The Most Good You Can Do

In Slate, I discuss Peter Singer’s new book, The Most Good You Can Do. I like Singer’s utilitarian outlook, and I like the way he follows its logic into all kinds of dark corners, though I like less his attempt to prettify it in order to make it seem appealing to ordinary people.

Despite offering a surprising paean to capitalism (see p. 50 if you don’t believe me), Singer doesn’t take institutions very seriously, which I think is a problem in much of his writing (above all, in One World). Institutions coordinate people’s behavior for the common good; the sort of uncoordinated giving through philanthropic organizations for the benefit of impoverished foreigners won’t work, at least not at a large enough scale to make a difference, or that is at any rate the lesson I take from the foreign aid literature. Foreign countries have their own cultures, institutions, practices, and values. Agency costs exist in charitable organizations just like in for-profit organizations. All of these things spell trouble for “effective altruism” if understood to be committed to searching out those with the highest marginal utility per dollar. That said, by all means give your dollars to GiveDirectly or the other charities recommended by GiveWell if you want to maximize aggregate well-being, conditional on not too many other people doing the same.

There is a tension in the book between Singer’s relentless utilitarianism and human psychology. If you take Singer-the-philosopher seriously, then basically anything you do kills someone in the developing world. X number of ice cream cones means so much money less for malaria nets that will save the lives of children in Africa. Here is a philosopher who finally takes opportunity costs seriously! Singer simultaneously thinks that you should forgo the ice cream cones and somehow absolves people who don’t go this far, recognizing that the psychological burden of effective altruism is immense if taken to the extreme. Everyone has limits, he admits.

It’s clear why he does. Singer is afraid to scare off people who are willing to donate 10 or 20 percent of their income by telling them that they are not acting ethically unless they donate 80 or 90 percent of it. Singer’s style of utilitarianism may be philosophically impeccable, but it is a loser when it comes to motivating people. He tries to get around this by saying that the 10-percenter is more ethical than a purely selfish person, so one can take comfort in that. But people really want to know whether they are behaving ethically or not–yes or no–not where they fall on a scale, and Singer can’t answer that question to their satisfaction.