should become a branch of science. Ethical dilemmas were soluble problems like those found in chemistry and physics. By applying the methods of science—observation, experimentation, and measurement—moral quandaries could be resolved in ways that left no room for doubt. In this positivist view moral questions had objective answers, which could be discovered by anyone who possessed the necessary knowledge and powers of reasoning. Moral disagreement could only be a result of ignorance or irrationality.

Singer’s view is not dissimilar. Considering how someone should donate $100,000, he maintains that “there are objective answers to the question, What is the best cause?” In a choice between donating funds to an art museum or using the funds to cure blindness among poor people in developing countries, he has no doubt that “giving them to art museums…would not do the most good.” He arrives at this conclusion by a process of computation: “Suppose [a] new museum wing will cost $50 million, and over the fifty years of its expected useful life one million people will enjoy seeing it each year, for a total of fifty million enhanced museum visits. Since you would contribute 1/500th of the cost, you could claim credit for the enhanced aesthetic experiences of one hundred thousand visitors.” He then goes on to argue that, if the cost of a cure for blindness is $100 per person, one thousand people could be cured of blindness. Having made this calculation, it seems to Singer incontrovertible that sparing a thousand people from blindness is better than enhancing the aesthetic experience of a hundred thousand museum visitors.

It is not only in questions of charitable giving that Singer believes there are objectively right answers. He considers the question whether guards at Auschwitz could be justified in serving in this role if they believed correctly that refusing to do so “would have led only to their replacement by someone else, perhaps someone who would have been even more brutal.” After considering and rejecting some counterarguments, Singer concludes:

Strictly utilitarian effective altruists could not accept these views and so would have to accept the implication that, on a plausible reading of the relevant facts, at least some of the guards at Auschwitz were not acting wrongly.

Anyone who thinks otherwise, Singer believes, is mistaken.

It is evident from these examples that effective altruism, as Singer understands it, requires some radical departures from common moral beliefs. For him this is not a weakness but a strength of the ideal he is advocating. But why should anyone give up their moral convictions in order to do the most good? For most human beings, living ethically is not about doing the most good. It has to do with holding to precepts of right conduct, such as those that enjoin them to discharge obligations to those for whom they are responsible; cultivating virtues and striving to avoid vices; and refusing to perform actions they believe are wrong in all circumstances.

Living ethically may require careful reasoning; but the purpose of such reasoning is not normally to establish what will do the most good. Rather, it is to balance the claims of a variety of goods; to determine how different values are to be applied in the circumstances and decide which of them is most important in cases of conflict. In some cases there may be no single right answer to these questions.

In the view of most people, a good life need not maximize anything. According to Singer, these people—the great majority of human beings that have ever lived—are being irrational. But what reason is there to accept Singer’s view that a rational human being will aim to do the most good? After all, none of the canonical utilitarian thinkers has ever been able to explain why anyone should devote their lives to maximizing value in the world. Neither Bentham nor Mill was able to provide a convincing justification for the utilitarian principles that, in different ways, they both held to be fundamental in moral reasoning. Even the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), who is generally, and rightly, considered to be the greatest utilitarian thinker, confessed that he could find no such justification.

Two principles seemed to Sidgwick self-evident: a principle of rational egoism, which implied that selfishness was as reasonable a basis for living as concern for others, and a principle of rational benevolence, requiring that one should aim not at the good of anyone in particular but at the good of all. Sidgwick’s difficulty, which he called “the dualism of practical reason,” came from the fact that these two principles are in conflict, and as far as he could determine this conflict was rationally insoluble. At the end of The Methods of Ethics, Sidgwick felt forced to admit “an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct.”2

Sidgwick is important for Singer, since it is only when Singer discusses him that he presents anything resembling an extended defense of the utilitarian view that morality requires doing the most good. Unfortunately Singer’s account of Sidgwick’s thinking is patchy and misleading. Correctly, he writes that Sidgwick “held that there are self-evident fundamental moral principles, or axioms, which we grasp through our reasoning capacity”; but he omits to inform the reader that Sidgwick believed these principles to be irreconcilably at odds. About Sidgwick, Singer writes:

For our purposes the most relevant of these principles are as follows: “The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realised in the one case than in the other.”

To this statement Sidgwick adds another claim, this time about what a rational being should aim at: “And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally—so far as it is attainable by my efforts—not merely at a particular part of it.” From these two principles Sidgwick deduces what he calls “the maxim of benevolence” in an abstract form: “Each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him.”

