Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Effective altruism is the practice of donating money based on where it will do the most good in the world. Research shows that currently only a small amount of the world's charity is donated this way. Most people donate money based on emotional appeal (look at this photo of a sick child) or personal connection (their alma mater, a friend's fundraiser), and limited to their own locale or country.

The concept of effective altruism appeals to me a lot because it is like a turbo boost to the Secret Peace. The main thesis of my book is that the world slowly and inexorably gets better just due to people going about their lives, since most people contribute to civilization in some small way. If people were to actively try to make the world a better place - and of course many people do this - it would speed along this process. And if those people were able to focus their energy in the most effective way, on the world's most dire but solvable problems, well, then you get that turbo boost.

So, the more people that buy into effective altruism, the better. And it doesn't take a lot. It just means that whatever amount of money you normally donate to charity, try to donate it to the best places. There are organizations that rank charities (such as GiveWell) and can recommend the best ones. (Singer makes the good point that the frequent criteria "What % of your money is wasted on overhead?" is not as important as "Is our work actually effective?") And, if you don't already donate a good chunk of your income to charity, try to donate a little more. Because I can tell you, if you're reading this, there is definitely someone out there who needs it more than you.

Unfortunately, if the goal is to get more people to do this, I don't know that Singer's book is the one to do it. It's just not inspiring. It has a little more of a lecturing tone, sadly. My main concern with this book is not its noble intention, but that Singer's philosophical habit of arguing via anecdotes and hypothetical examples is contrary to the ethical altruists' aims of focusing on hard data.

Singer's focus on elevating animals to human status is also distracting in the book. I get that this is his famous thing, but it's just a separate issue. It's trying to do two things at once. I agree with his focus on empathy and a lot of his writing in this regard, such as the expanding circle, but here it's overreach.

I was hoping for more of a focus on comparing the different topics we could be spending resources on and ranking them. Instead, we get similar arguments for the main idea, repeated. The book is not structured well.

And while I agree with 90% of Singer's utilitarian leanings, I disagree that the logical end of the super effective altruist is taking a job you loathe or job that hurts others, just to make enough money to help more others. The ends can not justify the means. We have to approach the problem from both sides, and every part of our lives should be consistently ethical.