How & How Not to Be Good

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…

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