Singer comments that this is “exactly the kind of principle that would guide receptive people to do the things that…effective altruists do.” If we were purely rational beings, he goes on, we would “see that it is more rational to aim at the good of all than the good of some smaller group.”

Given that Sidgwick spent much of his life struggling to reconcile principles he believed to be rationally self-evident and in his own view failed to do so, pronouncing one of these principles—“the maxim of benevolence”—to be “the most relevant” is question-begging and disingenuous. For Sidgwick, rational egoism and impartial benevolence could be reconciled only if “the moral order of the world” ensured that practicing such benevolence would be in everyone’s long-term self-interest. This was a belief derived from religion for which Sidgwick—who resigned from his fellowship at Trinity College when he could no longer accept the tenets of the Church of England as was required of fellows of Cambridge colleges at the time—could find no rational basis.3 But while he rejected Christianity, Sidgwick never wholly freed his thinking from theism. His reference to “the point of view…of the Universe” is an example of this influence. Unless some kind of presiding deity is assumed, the universe has no point of view.

That value should be maximized appears obvious to Singer. Nowhere in this book does he tell us why this should be so. As a result the claim that living ethically means doing the most good is left hanging in midair. Plausibly, the idea that practical rationality must mean maximizing something belongs in economics (if it belongs anywhere) rather than ethics. Those who believe it would be wrong to serve as a guard in a Nazi death camp even if doing so would prevent greater suffering are not guilty of any flaw in reasoning. They are refusing to be complicit in practices they believe to be categorically and intrinsically wrong. To surrender this belief for the sake of a utilitarian theory of “negative responsibility” (which asserts that one is responsible for evils that one could have prevented) would be a fundamental compromise of their moral integrity. If this is required by utilitarian ethics, so much the worse for utilitarianism.

Singer considers the argument, made some forty years ago by the late British philosopher Bernard Williams, according to which the utilitarian ideal of doing the most good requires people to step aside from the projects and attachments that give meaning to their lives. Adopting “the point of view of the universe,” Williams argued, is an impossibility4; but to the extent that universal benevolence is adopted as an overriding goal, it has the effect of alienating people from their convictions.

Singer rejects this argument on the ground that effective altruists

are, to a greater extent than most people, living in accord with their values—that is, with their core conviction that we ought to live our lives so as to do the most good we can.

Later Singer writes:

Effective altruists seem to have achieved what Williams thought cannot be done. They are able to detach themselves from the more personal considerations that otherwise dominate the way in which we live.

But such detachment illustrates the alienation that Williams criticizes. Whether or not they find fulfillment in the way they live, effective altruists are bound to view their lives not as ends in themselves but as means to the greatest good.

Not everyone will share Singer’s unqualified admiration for the people he describes. In the eyes of many, having a body part removed in order to “bite the utilitarian bullet” or obsessing about the moral iniquity of ice cream will be seen as examples of lives deformed by a simple-minded and disputable theory. Nor will many accept that ordinary human attachments fall short of some higher ideal of rational impartiality. If people prefer to give priority to the needs of their own children over the needs of others living in poverty, or the well-being of a loved one with Alzheimer’s over that of a dog or chimpanzee, they are not backsliding from an ideal of universal benevolence; they are honoring the ethical understandings that shape their lives.

In contrast, for effective altruists, whose “overriding concern is to do the most good they can,” any weight they give to “more personal considerations” can only be a moral lapse as well as a failure of rationality. It is true that a type of utilitarianism can be developed that takes account of these human frailties—a split-level theory in which utilitarian reasoning applies when we are theorizing about the nature of value, while in practical ethics we rely on non-utilitarian motives and practices. But an indirect version of utilitarianism of this kind still implies that in giving special weight to our personal goals and relationships we are being irrational and less than fully moral. If we make allowances for our human frailties, it is in order to be “of more use to the world.” If we were “purely rational beings,” we would care only about “the good of the whole.”

It may be that some good can come from effective altruism. Singer is right that some kinds of suffering—that involved in factory farming of animals, for example—are given insufficient attention in current moral thinking. Even so, a life shaped by a thin universal benevolence is an unattractive prospect. For many of us a world in which our own projects and attachments were accorded value only insofar as they enabled us to maximize the general good, where human values were subject to a test of marginal utility and the relief of suffering given overriding priority over aesthetic pleasure, would be hardly worth living in. Happily there is no reason to suppose that any such world will come into being. If history is our guide we can expect Singer’s movement for effective altruism to go the way of Comte’s church of positivism, which has passed into history as an example of the follies of philosophy.