Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Most Good You Can Do

Group 1 - Section 8

    Living in a better world is a dream or vision that I am sure most everyone has had at some time in their lives. What that looks like to each individual person is most definitely different, as we are all unique individual beings. Our ideas of a better world may be based on our faith, our own personal philosophies, or our own aspirations for ourselves. So how does one participate in contributing to a better world, when there is not a single meaning of what that is?
    To do good, is a vague, yet simple answer to that query. It has the power to encapsulate all of the various visions of a better future, it seems an obvious answer that good should beget more good, and we can all live happily ever after in this world we have made good together.
    Peter Singer challenges the general idea of “doing good” by explaining exactly how to do the most good you can. This concept centers around altruism, which by dictionary definition means: 
‘Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others’ 
     This of course is not the definition Singer ascribes to. His drills down further on the concept of altruism by specifying that it is effective altruism that is the method through which we can do the most good. The definition of effective altruism he provides is:
 ‘a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world.’ 
    He goes on to further to explain the concept of effective altruism, and what makes an effective altruist, setting hard and clear guidelines to what otherwise would be a vague path to doing “true good”. This includes making large life decisions based on what I’ve come to refer to as the effective-altruistic-state-of-mind. According to Singer, in order to be an effective altruist, one should live modestly, donate more than the traditional tenth of your income to effective charities, research and analyze charities in order to determine their effectiveness, choose (specifically choose!) a career in order to give more, and to also give of yourself, through organ or other bodily donations.
    One critical point of these guidelines is the phrase effective charities. Effectiveness is certainly an overarching theme of the entire book - effective altruism, effective charities - so what does it mean for a charity to actually be effective? Singer challenges and states that effective altruists should challenge the worthiness of a charity before deciding to give. One such example he gives is the Make a Wish Foundation. In the book, a sick, young child’s wish to be Batman comes true in a beautiful and heart-warming way sounds worth every penny to give that one child that moment of true happiness. Is that not good? When it is removed from its emotional overtones and broken down into cold, hard numbers, the answer is no. The average cost to fulfill a child’s wish is around $8,000. If that same amount of money were to be given to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides bed nets to protect families in malaria-prone regions, three lives could be spared instead of one good day pretending to be Batman. These are the types of analytical decisions an effective altruist should make, based on logic rather than emotion, which in my opinion is a very difficult task to accomplish! Similar to the Make a Wish Foundation, and near and dear to my heart, is Second Wind Dreams. This charity works to make dreams come true as well, but for seniors. I can’t make it through this video without feeling some kind of emotion, which is most often inspiration to get involved and try to help someone experience that kind of joy and happiness.
    So should charities like the Make a Wish Foundation and Second Wind Dreams stop? Should we stop contributing to their efforts because they are not good enough? This is where, in my opinion, Singer walks into a contradiction. He admits that not enough people give of themselves to others, and those who do, aren’t doing it right. I feel like in our day and age, if you can give just a little, would that not be enough, or at least a step in the right direction? As I mentioned earlier, can good not beget more good? The first part of The Most Good You Can Do can entice these questions out of your very soul, and lead you, whether you are skeptical or in agreement with his argument, to continue reading….

Giving a Part of Yourself 

    According to Peter Singer, in order to become an effective altruist, one must give a part of themselves. Singer uses a literal example of this to create an analogy - he anonymously donated his kidney for whoever needed it the most and such created a "kidney chain" of others who donated their kidneys. This saved a total of four lives. Eventually, as altruistic kidney donation became legal, after just 4 years a total of 25 people donated a kidney to a stranger. This literal instance of giving a part of yourself is a great analogy for figuratively giving a part of yourself. If you take the time out of your day, everyday, to simply be kind to others and do good deeds, even if it may not benefit you, this will start a chain of others who feel inspired by your good deeds.

    This point boils down very simply - Be kind to others, and others will be kind to you. In keeping true with Singer's definition of effective altruism, being selflessly concerned for others is a great first step in spreading the philosophical movement of improving the world.

    As discussed in the previous sections of the book, effective altruism can be concluded as people who are ‘sufficiently concerned about the welfare of others to make meaningful changes in their lives’. Effective altruists ‘limit their spending or take a different career path so that they will have more to give or will be more useful in some other way’. But what causes effective altruism to differ from selfless love or random acts of kindness?
    The definition of empathy can be defined as:
‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of others’. 
    Many believe this definition cannot allow others to fully comprehend the entirety of empathy, as it is a complex emotion. A study was conducted by psychologists to assess empathy (the Interpersonal Reactivity Inventory) and broke empathy down into four main components: empathic concern, personal distress, perspective taking, and fantasy.

    As read, each component is vastly different from one another, but harmonize well to make up what we know broadly as empathy. However, selfless love is more commonly focused on emotional empathy or empathic concern as well as fantasy, while effective altruists rely moreso on perspective taking, which is a component not commonly addressed when focusing on empathy. Effective altruists rely on each set of statistics from the situation and how they can be manipulated in order to provide the most satisfied outcome. Effective altruists also steer away from emotional empathy, as they believe it can sway one’s reasoning and cause them to act impulsively rather than to see the situation from every possible angle.
    The lack of knowledge surrounding the components of empathy allows for an excessive amount of backlash of the ideology of effective altruism; many critics to see effective altruists as ‘heartless’ and ‘cold-stoned’. In reality, what drives effective altruists is focused around reason but also empathy, just an uncommon form of the word.

    Many effective altruists do not associate their ideology with self-sacrifice. They see it as doing the most good humanly possible in their lifetime, and in return it provides them with a fulfillment of true happiness. Altruism can be related to self-sacrifice, yes, but it is not the center of altruism. True altruism is centered around what makes people who relate to altruism happy and whether or not it involves increasing the well-being of others or not. If one’s interests aren’t centered around others, then it is not altruism, only simply emotional empathy and a little bit of selfless love in attempt to do the most good possible, by their ideology.

You can find our selection of excerpts from The Most Good You Can Do by following the link below!


1. What is altruism contrasted with? How does effective altruism relate to self-sacrifice?
2. What have Psychologists noticed in studying giving behavior?
3. In what class did Singer have the idea of donating a kidney?
4. When did altruistic kidney donation become legal in the United Kingdom?
5. What is the main concern for effective altruists? What do they do in their lives to live up to the true definition of effective altruism? What motivates effective altruists? (75-76)
6. What are the four distinct components of empathy, as founded by the Interpersonal Reactivity Inventory? (70)
7. What moral judgements do effective altruists share with utilitarians?(78)


1. What do you think of this quote by Peter Singer? Do you think in this day and age that we we need more ‘effective’ altruism?
2. In the trolley example on page 79, what would you do in that situation? What’s your justification for your answer?

1 comment:

  1. If it really became widely unacceptable for the well-off to do nothing for the poor, we'd have to have Bernie's revolution. Right?