Nigel Warburton: Good evening, every­body. I’m Nigel Warburton, and I’m delight­ed to wel­come you to this event, London Thinks, at Conway Hall, which is the home of the Conway Hall Ethical Society, who are pre­sent­ing this lec­ture. And they’re doing that along with Effective Altruism, Giving What We Can, and it’s all in aid of the Against Malaria Foundation. And amaz­ing they’ve raised more than £3,000 through this even already.

I should also men­tion, if you haven’t noticed already, that Newham Bookshop will be sell­ing copies of Peter’s books and some of mine, even, out­side in the foy­er after­wards and Peter’s very hap­py to sign books, as I am. And again amaz­ing­ly, Newham Bookshop have offered to donate mon­ey from the sales to the foun­da­tion Against Malaria. So this is unusu­al. You don’t often go to a phi­los­o­phy talk where just by show­ing up you do some good.

But before you get too smug, just remem­ber that if you paid for it and hadn’t shown up, there was quite a queue of peo­ple out­side who would quite hap­pi­ly have paid a sec­ond time. So if you’re an effec­tive altru­ist, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be in the room now. You should’ve sold your seat.

Now, before we begin prop­er­ly, I’ve just got to tell you where the fire doors are in case you haven’t noticed. There are three. There’s one behind you, one to my right, and one here, clear­ly marked Exit.” In the unlike­ly event of a fire, try and leave slow­ly and in an order­ly fash­ion, and obvi­ous­ly go out through one of the des­ig­nat­ed fire exits. But appro­pri­ate­ly, you’re being asked to con­gre­gate, in that event, by the bronze bust of Bertrand Russell, which is in Red Lion Square. And if you’re not sure what Bertrand Russell looks like, think of a kind of wiz­ened, genial elf.

So the for­mat for this evening is fair­ly straight­for­ward. After my intro­duc­tion, Peter’s going to deliv­er a lec­ture on effec­tive altru­ism. We’ll have a short inter­change there, two or three ques­tions. And then we’ll open it up for dis­cus­sion. There are two mics that will rove both upper and low­er tiers, and you’ll be invit­ed to ask ques­tions. I’ll say this now and I’ll say it at the end of the lec­ture as well: it would be very good if your ques­tions are in the form of ques­tions rather than short state­ments from the floor. That’s going to pro­duce the best effect for every­body here, I think. And obvi­ous­ly there are a lot of peo­ple here, so we want to give as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble a chance to ask Peter about effec­tive altru­ism.

[I’d] just also like to say you can sup­port Conway Hall Ethical Society events, pro­grams, and lec­tures by becom­ing a mem­ber, and there should be forms on your seats. Or if you can’t find those, there’s a web site where you can join.

So I was delight­ed to be able to intro­duce Peter Singer, who’s one of my heroes. He’s a bril­liant writer, a bril­liant philoso­pher. I don’t always agree with him. I’m not sure every­body in the room will agree with him. But I don’t think you can deny that he makes you think, and I’m sure that he’s going to give a pro­found and inter­est­ing lec­ture tonight. Please save your ques­tions till the end. I know it may be dif­fi­cult for some peo­ple to do that, but it’s very impor­tant that he gets a chance to put for­ward clear­ly his account of effec­tive altru­ism.

If you haven’t encoun­tered effec­tive altru­ism before, my take on it is that it’s bang for bucks altru­ism.” The idea is that you get the best effect from every pen­ny that you spend, even moment that you spend doing some­thing good for oth­er peo­ple. But I’ll leave it to Peter, who is the expert, and thank you very much.

Peter Singer: Thanks very much, Nigel, for that intro­duc­tion. Thank you all for com­ing, and thank you all for con­tribut­ing already, as Nigel said, to doing good in the world.

So what I’m going to do now is to give you a kind of quick run-through of The Most Good You Can Do, which is the title of a new book that I’ve writ­ten and relates to effec­tive altru­ism.

The first ques­tion that you might have if you’re not famil­iar with this idea already is what is effec­tive altru­ism? And now we can go to Wikipedia. Effective altru­ism is a rel­a­tive­ly new move­ment, so you couldn’t have done this five years ago, maybe not even three years ago. But now you can, and it will tell you that this is what it is:

Effective altru­ism is a phi­los­o­phy and social move­ment that applies evi­dence and rea­son to deter­mine the most effec­tive ways to improve the world.
Effective altru­ism,” Wikipedia, (accessed April 6, 2015).

When it says it’s a phi­los­o­phy, I take that in the broad sense. People some­times talk about, what’s your phi­los­o­phy of life? What’s your way of think­ing about how you want to live? It’s a phi­los­o­phy in that sense, rather than a kind of for­mal sys­tem that’s been worked out by any par­tic­u­lar philoso­pher. It’s also a social move­ment, an emerg­ing social move­ment, one which has orga­ni­za­tions involved with it. There’s no sin­gle over­ar­ch­ing orga­ni­za­tions, but there are a lot of dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions, and there are effec­tive altru­ist groups in London and else­where. So if you want to con­nect with that, it’s avail­able.

And that’s one of the things that makes it excit­ing to be talk­ing about this at this par­tic­u­lar time, when there is I feel some­thing new going on among peo­ple who want to think again about how they want to do live their lives, what they want to do with their lives. It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly a move­ment of peo­ple of the Millennial Generation. That is, peo­ple who’ve come of age since the year 2000. But not only. There are also a num­ber of peo­ple of more like my age who are feel­ing that it helps them to con­nect with val­ues that per­haps they held some­time before, and val­ues that maybe slipped away dur­ing the pur­suit of their career or rais­ing a fam­i­ly but that they still want to come back to.

And as you see it talks about using rea­son and evi­dence. Nigel was absolute­ly right in say­ing it’s about get­ting the most bang for your buck, but a ques­tion then is raised is, so how do you get the most bang for your buck? Well, you need evi­dence and rea­son­ing to think about that. You also need to think about the val­ues, because just to talk about the most bang maybe is okay. I think that expres­sion comes from mil­i­tary ideas of build­ing weapons, the cost-effectiveness of weapons. Well, you can talk about the biggest bang if you’re build­ing bombs, I sup­pose. But what we’re talk­ing about is, as this sug­gests, doing the most to improve the world, and peo­ple might have dif­fer­ent ideas about what will do most to improve the world, so that’s some­thing that we clear­ly need to talk about.

Here are some of these val­ues, not tak­en from some­thing I wrote but tak­en from some­one called Holden Karnofsky, who’s played a role in the move­ment that I’ll tell you about as I move on.

What counts as improv­ing the world?
Some char­ac­ter­is­tic EA val­ues

  • Take a uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive.
  • Well-being mat­ters, so suf­fer­ing & pre­ma­ture death are bad.
  • Animal suf­fer­ing counts. (How much?)
  • Other prin­ci­ples (jus­tice, equal­i­ty, fair­ness) and morals rules mat­ter in so far as they lead to bet­ter con­se­quences — EAs dif­fer on whether they mat­ter intrin­si­cal­ly.
  • We should seek to max­i­mize expect­ed val­ue (pos­si­bly, sub­ject to moral rules that are absolute side-constraints).

cf. Holden Karnofsky, Deep val­ue judg­ments and world­view char­ac­ter­is­tics”

Just to run through this briefly, what he’s say­ing is char­ac­ter­is­tic val­ues. So as I said, there’s no sin­gle EA par­ty, there’s no par­ty mem­ber­ship card or creed you have to sub­scribe to. So these val­ues are only char­ac­ter­is­tic and you could cer­tain­ly say, Well, I’m an EA but I don’t sub­scribe to all of those val­ues,” but prob­a­bly most EAs would in some way or oth­er.

