I used to read a lot of Peter Singer in my school years, and have always been quite easily persuaded by his writings. So, when I got his 2009 book The Life You Can Save, I already knew the basic argument, that I would find no reasonable objections, and that the conclusion would be uncomfortable. It sat on my bookshelf for over a year, unread.
Perhaps it was the latent discomfort that pushed me to finally take the book off the shelf. A one-sentence summary will do: If you can prevent suffering or death, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, then you should. There are some philosophically interesting problems, many oft-repeated concerns, and a few lingering doubts, but as expected nothing that makes inaction look like the best choice.
The landscape has changed a bit since The Life You Can Save, with the emergence of the philosophy and movement now known as effective altruism. Three similarly-titled books on these issues were recently published, and I binge-read them all: Singer’s new book The Most Good You Can Do, William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, and Nick Cooney’s How To Be Great At Doing Good. The latter was not my cup of tea, but the other two are both great reads. If I had to recommend one book it would be Doing Good Better.
I will make no attempt to summarize, because the authors have done that themselves in many podcasts and videos. Singer and MacAskill’s Aussie and Scottish dialects add to the experience, and I’ve gone through everything I could find. My top picks are in bold.
- Cause Talk Radio #130: The Rise of Effective Altruism, Or Generosity for Nerds with William MacAskill (27 min)
- CGD Podcast: Doing Good Is No Place for Emotion with William MacAskill (21 min)
- Development Drums #15: Peter Singer on The Life You Can Save (58 min)
- Development Drums #29: Toby Ord on Giving What We Can (68 min)
- EconTalk: William MacAskill on Effective Altruism and Doing Good Better (69 min)
- Face2Face: Peter Singer on poverty, animal ethics and utilitarianism (36 min)
- Point of Inquiry: Peter Singer on The Life You Can Save (37 min)
- Point of Inquiry: Peter Singer on Maximizing Morality with Reason (37 min)
- Rainbow Light: William MacAskill is ‘Doing Good Better’ (54 min)
- Rationally Speaking #36: Holden Karnofsky on Evidence-based Philanthropy (43 min, about GiveWell)
- Rationally Speaking #97: Peter Singer on Being a Utilitarian in the Real World (47 min)
- Rationally Speaking #121: Benjamin Todd on 80,000 Hours (51 min)
- Rich Roll Podcast #178: William MacAskill on ‘Effective Altrusim’ & How To Maximize Positive Global Impact (121 min)
- Skepticality #231: Do The Most Good with William MacAskill (32 min starting at 26:30)
- Speaking with: Peter Singer on effective altruism (15 min)
- This American Life #503: I Was Just Trying To Help (30 min starting at 6:14, about GiveDirectly)
- Tony Martignetti Nonprofit Radio #253: Doing Good Better with William MacAskill (57 min)
- Peter Singer: The Life You Can Save talk at Google (57 min)
- Peter Singer: The Most Good You Can Do talk at Google (60 min)
- Peter Singer: The Most Good You Can Do interview on HuffPost Live (19 min)
- Peter Singer: The Why and How of Effective Altruism TED talk (17 min)
- William MacAskill: Effective Altruism talk at Global Ideas Forum 2013 (17 min)
- William MacAskill: Want to make a difference? Don’t Work for a Charity TEDx talk (17 min)
- William MacAskill: Why you shouldn’t boycott sweatshops or bother with Fairtrade (3 min)
Now what? Some effective altruists are giving 10–50% of their income, which is in equal parts inspiring and intimidating. The most good you can do is very good indeed, but Singer also suggests a minimum standard for giving, a baseline to get us started. I’ll give it a try.
I pledge that over the coming year I will give 2.5% of my (after-tax) income to organizations effectively helping people living in extreme poverty.