Note: A shorter version of this interview was previously published at PSI Impact. This post is the extended text of that interview.
Tyler John and Chris Byrd are the President and Vice-President, respectively, of Giving What We Can: DC (GWWC: DC). Ahead of GWWC-DC and PSI’s joint event, The Most Good You Can Do: A Conversation with Peter Singer, John and Byrd discuss the effective altruist movement and how it relates to PSI. Join us on Friday November 13,, 2015 in Washington DC to listen to Peter Singer and go into more depth about this growing movement.
1) What is Singer’s most influential piece of work, in your opinion?
TJ Singer’s most influential work has probably been Animal Liberation. In philosophy this was the first sustained manuscript devoted to answering the question of how we ought to act regarding nonhuman animals. It helped to spawn a lively discussion in philosophy about nonhuman animals and now, 40 years later, nearly no philosophers think that it’s okay to treat animals the ways we currently do. But the book is also credited with kicking off the whole modern-day animal rights movement, in the U.S. as well as internationally.
CB It’s hard to know how to measure his influence. It gets hard to separate Peter’s personal achievements from the influence of his written work.. Animal Liberation may well be Prof. Singer’s most influential piece of work. In Animal Liberation, Peter managed to ferret out a moral issue that many ordinary people cared about, but that wasn’t part of the public discourse. My first exposure to Peter Singer was in the context of animal rights, and I think that’s still true for many today. Another way to measure Peter’s influence is in his impact on human lives, and by that standard his TED talk ‘The How and Why of Effective Altruism’ might be his most influential work. I can’t tell you how many people who are now deeply committed to solving global poverty have told me that watching that TED talk drew them to the cause.
2) Can you tell us about his most recent book – The Most Good You Can Do?
TJ The Most Good You Can Do is something of a manifesto for the effective altruism movement. In it Singer explains that a growing number of individuals and organizations are choosing to devote great amounts of time and resources to the most effective causes, and he argues persuasively that each one of us should join the movement. If we can, by sacrificing a little, prevent a great harm from occurring, we ought to do so, and we ought to do so in a very prudent and thoughtful way.
CB The Most Good You Can Do is about the blossoming effective altruism movement, and the importance of thinking critically about giving. If The Life You Can Save is about opportunity, The Most Good You Can Do is about responsibility. Giving to charity can be very emotional; for many of us, the decision to give is motivated by strong feelings of compassion and hope for the world to be a better place. I believe that our ability to care in this way is the best part of human nature. Despite the reverence that I, and many others, feel for these emotions, they can lead us astray. The Most Good You Can Do is Peter’s attempt to help us navigate our feelings and give where it will do, well, the most good.
3) Where does the effective altruism come from and what does it mean to the every day person?
TJ Effective altruism is a movement that started at Oxford University in 2009, though the movement’s ideals were first codified in Singer’s famous paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, and subsequent book The Life You Can Save. In its simplest form, effective altruism says this: Figure out what you really value, and then make that a significant priority in your life. If you’re disturbed by poverty, disease, and infant death, take a significant portion of your time and money and use it to eliminate as much extreme poverty as you can. If you can’t stand animal suffering, devote a part of your life to farm animal advocacy so that you can save as many animals from a horrible fate as is possible. Effective altruism means giving generously, working effectively for causes, and engaging in meaningful activism – each of us should contribute in whatever way we can.
CB Where does the effective altruism come from and what does it mean to the every day person?
To my knowledge, the term ‘effective altruism’ first came into use at Oxford in/around 2009, when Toby Ord and William MacAskill were beginning to drum up support for what eventually became Giving What We Can. Effective altruism has since become the rallying cry for a social movement dedicated to putting more of the world’s wealth and expertise where it can be of most value. I think that I’m an every day person, and to me effective altruism is really just putting resources where they can create the most benefit for everyone. It just so happens that some of the biggest opportunities to help people cheaply and easily are in the world’s poorest countries. Many nonprofits are taking advantage of the human-welfare gold rush that exists in the developing world, and a few of those stand out far beyond the rest.
4) How can effective altruism be applied to poverty reduction?
TJ Nearly everyone cares about reducing poverty. Poverty makes life more difficult, makes illness more prevalent, and means that people can’t get the things that they need or want. If we want to reduce poverty, then we should do so in the most effective way possible. For example, we might have $1,000 that we want to spend on poverty reduction. We could give that $1,000 to a Standard Charity, which would use the $1,000 to provide a child with medical care and food for three years (this is a real example from a popular child sponsorship charity). Or, on the other hand, we could give that $1,000 to an Effective Charity – like PSI, for example. $1,000 given to PSI will provide fifty-six years of healthy life through disease-prevention, maternal health, family planning and other health services. Compared to the three years that could be provided by the Standard Charity, it seems perfectly clear that PSI is the better buy, and that all of us should be giving to Effective Charities rather than Standard Charities.
I think this message also needs to be taken very seriously by NGO’s that fight extreme poverty. Effective altruism is a call to action for Standard Charities to take a look at what Effective Charities are doing and see how they, themselves, can do better – in some extreme cases, this may mean as much as revising their whole business model.