So first­ly, they real­ly are talk­ing about improv­ing the world. They’re not talk­ing about just improv­ing your local com­mu­ni­ty, how­ev­er you might define local in that way, whether it’s some part of London, the whole of London, whether it’s Britain, whether it’s Europe. They’re say­ing, Look, we real­ly should be think­ing about doing good impar­tial­ly, doing good wher­ev­er we can do the most good, whether that’s near at home or fur­ther away.”

Secondly, in terms of say­ing what does good, the gen­er­al idea is that we want to improve the well-being of beings in the world who have a well-being. And that will mean both human and non-human ani­mals. And we improve their well-being by, if they’re suf­fer­ing reduc­ing their suf­fer­ing. We improve their well-being by reduc­ing pre­ma­ture death, at least there would be some dis­cus­sion as to whether that applies to all beings equal­ly in some way. Does it apply to ani­mals or not? But any­way, cer­tain­ly if we’re focus­ing on humans I think effec­tive altru­ists would say, If a child dies before its fifth birth­day from avoid­able poverty-related caus­es, lets say, that’s a bad thing.” And that does hap­pen in the world cur­rent­ly, accord­ing to UNICEF. A lit­tle over six mil­lion chil­dren die every year before their fifth birth­day. So effec­tive altru­ists would say well, that’s not a good thing. If we can reduce that toll, we should do so.

As I said, ani­mal suf­fer­ing counts. How much” with a ques­tion mark is to say that’s some­thing on which there isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly agree­ment. Some effec­tive altru­ists will focus entire­ly on issues to do with humans. Others will focus entire­ly on issues to do with reduc­ing the suf­fer­ing of ani­mals. A lot will do both. So that’s not any­thing on which there’s any par­tic­u­lar­ly accept­ed posi­tion.

And effec­tive altru­ists will, as most of us do, care about things like jus­tice and fair­ness and equal­i­ty. But they’ll divide on whether those things are good because they lead to soci­eties with less suf­fer­ing and with a high­er lev­el of wel­fare, or whether they’re good in them­selves even if they don’t improve wel­fare. So you could say some of them would take an instru­men­tal view of fair­ness, equal­i­ty, and jus­tice, and per­haps oth­er moral ideals like that. Others would say, No, these are intrin­si­cal­ly impor­tant, and we ought to try to pur­sue them even if there is a trade-off, even if you get more equal­i­ty you get some­what less over­all well-being.” That’s again some­thing on which there’s no set­tled posi­tion.

And Karnofsky says what we should seek to do is to max­i­mize expect­ed val­ue. The con­cept of expect­ed val­ue here is the val­ue that you will pro­duce if you’re suc­cess­ful, dis­count­ed by the odds against you being suc­cess­ful. So some of the things that we might be doing— As you’ve heard you’ve already raised mon­ey for the Against Malaria Foundation, so it’s high­ly prob­a­ble that mon­ey will lead to bed nets being dis­trib­uted in areas where malar­ia is a killer, and there­fore to lives being saved. But peo­ple often talk about oth­er more spec­u­la­tive kinds of things. For exam­ple, you might want to work for an advo­ca­cy group that will reduce agri­cul­tur­al sub­si­dies in the European Union and in the United States, which would ben­e­fit mil­lions of small peas­ant farm­ers who want to sell their agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts in world mar­kets but can’t get good prices for those prod­ucts at the moment because these wealthy nations are sub­si­diz­ing their agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers.

Now, if you want­ed to start a lob­by group to change that, the odds against you being suc­cess­ful, unfor­tu­nate­ly, are quite long. But on the oth­er hand, if you were suc­cess­ful, you would ben­e­fit tens of mil­lions of peo­ple. So expect­ed val­ue would take both of those things into account. The num­ber of peo­ple you would ben­e­fit, dis­count­ed by the odds against suc­cess.

So although I’m typ­i­cal­ly going to talk about things that have very high prob­a­bil­i­ties of achiev­ing the good that you want to achieve, effec­tive altru­ism doesn’t exclude those more spec­u­la­tive ways to change the world, it just says you need to look at the evi­dence that you real­ly do have high expect­ed val­ue, that you real­ly do have some sig­nif­i­cant chance of suc­cess, even if quite a small one, and com­par­i­son to the val­ue you’re going to achieve.

And I’ve added here pos­si­bly sub­ject to morals rules that are absolute side-constraints” because although gen­er­al­ly speak­ing this looks pret­ty util­i­tar­i­an, espe­cial­ly if you don’t think that jus­tice, equal­i­ty, and fair­ness mat­ter intrin­si­cal­ly but only instru­men­tal­ly, I don’t want to give the impres­sion that effec­tive altru­ism is only for util­i­tar­i­ans. I do think, though, that the con­verse holds. I think if you are a util­i­tar­i­an, it fol­lows pret­ty straight­for­ward­ly that you ought to be an effec­tive altru­ist. You ought to be want­i­ng to do these things.

But you could say, I’m not a util­i­tar­i­an, I think that there are some absolute rules. I think, for exam­ple, you should nev­er tor­ture some­one.” Well, is that going to stop you being an effec­tive altru­ist? Pretty unlike­ly that you’re ever going to actu­al­ly be in a posi­tion where you would max­i­mize wel­fare over­all, min­i­mize suf­fer­ing over­all, by tor­tur­ing some­one. Not com­plete­ly incon­ceiv­able, but extreme­ly unlike­ly.

So I think you can safe­ly say, Even though I’m not a con­se­quen­tal­ist because I think some rules are absolute, there are some things that you must nev­er do, that leaves a large area in which I can be an effec­tive altru­ist.” And while that’s a pret­ty extreme exam­ple, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, any eth­ic will leave some room for doing good. That is, there might be ethics which have all sorts of rules that you have to fol­low that lim­it your scope for act­ing in many sit­u­a­tions, but gen­er­al­ly speak­ing they would say, “…and if you can do good to peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly if you can do good to peo­ple at minor cost to your­self, then that’s what you ought to do.” And if you hold an eth­ic that is like one of those, then there’s plen­ty of scope to be an effec­tive altru­ist and to do good.

Okay, if you ask is there a philo­soph­i­cal basis for these sorts of posi­tions, I think there are var­i­ous philo­soph­i­cal bases and I’m not going to take the time to go into them all. But I do want to just show you one of my favorite philoso­phers, who was a util­i­tar­i­an. Henry Sidgwick was the last of the great 19th cen­tu­ry util­i­tar­i­ans, and the least well-known. If you’re not a stu­dent of phi­los­o­phy, you’ve prob­a­bly nev­er heard of him. Maybe if you are a stu­dent of phi­los­o­phy, you’ve still not heard of him. But you will have heard of Jeremy Bentham, you will have heard of John Stewart Mill, and Sidgwick as I say is the third of that trio of great util­i­tar­i­ans. And in my judge­ment he’s far and away the best philoso­pher of the three, although he’s def­i­nite­ly not the best writer of the three. And that’s prob­a­bly why The Methods of Ethics, which is a large book, runs to just over 500 pages, is not as wide­ly read as, for exam­ple, John Stewart Mill’s short essay, Utilitarianism.”

