The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

After reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and being blown away by it some 40 years after everybody else, I thought I was craving some more practical ethics and looked up his back catalogue. I found out he recently published The Most Good You Can Do, drawing from his earlier The Life You Can Save. As Animal Liberation had, The Most Good You Can Do taught me an incredible amount of things I didn’t know (facts, I mean) and also fired me up to try and do something about the state of the world as it is now.

The purpose of the book is to explain what effective altruism is and why it works, as well as how we can all make its principles inform our daily choices. A lot of the examples are cut-and-dried cases where we already have the knowledge to make the choices which will have the most impact on say, saving lives. We all have a sense that giving $100 to a charity that will spend half on it on administration fees and the other half on the actual cause it supports is less efficient than, for example, giving $100 to a charity which will use a ratio closer to 20/80. However, what if the first charity spends the $50 remaining on useful, valuable projects that bear fruits, and the second squanders the $80 it has left to spend? Efficiency goes deeper than most of us stop to consider.

The first thing we don’t always take the time to reflect upon is how many of our charitable choices are based on passion, not reason. Maybe you give money for a museum to have a new wing because you personally love the arts, regardless of whether it will benefit others in any significant way. Another pull on our empathy is geographical closeness bias: you give in support of one child in your neighbourhood, instead of several children you don’t know further away, even though they would have benefited more from the same amount of money. We also often don’t take into account in the slightest how much difference our contribution will make on any given number of lives. For example, Peter Singer cites research which has found than in the United States, it costs $40 000 to supply one blind person with a guide dog. “But the cost of preventing someone going blind [in the first place] because of trachoma, the most common cause of preventable blindness, is in the range of $20-$100”. To make matters even more clear-cut, getting trachoma in the poorest countries is akin to a death sentence, as people wouldn’t benefit from the support systems that exist in the West. Knowing the findings detailed in the book, I don’t think I will regard any charitable work in the same light as I did before. Why did we never think of this all until recently? I can’t help but think that the effective altruism movement is in part born out of our increasingly inegalitarian world; faced with how severe the situation is, effective altruists are trying to do something about it.

While I was reading the first few chapters of the book, I said to myself “I must therefore be stupid to want to donate to the UK Vegetarian Society as I was planning to do; it would be better to give elsewhere”. It turned out I had it all wrong; actually, one of the most efficient donations one could give would be to a vegetarian, or better, vegan society. Since the world as we know it is likely to come to an end due to climate change, and climate change is for a large part caused by unsustainable meat and dairy production, it has been calculated that donating to a vegetarian or vegan society is more efficient in terms of environmental protection than donating to self-professed ecological charities. Most conventional ecological charities try and encourage people to have shorter showers (an actual drop in the ocean) or use their car a tiny bit less, where vegetarian/vegan societies, by efficiently helping at least some people reduce or stop their meat/dairy consumption, actually have a stronger impact on environmental protection in general and global warming in particular. That’s for the ecological argument in favour of donating to vegetarian/vegan societies as opposed to purely environmental organisations (on this, see also the documentary Cowspiracy).

Of course, in terms of numbers of lives saved, and if we consider that every life is worth saving (that of a pig as much as that of a dog, say), it is also infinitely more worthwhile giving to a vegan society than a simple animal defence organisation. £10 might get you a few cans of dog food and sustain a rescue dog for a few days, but £10 can also buy hundreds of leaflets on how to go vegan; if those leaflets help convince just one person to go vegan, that’s quite a few animal lives saved over the course of that new vegan’s lifetime. Peter Singer would possibly go further and say that in some circumstances a non-human animal life is as worth saving as a human animal life, so it’s also possible to compare the number of lives saved by a vegan society to the number of lives saved by any other charity.

I found interesting to discover that effective altruism is on the rise, and not just because of the meta-charities that now exist to review the effectiveness of other organisations, like GiveWell in the USA. They are more people now than 10 or 20 years ago who voluntarily give a kidney to an anonymous recipient, for example. Peter Singer also tells us about how effective “altruism” is to some altruists not altruism at all, such are the benefits they rip from their everyday applied ethics. It is the old idea, now proven by psychological research, that giving is better than receiving, and that being generous makes you happy. The effective altruists depicted in the book all seem to be happy bunnies who take their generosity as far as they feel like taking it: some would give away a kidney, but wouldn’t stretch to giving a fifth of their income; some took up jobs where they make a ton of money, allowing them to then donate up to half of their earnings to well-researched charities; some are on low incomes and still have worked out a percentage of their earnings they can painlessly give away; others yet are rich and in search of a purpose to give their life… As one might expect, a lot of them are altruistic in many respects, and not just in one way. They might donate regularly to charities, and also be vegan. It reinforces the idea that being altruistic works on the sum of all the many ways in which we can give back to the world what it is giving us and share what resources we are lucky to enjoy with the rest of humanity.

The many thoughts brought on by reading this book tied in very well with an online course I started a couple of months ago initiated by Guy Burgs, the Art of Meditation teacher, and untitled The Give Back Generation Programme: when you are part of the tiny percentile of the earth’s population which is wealthy, in good health and using the planet as if there’s no tomorrow, how can you stop taking away too much and start giving back? In my case, the main answer has been, since reading The Most Good You Can Do and starting The Give Back Generation Programme, to go vegan, as that is the least I can do immediately, effortlessly and joyfully. Being vegan does make me happy as well, so what’s not to love?


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