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 62015). 

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 42015.

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.

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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