On Taking a Universal Perspective

…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 the more good is like­ly to be realised in the one case than in the oth­er.
Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th Edition (1907) p.382

But what Sidgwick is say­ing here is some­thing that he thinks of as a kind of self-evident truth, that ratio­nal beings can see that from the point of view of the uni­verse… Note the if I may say so.” Sidgwick doesn’t real­ly think that the uni­verse has a point of view, but he says we can imag­ine tak­ing that point of view. And from that point of view, my own well-being is no more impor­tant than yours, or yours, or that of some­body far away around the oth­er side of the world, if the quan­ti­ties of well-being that can be achieved are just the same in all of us.

So that’s the kind of basis for the uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive, or could be the kind of basis for the uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive of effec­tive altru­ism, and the idea that just as I would wish to reduce my own suf­fer­ing if were suf­fer­ing and would want some­body else to help me if they could do so, espe­cial­ly if they could do so at low cost to them­selves, so we ought to rec­og­nize that the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers mat­ters as our own does, and we ought to help them if we can do so at low cost to ourselves.

So that’s a lit­tle bit about the val­ues of the move­ment. I now want to tell you a lit­tle bit about some of the peo­ple involved in it and some of the things that think­ing about effec­tive altru­ism has led them to do.

Here’s some­body who was instru­men­tal in get­ting the move­ment going just a lit­tle less than ten years ago. Toby Ord was at the time a grad­u­ate stu­dent in phi­los­o­phy at Oxford, and he was liv­ing on a grad­u­ate stu­dentship, which I think at the time was around £14,000 a year. And he felt that actu­al­ly that was an ade­quate amount of mon­ey to live on. Felt he [] didn’t real­ly lack any­thing that he need­ed, wasn’t suf­fer­ing too much. But he real­ized of course that if he was suc­cess­ful, if he got his PhD and went on to an aca­d­e­m­ic career, he would soon be earn­ing more than that and per­haps even­tu­al­ly be earn­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than that. And he won­dered what would he be able to do if he con­tin­ued to live on some­thing not too far above his grad­u­ate stu­dentship, adjust­ed for infla­tion, and there­fore had the rest of his earn­ings to spend on some­thing that would do good in the world. What would he be able to achieve with those sav­ings?

So he did the cal­cu­la­tions. He looked at a typ­i­cal aca­d­e­m­ic career tra­jec­to­ry and the kinds of salaries that you might get, deduct­ed some­thing like the grad­u­ate stu­dentship from each year. That left, of course, a quite sub­stan­tial sum over, if he imag­ined him­self earn­ing that amount of mon­ey into his six­ties. And then he thought, okay so here’s the sum of mon­ey, now what’s a good, cost-effective thing that I could do with it?

And what he hit up on after look­ing at some stud­ies was activ­i­ties that help peo­ple to see. Either restore sight in peo­ple who’ve become blind or pre­vent them becom­ing blind through a pre­ventable cause of blind­ness, which the largest pre­ventable cause of blind­ness in the world is a con­di­tion called tra­choma.

Trachoma is quite easy and inex­pen­sive to treat, and at least one form of blind­ness is very easy to fix, and that’s blind­ness from cataracts. I’d be real­ly sur­prised if there’s any­body in the United Kingdom who’s blind because of cataracts. If they are they must be very iso­lat­ed from the National Health Service, because if you’re start­ing to lose your sight from cataracts in Britain to the point where you’re becom­ing dis­abled, your doc­tor will refer you to have them removed at no cost to you. It’s a very sim­ple pro­ce­dure.

But if you’re unfor­tu­nate enough to be liv­ing in a devel­op­ing coun­try and you are your­self poor, then you’re not going to be able to get your cataracts removed. You can’t afford it and nobody else is going to pay for it for you unless there is a char­i­ty that is pro­vid­ing that. And there are char­i­ties that do that, and a lot of this, you could debate the cost of how much that is. You could say prob­a­bly around some­thing in the region of maybe £50, maybe £100 to restore sight in some­body who has a cataract.

So Toby did the sums with those sorts of fig­ures and he came up with the con­clu­sion that he could pre­vent blind­ness in eighty thou­sand peo­ple if he just con­tin­ued to live on some­thing like his stu­dentship. And he thought that that was a pret­ty impres­sive thing to do. You imag­ine a big foot­ball sta­di­um. Imagine Wembley full of peo­ple and you could restore sight in all of them, and that would be an amaz­ing life’s achieve­ment, and you don’t even have to be Bill Gates or any­body real­ly wealthy to do that.

So Toby was some­what sur­prised with what he had learned about the pow­er of one per­son to make a big dif­fer­ence to the world. And he thought oth­er peo­ple ought to know about that. So he start­ed an orga­ni­za­tion called Giving What We Can, which has sub­se­quent­ly flour­ished and has chap­ters in var­i­ous places and out­side Britain as well, and also has a web site that you can look at which will give you guid­ance about which char­i­ties are high­ly effec­tive.

So that’s one thing that you can do that effec­tive altru­ists do, and that is reduce their expen­di­ture. Maybe not right down to the lev­el of what Toby’s doing, but reduce it in some way and do a sig­nif­i­cant amount of good with what you’ve then saved.

Here’s anoth­er for­mer Oxford grad stu­dent, Will MacAskill, who helped Toby to found The Life You Can Save, but also got inter­est­ed in the ques­tion of career choice. He thought that peo­ple spend a lot of time in their career. In fact Will also did some sums and coin­ci­den­tal­ly he also came out with an answer of 80,000. That’s the num­ber of hours that a typ­i­cal per­son will spend work­ing in their career. So he set up an orga­ni­za­tion or web site called 80,000 Hours, and you can see it here. This pro­vides advice on an eth­i­cal choice of career, on think­ing about how can I through my career make the biggest dif­fer­ence for good in the world?

It’s not that there wasn’t any eth­i­cal about careers before. There was, but Will though it wasn’t real­ly offer­ing all the options. Typically it would say well you could work for a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion, choose a good one and then if you work for it you’ll be doing good. Or maybe you could go to med­ical school and then you can then your­self per­form the surg­eries to remove eye oper­a­tions. Those kinds of things, which are cer­tain­ly good things to do.

But Will thought that at least for some peo­ple, not for every­body but for peo­ple with the right skills and the right char­ac­ter, there might be a bet­ter option which most peo­ple would prob­a­bly not think of. And here’s some­body. Take one of my for­mer stu­dents at Princeton, who took this option.

Matt Wage could’ve had also gone on to a grad­u­ate course in phi­los­o­phy like Will and Toby. He was in fact accept­ed by Oxford to do grad­u­ate work there. But after talk­ing to var­i­ous peo­ple in the effec­tive altru­ism move­ment, he thought that he could do more good by tak­ing a posi­tion in which he would earn more and then donate a large por­tion of that to effec­tive char­i­ties. Now you might say, well how do you know that you’re going to do more good that way than by work­ing for the NGO? The way Will and Matt think about this is as fol­lows.

Suppose that you see a job adver­tised by an aid orga­ni­za­tion that you think is a good one. Let’s just say it’s Oxfam, to take a well-known one. So sup­pose that you apply for that job and you’re suc­cess­ful. You get the job. And then you work for many years for Oxfam doing the best that you can do for it. How much good have you actu­al­ly achieved by your deci­sion to work for Oxfam? At first answer you might say well, every­thing that you did in that posi­tion, that’s how much you’ve achieved. So you’ve had a life­time doing good.

