Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"Effective Altruism and Ethical Living"

Posted for Samantha Rozell, Section 8-Installment 1 and 2

Peter Singer, born in July of 1946, is an Australian philosopher who teaches at a few

universities, specializing in applied ethics. The definition of ‘applied ethics’ can be summed as

the philosophical examination of a situation, private or public life, that requires moral judgement.

This being Singer’s specialty, he’s most known for his book Animal Liberation, published in

1975. The popularity behind it was gained from Singer’s active support for vegetarianism and

breaks down his support through the argument of rights when it comes to human and nonhuman

life. However, for this final installment, I’m going to shift the interest over to Singer’s most

recent novels, The Most Good You Can Do.

For the midterm reports, my group had chosen Singer’s book out of the fascination of

effective altruism and what exactly that entailed. The definition of effective altruism, gained

from reading Singer’s book, is the philosophical motive that applies logic and reasoning to

situations to determine the most probable outcome to benefit the highest amount of people

possible. A selfless, disinterested approach to highly emotional situations. The idea seems

pleasant in theory; one being able to make a logical decision that’s the most beneficial without

emotions factoring their decision. But where’s the line drawn where the pleasant idea is


In the first section of the book, Singer brings up a scenario in which no one has ever truly

questioned: The Make a Wish Foundation. To effective altruists, the Foundation can be seen as a

ploy to fool people into believing they are doing the most good by granting a dying child’s final

wish. Sounds harsh, believe me. In most people’s minds, the desire to fulfill the empathetic side

of our reasoning outweighs the rest, especially in high emotion, philosophical situations.

However, in Singer’s eyes and others who practice effective altruism, the money used to grant

one child’s wish can be used to aid in developing a cure that kills hundreds of people annually or

provide food and shelter for multiple homeless people. Granting the wish for one child isn’t

doing what’s best for the greater good.

Another scenario is the trolley example. A famous philosophical situation laid out as so:

You’re standing near a pair of train tracks. At the end of the track, there’s a person tied up,

unable to move. The trolley is coming full speed, essentially going to kill said person. In front of

you, there’s a lever that if you pull, switches the trolley to a different track that has five people at

the end of the track rather than one. Meaning, you would kill five people instead of one. What do

you do? The first time this situation was ever addressed to me, was outside the book. It was

mentioned in a movie I watched, titled After the Dark. However, in the movie, a scenario was

added on top of the original, since the majority of people asked the question would agree to kill

the one person to save five. The twist follows: Instead of a lever, there’s an obese man who, if

pushed in front of the trolley, weighs enough to derail the trolley, and saves the person tied to the

track. Do you push him?

My opinion, in all honesty, is both situations results in murder. Whether you passively sit

back, where you don’t pull the lever or push the man, or whether you do pull the lever or do push

the man; the situation cannot be justified. At the end of the day, whether you saved one person or

five, whether you killed five people or one, it’s murder. Now of course, these situations are

hypothetical and not meant to be taken literally, but, in reality, no one quite knows what they

would do in a situation like the trolley example because it would never happen. People can sit

and ponder all day and argue why their viewpoint is more logical than the next; if the situation

did arise, everyone, no matter what set of ethics they have or philosophical beliefs, will act

purely on impulse. And that is not something that can be argued or altered.

I wasn’t aware of the term ‘effective altruism’ before I read Singer’s book. I honestly

wish I had stayed blissfully unaware of the term. If anything, it angers me. I do agree with some

points, such as Singer’s belief in body donation, but the practice as a whole I strongly disagree

with. It could be because I see myself as a very empathetic person and I cannot understand, no

matter how hard I open my mind and try to comprehend, how someone can take such a cold,

analytical approach to situations that require emotional input to fully understand. I fully believe,

contradicting Singer’s entire belief, that effective altruism could destroy us as a society. In

certain situations, it could be deemed as efficient, but removing emotion and analyzing

everything as robotic as effective altruists come across removes empathy. Empathy is what keeps

us sane. Empathy allows us to recognize others as human as we see ourselves. It’s what leads to

forgiveness and happiness and love.

Doing the most good in life is ideal for everyone. But ideal situations always have

consequences. I’m not saying my moral and ethical compass is the only way. I’m not saying

effective altruism isn’t needed. A balance is key in any situation, philosophical or not. One

extreme doesn’t need to dominate every other option is all.

Philosophical ethics such as effective altruists allow young philosophers to analyze their

own morals. It allows them to be exposed to certain situations or ideas and lets them form their

own way of thinking, which is beneficial no matter your own beliefs. To finish off this final blog

post, a quote from Peter Singer himself on the idea of our responsibility in the world: “I believe

that in this new world that we live in, we often have a responsibility, you know, to actually go

beyond the thou shalt nots- that is, the not harming others- and say we can help others and we

should be helping others.”

Additional links:
-Effective Altruism: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/

-Peter Singer discussing effective altruism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Diuv3XZQXyc

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