Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Peter Singer has been described as the world’s most influential philosopher. Born in Melbourne in 1946, he has been professor of bioethics at Princeton University since 1999. His many books[…]

Peter Singer, author of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” discusses the benefits of effective altruism and our moral obligation to help others.

Effective altruism focuses on raising the minimum living standards and encourages everyone, not just the wealthy, to give and find happiness in contributing to a better world. Singer breaks down the history of the effective altruism movement and shares the example of Zell Kravinsky, who donated most of his wealth and a kidney to a stranger, exemplifying the practice.

Singer also emphasizes the need to do thorough research before donating to any cause to ensure the greatest good. 

PETER SINGER: Back in the 1970s, I wrote an article called "Famine, Affluence and Morality," which was encouraging us to be altruistic and suggested that if we were affluent then morality required that, we help people to some degree. Which I used the story of rescuing a drowning child in a shallow pond, and I said that, "If you saw such a child and you were the only person there to stop the child drowning but you didn't do it because you were wearing expensive clothes you didn't want to ruin, that would be a horrible thing to do. But if you agree that that's a horrible thing to do when the child is in front of you, then what about when the child isn't in front of you but is in a different country, but you can still be very confident that your donation will help them?"

That article got widely reprinted in a lot of philosophy anthologies, so it got used in a lot of classrooms, and among those philosophy students were two, Toby Ord and William MacAskill. They both read the article and they were interested in altruism. From very small beginnings, they built up this Effective Altruism Movement, which is now a global movement. It has followers in many, many countries, has been responsible for moving billions of dollars into more effective causes.

Effective altruism suggests that, "If you are gonna be altruistic, then you should try to be as effective as you can with what you're doing." Our species evolved in circumstances when hard times were unpredictable: there might be droughts and famines, so it was good to increase our hoard of food if we wanted to survive. And somehow, the genes for doing that remain in us. I'm not against people putting things away in case things get economically tougher, but we can do that with some of our wealth and we can be quite confident that we'll have enough and we may still have more, even beyond what we need to prepare for the future.

Zell Kravinsky was an interesting man who had an ability to make money from real estate investments. But he didn't really want the money. He was quite comfortable living with his family in a suburban home near Philadelphia. So he decided that he would give almost all of it away. Zell decided to start looking at the possibility of donating a kidney. He went to a hospital in Philadelphia and told them that he wanted to donate a kidney to a stranger- and they looked at him as if he was a bit crazy. Eventually, he did persuade them that he would like to donate a kidney to just the next person in line who was compatible. On his estimate, there was only a 1 in 4,000 chance that donating a kidney would lead to his premature death. His kidney saved a life, and he thinks that if he hadn't done that he would've been valuing his own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger.

The term 'effective altruism' actually is something that developed after Zell Kravinsky had donated both his money and his kidney; although he certainly is way out there as an outlier, it does describe what he did. So whatever your resources are- they might be money, they might be time, they might even be one of your kidneys- but if you are going to donate something like that, make sure it does the most good that it can.

We all have this attitude to everyday purchases. If your phone has died and you need a new phone, you're gonna ask around or go online. And if you came home and showed your phone to a friend and your friend said, "How much did you pay for that?" And you tell them, they say, "What? I could have got that for you for half the price." You'd feel pretty stupid. But strangely, that attitude doesn't apply to charities. So if you go and give your money to a charity, let's say it's a charity that's raising guide dogs for blind people, and you don't do research before you do that, you don't ask, "Is there some other way I could help blind people that would help more people for less money?" If you did ask that, you would find that giving money for guide dogs is not the best value for your money because it costs a lot of money to raise a guide dog. It's costs about $40,000 in the U.S. It's a good thing to do, but you can restore sight in someone who has cataracts and you can prevent people from going blind from trachoma which is a preventable cause of blindness. So what that suggests is if you wanna do good, do some research, go online find the most effective charities and give to them.

Effective altruists have been encouraging of high-net worth individuals when they give and for obvious reasons. People like Bill and Melinda Gates have done a huge amount of good in the world. For example, funding the extension of vaccination and immunization against various diseases, preventing deaths from diarrhea. There are a lot of things that they've done that have saved a very large number of lives, and that's true of some other high-net worth individuals as well. But some people are troubled by the connection between effective altruists and high-net worth individuals because they see effective altruism as not tackling the inequality in the world which they see as the basic cause or a cause of extreme poverty. I don't myself really accept that objection. For one thing, what to me is important is that, we raise the minimum level at the bottom; that we try to make everybody moderately well-off so that nobody is starving, nobody is dying from lack of basic healthcare. Everybody can educate their children. There's a whole lot of things like that. You might still say, "Well, we could make those who are worse off, better off by redistributing the wealth of those who are very wealthy." But probably wouldn't make much difference anymore. Once you've got people above those levels of serious poverty, and it might well stifle innovation because private foundations can be more innovative and more daring than governments generally are. Governments tend to be more risk-averse.

Effective altruism is not only for the rich. I'm certainly interested in encouraging everyone who has something to spare. Let's say that you buy a bottled water when there's safe water coming out of the tap. Or let's say you go and sit in a cafe to drink some coffee when you could have made coffee at home for less money. You can think about, "Is there something else I could be doing with this?" There's a strong correlation between people who give and people who are happy; that you're able to make that contribution to the world and to others who are less fortunate than you is a really rich source of happiness. In addition to that, they'll be developing a good habit, should you then start to earn more money and become more prosperous and be able to give more- so that eventually we have both the ability and the will to make sure that nobody is in extreme poverty, nobody is suffering unnecessarily and we are providing well, not only for our own generation but for future generations too.

NARRATOR: Want to dive deeper? Become a Big Think member and join our members-only community. Watch videos early and unlock full interviews.