But if you had not applied for that job, some­body else would’ve got it. Oxfam is a well-known, pop­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion, so peo­ple would apply for it. Probably oth­er good peo­ple would apply for it. Since you got the job, let’s say you were the best per­son in the field. But the amount of good that came from your decid­ing to take that job is not all the good that you do, but it’s all the good that you do minus all the good that the next best appli­cant in the field would’ve done. And you’ll nev­er real­ly know, but that might be quite a nar­row dif­fer­ence depend­ing on how strong the field is, obvi­ous­ly.

Now, com­pare that with what Matt is doing. What we’re inter­est­ed in is not how much good Matt does for the firm that he works for. It’s true that the next-best appli­cant would’ve done prob­a­bly almost as much good for the firm as he would’ve. But if you’re an effec­tive altru­ist you don’t real­ly care about that. What you care about is the fact that Matt, a year after grad­u­at­ing, was able to donate $100,000 to an effec­tive char­i­ty, and the the next year and the next year. He’s about three or four years out from grad­u­a­tion now, so we don’t know how many years this will con­tin­ue, but so far it’s going well.

Whereas, had Matt not applied for that job with the trad­ing firm in 1 Wall Street, it’s not the case that the second-best appli­cant would also have giv­en $100,000 or even $95,000 to effec­tive char­i­ties. It’s extreme­ly, extreme­ly unlike­ly that that would’ve hap­pened because very few peo­ple who get jobs on Wall Street do give a very large pro­por­tion of their salary to effec­tive char­i­ties.

So in that sense, all of the good that Matt’s dona­tions do is good that is direct­ly attrib­ut­able to his choice to work on Wall Street, because that mon­ey for exam­ple could set up an entire­ly new posi­tion for Oxfam or for some oth­er orga­ni­za­tion. And that could there­fore do all of the good that that per­son in that new posi­tion could do.

Moreover it’s also more flex­i­ble. Matt might start out giv­ing to Oxfam because that has a good rep­u­ta­tion. Then he might get some more infor­ma­tion, some more data, and said, Oh, actu­al­ly I think the Against Malaria Foundation prob­a­bly gives me bet­ter val­ue for my mon­ey, so I can switch my dona­tion,” and you can do that very eas­i­ly. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly going to be the case that the Against Malaria Foundation has a vacan­cy just when you reach that deci­sion that you say okay I’ll leave Oxfam and go and work for them. They may say, Sorry, we don’t have any free posi­tions at the moment.” So it’s more flex­i­ble in terms of where you’re direct­ing your— You can be more respon­sive to the best infor­ma­tion avail­able, the best evi­dence, and that’s what effec­tive altru­ists are inter­est­ed in. Getting evi­dence for where you can make the biggest dif­fer­ence.

And just one more per­son I want­ed to men­tion, Julia Wise, some­body who even when she was on a small salary was giv­ing a sub­stan­tial amount to effec­tive char­i­ties. But I want­ed to men­tion Julia par­tic­u­lar­ly because she writes quite an engag­ing blog, giv​ing​glad​ly​.com. And if you want some infor­ma­tion about an effec­tive altru­ist (who is not a philoso­pher this time, by the way) and how she reached her deci­sions and how she feels about what she’s doing, do have a look at giv​ing​glad​ly​.com

The next ques­tion that effec­tive altru­ists might ask is, How do I decide what cause I should give to?” So far I’ve been talk­ing about glob­al pover­ty, and I said a lit­tle bit about ani­mal suf­fer­ing, but of course they’re not the only caus­es that peo­ple give char­i­ta­bly to. There’s an impor­tant issue about com­par­ing and decid­ing between caus­es, and I think that’s done quite poor­ly at the moment in the phil­an­thropy field. So anoth­er, I hope, ben­e­fit of the emerg­ing effec­tive altru­ist move­ment is that it has the poten­tial to trans­form phil­an­thropy. Philanthropy is a pret­ty large indus­try. Private phil­an­thropy is quite sig­nif­i­cant in terms of the amounts of mon­ey that are raised. I don’t actu­al­ly have the fig­ure for the UK in my head, but for the United States I think it was around $300 bil­lion, about 2% of Gross Domestic Product. So quite sub­stan­tial. And if it’s not being used effec­tive­ly but it can it can be made to be used more effec­tive­ly, there’s an enor­mous poten­tial to do more good there.

Unfortunately at the moment I think typ­i­cal­ly phil­an­thropy is not being used very effec­tive­ly, and that’s part­ly because of the kind of non-judgmental atti­tude that phil­an­thropy advi­sors and peo­ple gen­er­al­ly have about phil­an­thropy.

So I’ve picked as an exam­ple of this one of the biggest phil­an­thropy advi­sors, the United States-based Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a spin-off of the Rockefeller family’s own phil­an­thropy. They have a web site, which these slides are tak­en from about offer­ing advice on phil­an­thropy, your phil­an­thropy roadmap,” and I cer­tain­ly agree with the state­ment (you prob­a­bly can’t read it there under the head­ing) which says, Giving away mon­ey is sim­ple. Giving away mon­ey effec­tive­ly is an entire­ly dif­fer­ent mat­ter.”

That’s a promis­ing start, to rec­og­nize that. But after that it goes down­hill, unfor­tu­nate­ly. This is a lit­tle leaflet called Finding Your Focus in Philanthropy that you can also down­load off the web site. And it’s sort of ask­ing this ques­tion, what are you going to focus on? You want do to some good in the world? You want to be a phil­an­thropist? Are you inter­est­ed in that? What are you going to focus on?

Well, this is a lit­tle chart that’s there, and it’s sig­nif­i­cant. Even though you might say, Well it’s just divid­ing up the field into var­i­ous cat­e­gories,” the way you divide things up of course reflects a lot about the way you think. Here’s a divi­sion of the field of phil­an­thropy which says noth­ing about, are you going to give in your own coun­try, let’s say in the United States or United Kingdom, in a wealthy soci­ety, or are you going to give in a devel­op­ing coun­try? And that’s prob­a­bly the most critical—if you’re try­ing to help humans, anyway—that’s the most crit­i­cal deci­sion that you can make. Much more crit­i­cal than deci­sions about are you going to do stuff in the health field or in the edu­ca­tion field or in the eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty field, or even in the human and civ­il rights field. Because I would argue that the dif­fer­ence in the amount of good you could do by help­ing peo­ple who are in devel­op­ing coun­tries is greater than the dif­fer­ence between those choic­es of fields.

If like me you’re inter­est­ed in ques­tions of ani­mal wel­fare and ani­mal suf­fer­ing, it’s also curi­ous that that just doesn’t even appear on this chart. It just doesn’t fit into any of those par­tic­u­lar lit­tle box­es.

But what is the most urgent issue? There’s obvi­ous­ly no objec­tive answer to that ques­tion.
Rockfeller Philanthropy Advisors, Finding Your Focus in Philanthropy, p.3

But that’s a sort of by-the-way point. The point that I real­ly want­ed to focus on is this state­ment, which is unfor­tu­nate­ly pret­ty char­ac­ter­is­tic of phil­an­thropy advice. It’s basi­cal­ly say­ing, so you want to say which of all these caus­es is the most urgent or the most impor­tant? And Rockfeller says, There’s obvi­ous­ly no objec­tive answer to that ques­tion.” So there’s a kind of rel­a­tivism between caus­es. That’s con­ve­nient for phil­an­thropy advi­sors who don’t want to say to any­one who comes in with a par­tic­u­lar fixed idea that that’s not as good as some oth­er thing that you might do. You might go and find a dif­fer­ent advi­sor if [they] say that.

