Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

IMG_1116.JPG-cropFunny, how timing is everything. Peter Singer, the Princeton professor, ethicist and author who has been called the world’s most influential living philosopher, laid out the principles of what is now known as Effective Altruism in a succinct 1972 essay called Famine, Affluence and Morality. “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it,” he wrote. He made the argument, vividly, with a thought experiment: “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.” If this principle were to be widely acted upon, he observed, people would reduce their consumption, give much more money away and “our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.” Although the essay was widely taught, not much did change beyond the walls of academe. At least not for a while.

More than four decades later, that’s no longer so. Mr. Singer came to Washington last week because Effective Altruism has blossomed into a small but rapidly growing movement, mostly on college campuses, among young professionals and in Silicon Valley. In the last five to 10 years, Singer and his ideas have spawned an array of charities and meta-charities like Give Well (which I wrote about here), GiveDirectly (here), Animal Charity Evaluators (here), The Life You Can Save (here), Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours (here). Together, they have steered tens of millions of dollars to organizations that effectively alleviate death and suffering, mostly among the global poor. Perhaps just as important, Effective Altruism has begun to change the conversation about philanthropy in two ways–firsts, by making the claim that some causes are dramatically more important than others, and second, by insisting that charities provide evidence to support the claim that they are doing good.

About 1,500 people packed Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University on a Friday night to hear Singer. The event was organized by local effective altruists, who have formed Giving What We Can DC, and by PSI (Population Services International), a big global health and development nonprofit favored by Singer. Singer signed books at a reception afterwards and then dined on a vegetarian menu — butternut squash soup, risotto, tofu, poached pears — with followers at Nora, oft-celebrated organic eatery. Singer wrote an influential book called Animal Liberation in 1975; many effective altruists are vegetarians or vegans because they take seriously the suffering of animals on factory farms.

On stage, Singer took an upbeat approach to what could be a downbeat subject. Problems of poverty and disease can seem hopeless, he noted, but they are not. Certainly the needs are great–UNICEF says thousands of poor children below the age of five die every day–but the world now knows how to prevent or even eliminate diseases like polio, malaria and TB. “There are 16,000 dying each day now, but there were 27,000 dying each day less than 10 years ago,” Singer said. “That’s tremendous progress.”

Progress could be accelerated if a bigger share of philanthropy went to the global poor. (Currently, it’s less than three percent in the US.) Needs are greatest in poor countries, and dollars go further. “There certainly is poverty and homelessness in the United States,” Singer said, “but the cost of solving that for a person in the US is quite high…If you want to get your best value for your money, maybe it’s with a family whose annual income is $1,000. That’s why, in my view, we ought to look elsewhere.”

Singer was critical of philanthropy that is as much about vanity as doing good, citing David Geffen’s $100 million gift to Lincoln Center, which involved the sale of naming rights to what is now Avery Fisher Hall. He quoted from a roadmap to guide major donors distributed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which says: “Many funding appeals seek support on the basis of urgency. But what is the most urgent issue? There’s obviously no objective answer to that question.”

“I don’t think that’s even true, let alone obvious,” Singer observed.  Singer’s 2013 TED talk on Effective Altruism, which gets into more detail about all of this, is well worth watching. 

Afterwards, in a van on the way to Nora’s, I chatted with Singer about why Effective Altruism took so long to gather momentum. One possible reason: Idealistic college students had other things on their minds in the early 1970s, protesting the Vietnam War, engaging with the feminist and gay rights movements, working on political campaigns. By the mid-2000s and since then, particularly in the US, politics feels to many like a dead end. Those who try to improve the world through politics often “end up feeling very frustrated,” Singer said. By contrast, effective altruists can do an enormous amount of good on their own, literally savings hundreds and thousands of lives. “We don’t have to rely on governments to change,” he said. “I find that a very empowering thought.” He conceded that government action will be required to solve some big problems, notably climate change.

I talked, too, with Tyler John and Christopher Byrd, the president and vice-president of Giving What We Can DC, which formed via a meet-up less than a year ago and now has15 to 20 active members. (A valued supporter is Frances Kissling, a longtime women’s rights activist in Washington, who played a key organizing role in Friday’s event.) Giving What We Can DC will surely win more adherents after Friday’s event and to that end, they have organized what’s called a “giving game” on the website

Here’s how it works. The DC group has raised $10,000 to be distributed among four charities deemed worthy by Singer and evaluators including GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators. The four charities are PSI, GiveDirectly, Mercy for Animals and the Future of Humanity Institute, which works to prevent catastrophic risks. Each NGO is described, briefly, on the site and visitors are encouraged to learn more. Anyone can vote — please do! — and at the end of the balloting, money will be allocated to the four groups, based roughly on their totals.

The purpose isn’t to generate vast numbers of Internet ballots but to educate, Chris Byrd says. “We’re trying to start a conversation, and get people to think about giving more, giving strategically and giving more effectively,” he says. Results will be unveiled at an evening event, details TBD, on December 1 at Busboys and Poets in Washington.

This, my friends, is how movements get built.

5 thoughts on “An evening with Peter Singer

  1. ayitl says:

    great article explaining Singer’s work, even as a fan (haha) i learnt a fair bit. Thanks!


  2. yboris says:

    Reblogged this on YBoris.


  3. I did not know about Prof. Singer’s work, though as a young professional dedicated to non-profit work that is high-impact with the global poor, I have only ever known a context influenced by the “M&E” (monitoring and evaluation) paradigm which his thinking helped to shape. I hope that good philanthropy might be steered to good projects through the kinds of awareness-raising he does. Without directing more critical thinking to the giving we do, I think there is a very real risk that organized, systematized, giants of marshalling philanthropic funds for “vanity projects” (academia) may seek, and find, more of the rent in the sector than the projects that do not rely upon endowments, and are based upon service to the global poor. Have you ever considered doing a side-by-side interview of how a development professional from an Ivy league compared to a Grass-roots Development Director would answer the same set of questions? Not all charitable giving was created equally–even though they may be equally deductible.


  4. Kieran Greig says:

    Great article!

    Minor suggested edit: At the beginning of your second paragraph you refer to Ethical Altruism when I believe you meant to say Effective Altruism,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thank you, Kieran. Fixed it!


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