CB Effective altruism aligns very naturally with poverty reduction. Poverty sucks. People trapped in poverty struggle for even the most basic human needs. They get sick more that other people, and suffer more from their illnesses, they do incredibly hard work for incredibly long periods and still barely manage to get food, water, and a safe place to sleep. Poverty is also incredibly prevalent. In 2012, 2.2 billion people lived on an income below ~3 US dollars a day. That’s 7 times the population of the United States. Such a huge problem represents an incredible opportunity to improve the well-being of the world. Poverty, as any expert will tell you, is also a very tough nut to crack. Effective altruists can help accelerate the elimination of poverty by researching and funding the most effective methods of bringing people out of poverty, and encouraging others to do the same. Effective altruism encourages charities to be transparent and accountable, and can help direct money to the organizations which are doing the best job of ending poverty, not just advertising to their donors. We must have high standards for those working on behalf of the poor. We owe it to each other.
5) Peter Singer has always been a staunch supporter of Population Services International (PSI). What aspects of PSI do you think resonate with him most?
TJ Singer is committed to supporting whatever causes will do the most good, all-things-considered. He must believe that PSI will do comparably more good than the vast majority of other charities fighting extreme poverty and improving human health. I just used a figure from Singer’s organization, The Life You Can Save, which predicts that for less than $18 PSI can provide a year of healthy life to someone living in extreme poverty – that’s over eighteen times more benefit than the Standard Charity I mentioned above provides! It certainly doesn’t hurt that, in addition to providing health benefits, PSI’s family planning education programs help impoverished parents to have smaller and better-timed families, which is likely to produce economic benefits and, by slowing the growth of the human population, decrease humanity’s negative impact on the environment, our climate, and non-human animals. I think these are some of the reasons why Singer supports PSI.
CB Peter Singer has always been a staunch supporter of Population Services International (PSI). What aspects of PSI do you think resonate with him most?
Most nonprofits start out with great intentions. It is easy to remain focused on improving your organization and your work when a group is small and young. It is much harder to stay that way after those years of hard work pay off with size and success. As one of the largest charities in the world, and also one of the most effective, PSI serves as a model for what international development organizations can be. PSI’s family planning and contraceptive programs are innovative and well-run and their impact is carefully tracked. PSI can buy an insecticide-treated malaria net, deliver it, and educate the recipient on its use for $10. That’s incredible; it’s an extraordinary opportunity to invest in our fellow human beings. I think Peter recognizes that PSI has become large enough to have a truly global impact without losing sight of a world where its programs are no longer needed. That’s a very rare thing.
6) Why did you decide to start Giving What We Can – DC? What is the main purpose of the organization? Why should people get involved?
TJ I started Giving What We Can: DC to encourage others to give more of their time and money to the most important causes. Giving What We Can: DC is a society, or in other words a social gathering. We meet regularly so that members can help one another decide how and where they should give, talk about philosophy and philanthropy, and encourage one another to keep doing our best. We also host events, like this one. We have a number of very fun and interesting events planned for the months that follow Singer’s talk.
People should become members of GWWC: DC if they want to figure out how best to help others, if they want to inspire others to give to the most important causes, or if they simply want to meet other altruists and advocates and have a good time. Members of our chapter plan to give over $10 million dollars in their lifetimes, and joining GWWC: DC is a great way to help encourage others (and yourself!) to do the same.
CB It is very hard to become aware of suffering. By acknowledging that those living in poverty are real, we become affected by their pain. Once you realize that terrible things are happening to innocent people just doing their best, there is this need to fix it. I think almost everyone who is moved to help people in the poorest places in the world feels called to work on the ground. One of the early insights of the effective altruism movement was that the best ways to help those in need are often not the most visceral or satisfying. For most people in the United States, they can have a far greater impact by building a career, learning valuable skills, and earning money to give to organizations that are implementing the most effective programs to end poverty. Giving What We Can DC is a community of people in the DC area who want to support one another in taking this path, and encourage others to do the same. Giving doesn’t have to be a chore, it can be a deeply rewarding thing. Giving What We Can is here to help people give more, more easily.
7) Final question – how has Peter Singer’s work shaped the way you live your life?
TJ It’s unlikely that any single person has shaped my life more than Peter Singer has. Singer’s writings have dramatically shaped the things that I value, and have influenced me to become an advocate for the global poor as well as non-human animals. It is largely due to Singer’s influence that I hope to attend graduate school next fall and begin a career as a moral philosopher. (Apart from his influence, I’d likely have become a doctor.) Without Singer’s work, I very probably would not have started GWWC: DC, pledged to give a significant portion of my income, or stopped consuming animal products. Peter Singer is one of my great heroes.
CB Peter Singer is a hero of mine. He has this incredible ability to connect people’s hearts with their heads. Before becoming involved in the effective altruism movement, I was cynical about changing the world for the better. The most important problems seemed hopelessly large, and charities seemed more interested in manipulating my emotions than creating change. Through exposure to Peter’s ideas, my vision for my life and my role in the world radically changed. I am so incredibly lucky to have been born where and when I was; I have an amazing opportunity to make the world better. I hope that by exposing people to Peter’s work, others will realize how much power they have to change the world for the better.