But nev­er­the­less I think this presents an unfor­tu­nate image that some­how all caus­es are alike. And that seems to me to be clear­ly not true, and you can find evi­dence that it’s not true even from the exam­ples that this par­tic­u­lar leaflet puts for­ward.

So here are two exam­ples that are men­tioned.

RPA offers, among sev­er­al exam­ples:

1. Ted Turner’s 1998 $1bil to UN to scale up proven health pro­grams against killer dis­eases that large­ly kill chil­dren in devel­op­ing coun­tries.

Cost per life saved may be as low as $80.
[pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

One was a real­ly pio­neer­ing dona­tion that Ted Turner made in 1998 to scale up United Nations pro­grams to deal with killer dis­eases, dis­eases that killed chil­dren in devel­op­ing coun­tries, dis­eases that we know how to cure or pre­vent. We know how to pre­vent measles by immu­niz­ing kids, for exam­ple. We know ways to reduce the inci­dence of diar­rhea, which is a major killer: pro­vide safe drink­ing water, pro­vide oral rehy­dra­tion ther­a­py in decen­tral­ized ways so that kids have access to it if they are in dan­ger. We know, as we’ve already heard, that by dis­trib­ut­ing bed nets you can pre­vent malar­ia.

So Ted Turner helped to scale up these pro­grams, and sub­se­quent­ly they were sup­port­ed by oth­ers includ­ing Bill Gates. But at least when its tart­ed, it was esti­mat­ed the cost per life saved was as low as $80. That’s not to say that it’s still as low, because obvi­ous­ly you deal with the areas where you can most cheap­ly save lives first. You pick the low-hanging fruit. We’ve made a lot of progress. There are sig­nif­i­cant­ly few­er chil­dren dying before their fifth birth­day now than there were in 1998. Would be few­er than half in that time, even though the world’s pop­u­la­tion has risen. So we’ve made a lot of progress. We have few­er pre­ma­ture deaths. And that was I think a very effec­tive form of phil­an­thropy.

2. Lucile Packard’s 1986 gift of $40 mil­lion + ongo­ing sup­port to estab­lish a children’s hos­pi­tal in Palo Alto.

In 2007 the hos­pi­tal spend $12 mil­lion to sep­a­rate a pair of con­joined twins from Costa Rica; fur­ther sup­port came from the char­i­ty Mending Kids International
[pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

But Rockfeller Philanthropy Advisors puts is more or less on the same page with­out com­ment with this dona­tion from Lucile Packard to set up a children’s hos­pi­tal in Palo Alto. If you don’t know where Palo Alto is, it’s at the Southern end of Silicon Valley, California where Stanford University is. It’s the third wealth­i­est com­mu­ni­ty in the United States. So there aren’t chil­dren dying from diar­rhea or measles or malar­ia in Palo Alto. And if you’re going to save the lives of chil­dren you’re going to do it with very expen­sive high-tech med­i­cine because oth­er needs are already being cov­ered. Or per­haps you’re going to per­form hero­ic surgery to sep­a­rate con­joined twins, as in the exam­ple here, which is going to cost you between one and two mil­lion dol­lars for the sep­a­ra­tion of a pair of twins.

So I think if you’re going to say there’s no objec­tive choice, are you real­ly say­ing you can’t choose objec­tive­ly between sav­ing a life for $80 and sep­a­rat­ing a pair of twins for more than a mil­lion dol­lars? I don’t think it’s very dif­fi­cult to say there is an objec­tive answer to which of those ways of using your mon­ey is the bet­ter one.

And here’s a dif­fer­ent kind of exam­ple. This is some­thing that was just in the news a month or two back. Some of you may have been to New York, some of you may know what the Lincoln Center is. It’s a cen­ter for clas­si­cal music and opera. It has up to know had, I thought, a per­fect­ly decent con­cert hall known as Avery Fisher Hall. But the Lincoln Center decid­ed that hall need­ed ren­o­va­tion, and it called for dona­tions. It said, inci­den­tal­ly, that the cost of ren­o­vat­ing it would be not $100 mil­lion dol­lars but $500 mil­lion dol­lars, but it got a sort of lead-off dona­tion from David Geffen of a $100 mil­lion. David Geffen is an enter­tain­ment mogul who’s behind DreamWorks and oth­ers in the enter­tain­ment field.

So could David Geffen have done bet­ter with his $100 mil­lion dol­lars than help to ren­o­vate a con­cert hall for wealthy Manhattanites and oth­er tourists who go there? Seems to me again quite easy to say that he could have. Perhaps he could’ve saved the sight of a mil­lion peo­ple, if a $100 is a rea­son­able esti­mate for doing that. He could cer­tain­ly have saved the lives of a large num­ber of peo­ple in oth­er ways, for exam­ple by pro­mot­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of bed nets. Could save, let’s say, maybe fifty thou­sand, a hun­dred thou­sand lives, depend­ing on our esti­mates of cost there. But cer­tain­ly he could’ve saved a sub­stan­tial num­ber of lives, and it’s hard for me to see that any­one could seri­ous­ly believe that hav­ing an even bet­ter con­cert hall than what’s now going to be of course the David Geffen Concert Hall, could some­how be com­pared with those oth­er things that you could do with that amount of mon­ey.

Singer’s view is that we should min­i­mize suf­fer­ing… but what about improv­ing all areas of human expe­ri­ence? Playing off one area that needs more mon­ey vs anoth­er is a false choice. Both arts and treat­ment of human ill­ness­es are wor­thy of sup­port
Even, com­ment­ing on Nicholas Kristof, The Trader Who Donates Half His Pay,” New York Times, April 4, 2015.

Some peo­ple will say well, why not do both? In fact, when Nicholas Kristoff wrote a col­umn in The New York Times about my new book a cou­ple of months ago. Somebody com­ment­ed exact­ly that. Why can’t you do both? Why can’t you sup­port the arts and sup­port help­ing the glob­al poor? It’s a false choice, he said.

Well, I don’t know where this per­son banks, but my bank account won’t let me write a check for all of the mon­ey in my bank account, give it to the Against Malaria Foundation, and then let me write anoth­er check for a muse­um or art gallery or con­cert hall again for all of the mon­ey in my bank account and give it to that char­i­ty, and hon­or both the checks. So I don’t think you can do both. Of course you could divide it in half. You could give half of that mon­ey to both. But I’m sure you can see that if you do that, then there’s going to be a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple who will remain blind who wouldn’t’ve if you’d giv­en it all to that. Or a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of chil­dren who’d die from malar­ia who wouldn’t’ve died if you’d giv­en it all to the Against Malaria Foundation. So I think inevitably we have lim­it­ed resources. There’s a trade-off. And you can’t real­ly do both.

Not want­i­ng to go on too much longer. I do want you to have some time for ques­tions. But let me just say a lit­tle bit about assess­ing effec­tive­ness.

I men­tioned at the sec­ond or third slide, I had a set of val­ues for effec­tive altru­ists by a guy called Holden Karnofsky. Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld found­ed this web site, which is called GiveWell, which assess­es char­i­ties for their effec­tive­ness. And if you look at this pie chart here, it looks a bit alarm­ing. They’ve reviewed a lot of char­i­ties and there’s only this thin wedge of their top char­i­ties.

