Changing Priorities: Effective Altruism

Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher and current Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, often poses two simple questions to his audience: "What is a human life worth?"; and if you saw a child drowning in a shallow pond, "do you have any obligations to rescue the child?"

With these questions, Singer embarks his journey into effective altruism, a social and philosophical movement aimed at improving the world using evidence and reason to work out the many global problems. Effective altruism tends to appeal to people's compassion and intellect maximizing accomplishments in an effective manner. In other words, we should aim "to do as much good as possible with each dollar and each hour that we have." Prime examples are Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, the most effective altruists in history.

However, individuals who have embraced this model do not have to be the Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates of the world. Toby Ord, a philosophy researcher at the University of Oxford, calculated that his life's salary as an academic is equivalent to curing 80,000 people of blindness in developing countries. He calculated an adequate standard of living for himself and pledged the rest of his money to charity. Ord's effort led him to establish Giving What We Can, an international society dedicated to eliminating poverty in the developing world. Ord is not an anomaly; there are a plentiful of people who have made the commitment to effective altruism.

An important—and often controversial—aspect of effective altruism is how to best achieve results. To be put it bluntly, as Singer has, "What should a billionaire give—and what should you?" Critics interpret this as one's sole purpose is working to help alleviate the world's problems. However, they misunderstand the core mission of effective altruism. The focus is placed on the repercussions of people's actions on the world. Almost universally, Singer's audiences agree that they would save the drowning child and that they would place a high value on every human life. Yet, every day 19,000 children around the world die. Therefore, effective altruism requires a shift of paradigm in everyday practices, "[each] of us spends money on things that we do not really need...You could take the money you're spending on those unnecessary things and give to [any] organization" one feels passionate about.

Effective altruism is not meant to shame people in donating their money or time. It is an ethical stance that priorities changing the way the world is viewed.