In the current issue of The Boston Review, Peter Singer opens a debate on the logic of effective altruism. Respondents include Daron Acemoglu, Angus Deaton, Jennifer Rubenstein, Larissa MacFarquhar, Leila Janah, Emma Saunders-Hastings, Rob Reich, Paul Brest, Iason Gabriel, András Miklós, and Catherine Tumber. This forum is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in analyzing what it means to do the most good.
Singer begins his essay with an anecdote of a former student at Princeton who chooses a career in Wall Street rather than the academy, with the idea that a higher income in finance will allow him to give more money to the poor than he could as a professor. Singer celebrates this decision and notes that this one student is really part of a broader movement in effective altruism that is capturing the attention of millennials:
Effective altruists do things like the following: living modestly and donating a large part of their income—often much more than the traditional tenth, or tithe—to the most effective charities; researching and discussing with others which charities are the most effective or drawing on research done by other independent evaluators; choosing a career in which they can earn most, not in order to be able to live affluently but so that they can do more good; talking to others, in person or online, about giving, so that the idea of effective altruism will spread; giving part of their body—blood, bone marrow, or even a kidney—to a stranger.
The essay is thought-provoking, not least for disrupting my own sense of what it means to do “the most good.” Upon finishing the piece, I wondered if that Princeton student showcased in the beginning of the essay would not only use Wall Street for its financial benefits in the short-term, but also be transformed by it in the long-term. After all, it would seem that after some time it would become quite difficult to succeed in a career path without assuming some of its values, lifestyle choices, and spending patterns. Or, are effective altruists only supposed to assume high income jobs for a finite amount of time? Even more, what about the institutional racism, sexism, and classism that presumably allowed this student (and other effective altruists like him) to entertain and secure this career option in the first place? Why play into these institutional inequalities, rather than transform them? The Boston Review includes eleven respondents who answer these and other questions in reply to Singer.
Readers, what do you think of the effective altruism movement? How can we understand it historically? We’d love to read– and share– your thoughts. Please feel free to leave comments in this post or email the editors (firstname.lastname@example.org).
–Maribel Morey, co-editor of HistPhil.