So does that mean that most char­i­ties don’t do any good? No, it doesn’t mean that. It’s that most char­i­ties do not have suf­fi­cient evi­dence to con­vince GiveWell that they are doing a lot of good. Those are two dif­fer­ent things. They may be doing good, but they can’t real­ly prove that they’re doing good. And GiveWell wants you to donate to char­i­ties that can pro­duce high qual­i­ty evi­dence that they are doing good. So that’s why these char­i­ties are not rec­om­mend­ed, but a small num­ber are and you can there­fore be high­ly con­fi­dent that those small num­ber do real­ly have good evi­dence of what they’re achiev­ing.

Good evi­dence might, for exam­ple, involve ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als, the same method that drug com­pa­nies use to show that a new drug works. So you have some kind of inter­ven­tion. You want to see whether that works, at what cost. You don’t have the resources to give it to every­one who needs it or to every vil­lage that needs it or every com­mu­ni­ty. So you get base­line mea­sure­ments in all of the com­mu­ni­ties, then you ran­dom­ize and you give this treat­ment in half let’s say, if you have the resources to do it in half of them.

And then you go back and do more mea­sure­ments, and you see what kind of dif­fer­ence you’ve made. You see whether few­er chil­dren have died from malar­ia. If you have a dif­fer­ent kind of inter­ven­tion, let’s say in edu­ca­tion, you see whether more chil­dren have com­plet­ed school­ing. That’s the best kind of evi­dence. You can’t always pro­duce it, but that’s the kind of evi­dence that GiveWell will look for if avail­able.

They also demand a high lev­el of trans­paren­cy. [They’ll] want to know what hap­pens to the mon­ey that comes in. Where does it go? How do you track it? How do you know you’re doing good?

So there are half a dozen top-rated char­i­ties in this top group. And since you’ve already con­tributed to Against Malaria Foundation, you’ll be pleased to know that that’s among GiveWell’s top-rated char­i­ties. So that’s one way of look­ing at effec­tive­ness. Use the research that oth­er peo­ple have done, you don’t have to rein­vent the wheel, and draw on that.

GiveWell was, I think, the pio­neer in this field, and its work is used by oth­ers who may do addi­tion­al research of their own. This is the orga­ni­za­tion that, as I men­tioned, Toby Ord and Will MacAskill set up, Giving What We Can. If you go to this Where to Give” tab, you will find infor­ma­tion about their rec­om­men­da­tions about the best char­i­ties as well. And there’s one that I’m involved with. My pre­vi­ous book came out in 2009. It was called The Life You Can Save, and it spawned an orga­ni­za­tion, peo­ple who want­ed to do some­thing about this cause and it also has a web site. It also has infor­ma­tion about where to donate, which draws on GiveWell’s research but also does slight­ly loosen the cri­te­ria to allow oth­er orga­ni­za­tions for which we think there is evi­dence that they are doing a lot of good although the evi­dence may not be of the same high qual­i­ty as GiveWell demands.

So I think I’m going to stop at that point, because I know Nigel’s going to ask me a cou­ple of ques­tions and then we want you to have time for some ques­tions as well.

Thanks very much.


Discussion

Warburton: Thank you very much. I'd like to just get clear about how radical your approach is. Here are three cases. I'd love to know what you think about them.

The first one is— I'm sure there are people in the room here who contribute to charities that help alleviate poverty in Britain, and there's some figures which suggest there's increasing poverty in Britain. We're seeing food banks being used by many people. The first scenario…if you're an effective altruist, do you think that people who donate money to food banks and charities that support them like the Trussell Trust are immoral because they know well that there are people who are more needy in other parts of the world? So that's the first one.

The second one, if you think back to the Chilean miners deep underground. Thirty-three of them trapped in sweltering conditions. It cost millions to get them out. It wasn't really likely that they would survive. It was almost miraculous that they got out. From the point of view of people deciding what to do, if you're an effective altruist you'd presumably say, "Write those thirty-three off. That money could save many more than thirty-three people."

And the last one. Imagine you're out for a walk in a very expensive pair of vegetarian shoes, and these shoes—

Singer: They're not so expensive.

Warburton: But say $300 worth of shoes, and you see this child drowning in a pond. [some laughter from audience] Now, if you go into this pond, they're not waterproof shoes, these ones, and you're going to ruin the shoes. But you know on eBay, particularly Peter Singer's shoes, would fetch more than $300. So shouldn't you just auction your shoes on eBay and let the child drown? Because with that $300 you could save many more than one child.

If you take the point of the universe in each one of those cases, or the global perspective, you're going to end up with a counterintuitive conclusion, as far as I'm concerned.

Singer: Yes. So sometimes, as you would well know, philosophy does end up with counterintuitive conclusions. But sometimes there may be other things that are to be said about some of these things.

So are you immoral for helping the poor in Britain? I certainly wouldn't use that term. I might say there could be better things that you could do with your money. Assuming we're talking about money, right? If we're talking about volunteering, I think it is important to recognize that volunteering is an important charitable contribution.

It may be that you can actually do more good in your local community than you can abroad. I certainly don't recommend people thinking, "Oh, I'm gonna go and help some poor people in the developing world over my summer vacations, so I'll jet over there and spend a few weeks helping them to do something, which probably they already know better how to do than I do, in fact."

So volunteering often, I think, can be more effective locally, although of course there are ways in which you can volunteer to raise awareness about global poverty, too. So I would say rather, I tend to praise people for making contributions to help others in general, because there isn't enough of it. But I'll certainly praise them more highly if they think about doing that as effectively as they possibly can.

So that was the first case. Your third case was about my shoes. I for—

Warburton: The miners.

Singer: The miners. The Chilean miners, right, of course.

So yeah, I mean it's clearly true that the money you spend on rescuing individuals—that's one example; there've been other examples, too—could save more lives if you didn't. The question is what would that say about us, what would we feel if we knew that possibly those miners were alive and we weren't going down to help them? Perhaps if we knew that the money was helping other people, perhaps if we actually followed through with that and we saw, we followed the donations and we saw here they're helping these people who would otherwise be in danger of dying from one or another causes, or here they're restoring sight in people, maybe then we could actually understand the impact and we could feel emotionally okay about it.

But if we're not, if it's just like well, this is going to come out of some general pot and who knows what will be done with it if we don't spend it on rescuing the miners, then I think we're failing to express our concern for others in a way that rescuing people does. But having said that, as I say, I think obviously there do have to be limits. We're emotionally pulled by identifiable victims, emotionally pulled by the wives or partners who were so anxious of course about their loved ones. And it's very hard to just say no, this is too expensive. But sometimes we do have to do that.

On the shoe example, they have to be really super-expensive shoes because I think, looking at GiveWell's research, $300 doesn't save a life. We have some people from Against Malaria Foundation here tonight, and they could tell us their view, but GiveWell says something more like $3000. It may not be that much, but it's not as cheap as I myself thought it was many years ago when I used that example that you're riffing off in terms of that you should be prepared to ruin your expensive shoes to save a life.

But you could of course change the example. Peter Unger had this example that you will be familiar with where the trade-off is your most valuable asset, which is a classic Bugatti that you have invested in and is uninsured and you've parked it at the end of a disused railway line. You'll then walk up the line and you see there's this runaway train, and the train is going to go through a tunnel where it will kill a person, let's say a child. And the only thing you can do to save the child is to divert the train down the disused railway line where it will smash through the aging barrier at the end and demolish your Bugatti, which you've invested your life's savings [in].

