Mike Kueber's Blog

May 17, 2015

Sunday Book Review #159 – The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:45 am
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Peter Singer is a world-famous philosopher professor who espouses a philosophy – utilitarianism – that seems most reasonable to me.  According to utilitarianism, the correct moral action is the one that maximizes utilities such as pleasure, economic well-being, or the absence of pain. This sounds a lot like my Jesuit-trained best friend, who espouses “the preponderance of satisfying consequences.

The Most Good You Can Do is Singer’s explanation of “efficient altruists” – i.e., individuals who apply evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.

One of my favorite philosophers, Ayn Rand, has written extensively in opposition to altruism, and I have adopted one of her pithy anti-altruism sayings on the subject:

  • I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Phil Donohue once asked Rand why she had a problem with do-gooders who wanted to be charitable and help others.  Rand responded that helping others or doing good was fine if (a) you did it by your own choice, (b) it wasn’t your primary aim in life, and (c) you didn’t regard it as a moral virtue.  When Donohue pressed her on why doing good for others shouldn’t be considered a moral virtue, Rand said that characterizing it as a moral virtue would mean that you are preaching self-sacrifice, that you place the welfare of others above your own, and that you are living for others as justification for your life.  That, according to Rand, is immoral.  For historical evidence, she asserted that self-sacrifice or altruism was the basis for Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

The philosophies of Rand and Singer seem irreconcilable, with Rand seeing altruism as immoral while Singer sees it as the ethical path.  But Singer in his book devotes an entire chapter, titled “Altruism and Happiness,” to describe how efficient altruists deny being selfless or making sacrifices of anything important to them.  Rather, they see their good deeds as essential to their happiness and self-esteem.  And, yes, Singer recognizes that this essentially modifies the definition of altruism.

Singer’s book is really a primer on becoming an efficient altruist.  The following are a few examples of the practical considerations discussed by Singer:

  • What sort of job will maximize your positive effect?
  • Do kids detract from your ability to be an altruist?
  • How important is empathy?
  • Should your help be local, national, or international?
  • Is it important to live modestly?
  • Should you donate part of your body (blood, bone marrow, kidney)?
  • Is animal suffering comparable to human suffering?
  • Is pet suffering comparable to livestock suffering?
  • What are the concerns regarding human extinction?

The first three dot points are especially interesting:

  1. What type of job is best?  Singer starts the book by describing a brilliant philosophy student of his at Harvard who decided he could be more effective, not by taking a do-gooder job, but rather by becoming an investment banker and donating a high percentage of his income (more than six figures) to highly effective causes.  I had a Hispanic friend in law school who once told me essentially the same thing – i.e., when we talked about the possibility of working for a low-paying legal aid clinic, he pointed out that he wouldn’t be advancing the cause of his people by declining to be economically successful.  If he didn’t take the job, Legal Aid could hire someone almost as effective as him, so his positive effect would be marginal.
  2. Will having children diminish your ability to do good?  Although this question might initially seem to concern only radical altruists, upon further reflection it is quite analogous to the Catholic Church rationale for celibacy for those who become priests and sisters/nuns.  Raising kids clearly draws from your energy and financial resources, but Singer points out that the kids don’t need to cost that much and provide much joy to you and are likely to be forces of good in the future.
  3. How important is empathy to altruism?  Singer describes two types of empathy – emotional empathy includes “empathetic concern” and “personal distress” while cognitive empathy includes “perspective taking” and “fantasy.” Effective altruists may not possess emotional empathy, but they invariably possess cognitive empathy.

Later in the book, Singer elaborated on the job-selection conundrum by describing an MIT grad who did essentially the same thing as the Harvard grad (joined a hedge fund instead of investment banking).  The choice of the MIT grad was subsequently formally challenged by my favorite columnist at the NY Times, David Brooks.  According to Brooks, a grad who takes a job based on maximizing his income runs three risks:

  1. Our daily activities change us, and by working as an investment banker or at a hedge fund, a person’s ideals could slip and be less committed to giving.
  2. Choosing a profession that does not arouse your passion might leave you loving humanity in general but not the particular humans around you.
  3. Most importantly, turning yourself into a machine to make money and redistribute money might be corrosive to your humanity.

Suffice to say, Singer refuted, or at least deflected all of these charges.  One of his most significant caveats was that “earning to give is not for everyone.”

Fascinating book.  I’m going to have to think some more about Rand’s fear of preaching self-sacrifice or selflessness.  While I think people helping people should be voluntary, I also think it would be unethical for me to live a life that consumes an inordinate amount of the world’s limited resources.  Despite how capitalism allocates rewards, “You didn’t built that!”

Incidentally, while reviewing my earlier blogposts about Ayn Rand and altruism, I noted the following discussion in a review of George Gilder’s book, Wealth and Poverty:

Because Gilder is a great fan of Ayn Rand, he felt it necessary in his Prologue to explain why Rand was incorrect in concluding that capitalism and altruism were inconsistent:

  • “I hugely admired Rand, who flung her moral defense of capitalism in the face of Soviet terror and socialist intellectual tyranny.  But toward Christian altruism she indulged an implacable hostility, stemming in part from her own simplistic atheism and in part from her disdain for the leveler babble of sanctimonious clerics.”

Gilder is a confirmed supply-sider and his protagonists are Arthur Laffer, along with Friedman, Hayek, Buckley, Kristol, Kemp, and Wanniski, while his antagonists are demand-siders Galbraith, Thurow, Zinn, Chait, Krugman, and of course Keynes.

In addition to Gilder’s moral defense of capitalism, I was most impressed by his two-pronged argument that effective capitalism requires (a) the accumulation of capital, and (b) a capitalistic spirit in its people.

I dare say that Singer’s effective altruists retain their entrepreneurial spirit, but they are not so good on accumulation of capital.  Indeed, one of my fundamental concerns about massively spreading the wealth is the significant damage that would be done to the economic engine of the modern world economy.

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