Now, here you could certainly say— I mean, Unger's view was even in that case, you ought to save the child. But here you could say well, put your Bugatti on eBay, you'll definitely get enough to save many lives then. And I think I would say as long as your resolve to sell the Bugatti and use it to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation is not going to weaken and you really are going to do that, then that's a better thing to do, even though in this case obviously it's a very hard thing to do because there's again and identifiable victim in the tunnel and you can't exactly say who your donation to AMF is going to save.

Warburton: So you'd bite the bullet, basically.

Singer: On that one I would bite the bullet, yes.

Warburton: Another question. Seems to me that you're asking what's the most good we could do. This is within a tradition of how we should live, the big philosophical question, "How should I live?" But for most of us who aren't moral exemplars, the big question isn't what's the most good I can do, but how can I live a good enough life? How can I live an adequate life? And it seems that if you start talking about what's the most good I can do, you end up with a position where you're aiming so high that you lose sight of many things.

So some of the good we that do at the human level gets sidelined for the sake of the view of the universe or the global view. And I'm concerned that much of what's good about human interactions stems from compassion, the kinds of things which you talk about as emotions which get in the way of effective altruism. And I'm worried that by focusing on the most good we could possibly do, that we might lose something valuable.

Singer: Well, there are a number of questions there. I think it's worth putting out there the idea of the most good, because even though very few people are actually going to manage to do the most good they possibly can, it is an ideal that sets a standard, that you can measure yourself against, and I think there are people who've gone surprisingly far in doing the most good.

So I think it's worth saying. Does that mean that if you set out to do that you will be less likely to do a lot of other good? Again, there are trade-offs you have to admit. There are things that you may spend time doing which will take you away from the people that you're close to and from smaller compassionate acts. That's always possible.

I think that humans are infinitely varied and they can distribute themselves along a spectrum there. And I think it's good that some people should be quite far along that spectrum and aiming to go further, and others may just be moved a little bit by this kind of ideal. But again it's a bit like the example where you said are people immoral if they're helping domestically. I'm not really going to blame people for not doing more if they're doing something that is already significantly above what most people in the community do.

I think my objective is really to raise the standard of what we think of as living ethically. And I think we've got a very long way to go. We can raise that standard quite a bit without endangering the things that you're talking about, and we can have another look and readjust if we get further in the direction that I think we should.

Warburton: But donating a work of art to a public art gallery or funding a music hall is going far beyond what most people do in the area of helping other people.

Singer: Yes, that's true. Well, I mean these tend to be pretty wealthy people who are doing this, but yeah often they are going beyond that. But that's perhaps something that I think is so clearly in the wrong direction that I think we ought to talk about it. It's not that if I meet David Geffen in the street I'm going to say to him, "You're a terrible person for donating this," but I guess I would say, "Look, you've still got various hundreds of millions left, how about thinking about whether you can do more good in some different direction?"

Warburton: Okay. We'd probably do more good by taking questions from the audience. I've already spotted one in the back, there. As I said, could we keep these to short questions, because we've only got about 25 minutes maximum, 20 minutes maximum here.

Audience 1: Hi. I just want to go back to animals, just [to pass over?] this very interesting discussion we just had. Can I just clarify, are you presenting the view that equal suffering matters equally irrespective of species?

Singer: The answer is yes. I think that equal amounts of suffering matter equally irrespective of species.

Audience 1: So what happens when we turn our TVs on and we see, as we do practically every night, big cats killing okapis? We see animals savaging animals, and we accept this. We accept that there are photographers there. We don't send in the armies. What's going on here? Is this wrong?

Singer: Well, there may be other values at stake here. We may think that there's value in having animals living in their environment, behaving in the way that they have evolved to behave, and that that value in some way outweighs the negative value of the suffering of the okapi in this case. We may also be troubled by the question of what would we be doing here? I mean, I guess we could go in and kill all the predators and then we would have to provide birth control for the prey animals. Do we want to get into that? Is that going to be the most effective way of reducing suffering? I'm skeptical that it would be.

Audience 1: Alright. Okay.

Audience 2: Thank you. Peter, how much do you think that say, education in general, especially from a young age can have any impacts on becoming a more and more efficient altruist in the future?

Singer: Education can have a big impact on that, and I think it's actually really a good thing that people at high school level now in this country are able to think about these questions, that philosophy is more widely taught in schools than it was and it raises these kinds of questions. But just in general I think making children aware of the kind of world that they live in, of the choices that exist, or the fact that some people are much much less fortunate than they are, I think all of those things are really important and help to prepare people for making life decisions. And I think the more education they get in that, the higher the probability that they'll make good life decisions.

Audience 3: Hi. I just wanted to ask, you spoke about the comparison between donating to Africa and donating to a Californian hospital, and suggested that you could realistically objectively say that one is a more effective moral thing to do than the other. But you opened by suggesting that effective altruism is broadly normatively neutral in terms of ethics.

Singer: No, I don't think I said effective altruism is normatively neutral.

Audience 3: Well, neutral in the sense that you don't have to be a utilitarian.

Singer: I said you don't have to be a utilitarian, definitely.

Audience 3: So my question is, since on the one hand you're sort of suggesting that you can choose to prioritize to some degree as you will. You can choose not to prioritize non-human animal suffering if you see fit. If you're given that degree of flexibility, haven't you abandoned the notion this sort of objective framework of weighing up suffering, given the degree of non-human suffering in the world?

Singer: I may not have been precise enough or clear enough in what I said. In discussing the slide about characteristic values, I wasn't saying that in my view whether you were concerned with animal suffering or not was just a matter of anybody's choice being as good as anyone else's. I was saying that within the effective altruist movement there are people with different views on that.

My view is as I said in response to the first question that I think animal suffering does count, and the real question is how do you reduce it at what cost per unit of suffering? Can you reduce the suffering of non-human animals? And incidentally, if I was thinking about that I certainly wouldn't be thinking about predators and prey in a natural environment, I'd be thinking about reducing the number of animals suffering in factory farms, and that seems to me my far the biggest cause.

But I do have views on that. The real question I guess is to say how equal quantities of suffering count equally, as I said, but how much do we think a pig in a factory farm suffers? And how does that compare with the suffering of a child with malaria, for instance, or the parents watching a child with malaria die. Those are quite difficult sorts of comparisons.

So there are some of those comparisons that I don't really have answers one. But some of them I think are easier, and I think the ones about saving lives in developing countries or in African countries is one of the easier ones.

Audience 4: Thank you very much. Professor Singer, along the lines of the Bugatti example, but something less extreme, [a] more everyday kind of dilemma. You've got a choice of going to buy a pair of jeans for £50 in a store where you know that they've got the reasonably good kind of policy on supply chain, fair treatment for workers presumably in the third world, possibly organic materials used, whatever. And then you've also got the other choice maybe paying £5 in your cheaper store. Would you then buy something for £5 in a store where you know that the supply chain is of a different kind? Workers have not been treated fairly, maybe have been exploited and so on. But you can donate the difference, the £45 to a charity of your choice, effectively. Perhaps more effective than the difference it might make to the workers in the two different working conditions.

Singer: Yes, that is a difficult choice. I think there's something to be said for supporting good working conditions in general, not just for those workers but with the hope that this will spread and set standards. And the same is true for the fact that it's organic or sustainable or whatever else that it might be. So I think there's value in supporting fair trade products, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anybody from doing that.

In your example there was a very big discrepancy in price, which enabled you to give a substantial amount to charities. And maybe if the difference really was between £50 and £5 for essentially the same product or a product that met your needs as well, maybe you would do more good with donating the £45. But typically if you shopping for fair trade coffee, the difference is going to be what, 10 or 20% or something like that. So in those cases I think it's good to buy the fair trade product.

Audience 5: Hi, Peter. The question that's going round in my mind is, doesn't effective altruism result in us over-prioritizing those things that are easier to measure? A particular example might be that an effective altruist might think it's better to give £10 to a starving child rather than giving that £10 to a campaigning organization that's campaigning against structural inequality. But the ultimate outcome of that campaigning work might have a vastly greater impact; we just don't currently have the tools to effectively measure it.

Singer: Yeah. I think that is a problem with the way that web sites are looking at charities mostly now. And I think I mentioned briefly that GiveWell is extremely rigorous and does require high standards of evidence, and with The Live You Can Save, the organization that I'm involved with, we've slightly loosened those standards so that we include organizations that do advocacy work of the sort that you're talking about, that arguably does pay off. And in the book The Most Good You Can Do, I have an example of one of Oxfam's campaigns to get Ghana to distribute some of its oil revenue (Ghana discovered off-shore oil not that long ago.) to distribute some of that revenue to some of the poorest farmers in the country to help them to farm better, rather than as has happened in Angola or Ecuatorial Guinea have the revenue just flow to the pockets of the elite. So Oxfam supported civil society organizations in Ghana that were working for this, and that's an advocacy campaign that paid off extremely well for a small amount of money.

So, I do think you've got to somehow try and include that. But to do so you have to computer in some way the odds of success, to get that expected value figure. And it's extremely difficult, I agree. So I hope that in coming years we'll get more work being done on that and more people trying to track the success or failures of those campaigns to give you some kind of insight. But with some of them, like the one I mentioned about agricultural subsidies, something like that, it's very difficult to estimate how likely it is that you're going to be successful.

Audience 6: Most of the things that have been described are very worthwhile, and I appreciate that. But I just feel a little bit uncomfortable about the idea of giving a charity. I would much rather see things go towards countries and governments being as independent as possible, and doing their own things. So I wonder if there could be more emphasis on education itself, and things like campaign against the arms trade, which has a vested interest in war and so many corrupt governments. That sort of thing, rather than material things necessarily. [some clapping from audience]

Singer: I see you've got some support out there. So yes, I think that some of these campaigns can be worthwhile. It's again one of those things you can start campaign against arms. You know Oxfam were involved in a campaign which led to the passage of a law in the United States to try and make the arms trade at least more transparent, more reportable as to what they were doing so the weapons could be tracked. I don't really know whether it's going to achieve a great deal, but it may. These campaigns are quite difficult to achieve, again something as large as the arms trade.

Education I certainly do agree, and if people said, "I think that educating children in developing countries is an effective thing to do," I wouldn't disagree with that. I would say you need to find effective ways of doing it, and again you need to do the proper studies to show that what you're doing is a cost-effective way of doing that. But I certainly thing that that's a very important thing to do. And I'd add particular educating girls is very important and also has a spin-off in terms of reducing fertility and therefore helping to slow unwanted population growth.

Audience 7: Hi. Thanks for you talk. I recently came across a term that described a problem that I'd encountered, particularly the sphere of trying to reduce suffering through public health measures, which was "temporal discounting." Which is basically where you ignore your and others' future suffering in favor of a benefit you receive now. For example with smoking, people might say, "But I love smoking," but you know that in future there will be a great deal of suffering as a result of that. And I just wondered what you would say to people who object to public health measures on the scale of information up to restrictive laws, who say, "But you're taking away my freedom of choice."

Singer: I think effective altruists are universalists, not only in the sense as I said that they don't differentiate between whether suffering occurs here or in Mozambique, let's say. But they're also universalists in the sense that they would not differentiate between suffering that occurs in 2015 or in 2115.

The only discounting that I think is acceptable is discounting for uncertainty. So you might say, "We don't know what technologies they'll have in 2015. We don't know how much difference we can make to their lives." Those things are reasonable. But otherwise, suffering is just as bad, whenever it happens. We shouldn't discount just because something is future.

Audience 8: Thank you. My question goes a bit into the line that was asked before about focusing on the easy problems. Especially in the healthcare sector, we see people doing exactly this, calculating the cost-effectiveness and then all the money goes into three diseases and vaccinations because these have the easy technical solutions. But focusing on these diseases leads to destabilization of the health systems because they don't get as much attention and the governments are also kind of compromised into focusing only on these diseases and vaccination. So you could say that you're actually harming the healthcare system by only looking at the greatest cost-effectiveness. How do you see this?

Singer: I don't see that you're harming people by focusing on where you can do the most good. Now, it's true that sometimes you get kind of campaigns about particular diseases, and you actually have more money going into them than is required, or you have money going into them which could be more cost-effectively used elsewhere. I think that's particularly true when you have a condition that is likely to affect people in African countries as well. So we had a lot of money going into ebola once it became a risk that this could spread to the affluent countries. There was very little money going into it before.

We had a lot of money going into HIV, perhaps for the same sort of reason, when in fact it was shown I think pretty clearly that in terms of cost-effectiveness you could do better treating other diseases that were getting neglected because of the focus on HIV. So I don't think the problem is putting money where it does the most good. The problem is that you may get money going into these things even at the point where because so much money is going into it you're no longer getting the same value for each unit of money that you're putting into it. And certainly at that point it should be changed.

The broader question about infrastructure I think is a little harder to talk about, but I don't think these organizations should be taking money away from existing infrastructure. They're either providing particular task, meeting a particular need within that system, and they certainly should be trying to promote infrastructure in general in countries that have poor healthcare infrastructures.

Audience 9: Hi, thank you very much. I was wondering how effective altruism takes into account the structural deficit that capitalism has inevitably brought about and continuously is bringing about. Reallocating capital that fuels this system that generates a problem, how do we tackle this? How do we redistribute in a way that is going to be horizontal as opposed to vertical?

Singer: That's a very big question that you've raised, of course. And really I don't have an answer. And I don't know whether anybody has an answer. I mean, certainly we've had over the past couple of centuries many proposals about better forms of distribution than capitalism. Some of them have been implemented in various ways. Some very harsh ways, as in Stalin's Soviet Union, let's say. Some in much kinder ways, as in the Israeli kibbutzim movement. But actually, none of them have really proved to be all that successful. Even the kibbutzim have basically seemed to have failed. Some of them still exist, but they certainly no longer arouse the enthusiasm and commitment that they did in their earlier years.

So I don't think anybody really has the answer, and I don't think it's a reason therefore for not continuing to do the things that we can see are doing good. If somebody comes up with a good answer that looks plausible, and if they come up with a way of saying, "…and here's how we can implement it," even given the existing power structures (Obviously you're going to get a lot of opposition from people who will lose) then, let's talk about it. But if it's just a vague idea that somehow capitalism is a problem and we ought to get rid of it, I honestly don't think that's a very practical suggestion.

Warburton: I'm sorry. I know there are other people wanting to ask questions, which is a great compliment to Peter, I think, for giving such a stimulating talk that's making us all think very hard. Just before we thank Peter, I want that Sam Hilton's going to come in a minute and make an announcement about the effective altruism group in London. But now can we just show our appreciation for Peter Singer. Thank you.

Singer: Thanks very much.


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