Peter Singer and effective altruism – a critique
Recently I attended a lecture delivered by Peter Singer on, ‘Ethics, Utilitarianism and Effective Altruism’. This event was jointly hosted between the University of Melbourne Secular Society and Melbourne University Philosophy Community. It was a privilege to attend this presentation by an immense authority on this topic. Peter Singer demonstrated mastery of his field and great depth of reading, reflection and thought. He also conducted himself with great elegance and humility. He was gracious, thoughtful respectful and gave proper time to answer as many questions as possible.
Yet for all Singer’s graciousness and authority, the ethical framework he outlined was extremely disappointing. His ethic ‘effective altruism’ ended up being subjective, impractical, unjust and guilt-inducing!
Ethics defined objectively: what we ought to do.
Singer opened with an undisputed definition of ethics as ‘what we ought to do’. He then asked whether we could get ever get an objective answer to that question. After entertaining suggestions that ethical judgements were simply a matter of taste he outlined his own ethical system which he claimed was truly ‘objective’.
Singer’s ethic has been heavily influenced by British utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick (who followed the more famous Bentham and Mill). Sidgwick started with principles of philosophy which he claimed were rationally self-evident. From these principles he proposed that ‘everyone’s good/interest counts as much as everybody else’ concluding that as rational beings we need to promote the greatest good we can.
Unfortunately Singer did not ground or justify this claim ‘objectively’. Why does everyone’s good/interest count? How can this be justified objectively?
To these questions Singer (and Sidgwick) asserted that these principles were ‘self-evident’ when we put aside ‘distorting influences’. Yet it was unclear who determines the extent of a ‘distorting’ influence – distortion depends very much on perspective. Hence it’s unclear how these philosophical principles can be justifiably ‘self-evident’. This problem was illustrated by the final question of the event where the questioner proposed that vegetarianism was self-evidentially true. Singer didn’t dispute this claim, yet it is unclear how one can ‘rationally’ assert that vegetarianism is ‘self-evidentially true’ – the local butcher might disagree.
Furthermore Singer (and Sidgwick’s) assumption of the equality and dignity of all people, and then the further assumption that we must seek to maximise their well-being, all fail to be objectively self-evident. These assumptions would certainly not be universally shared by all throughout history. It is doubtful that the average Hindu under the influence of the caste system would claim the equality of humanity as obviously ‘self-evident’. These assumptions have a distinctly Christian feel, where every person is made in the ‘image of God’, rather than self-evident philosophical principles.
Thus the basis for Singer’s ‘objective’ ethic is shaky at best.
The ethic: utilitarianism – the good consequences
Singer then outlined Sigdwick’s philosophy as pointing in a utilitarian direction where the ‘good’ and the ‘right’ are the best consequences. Singer admitted that he didn’t think that anything is intrinsically and always wrong, for example, breaking a promise, killing an innocent human and certain sexual acts like incest are not always wrong with respect to consequences. This concession that some things are not always ‘intrinsically and always wrong’ tends to undermine the claim of an ‘objective’ ethic.
Singer then posed a crucially difficult question – what are ‘better’ consequences? And his answer was straightforward, ‘welfare and well-being of the action’. He posed this welfare and well-being in terms of ‘suffering, pain and happiness’. Hence his diagnostic question which determines the ‘better’ consequences becomes ‘which [produces] the greatest net surplus of happiness?’
Singer recognised the difficulty in accurately determining outcomes because consequences are uncertain. To overcome this he suggested we should maximise the ‘expected value’ of our actions and then discount by probabilities. This could be reduced to a ‘rule’, and ‘when uncertain we should use a rule of thumb’.
At this point in the lecture Singer had outlined the thrust of his ethical framework and I confess I was a little stunned. With all Peter Singer’s great philosophical thinking, reading and experience, his ethic was a raw, naked, unashamed consequentialism! I was stunned because the problems and weaknesses of consequentialism are legion and are such that they render it almost impossible to adopt as an overarching ethical framework.
I have outlined many of the weaknesses of consequentialism whilst engaging Sam Harris’ ethical treatise The Moral Landscape. In the afterward of The Moral Landscape, Harris summarises the key objections to his consequentialist ethic as the problems of value (what is well-being), measurement (how do we measure well-being) and persuasion (why should I forego my personal well-being for the greater good)? Whilst Singer made a more robust case than Harris, each of these problems remain in Singer’s ethic and unfortunately no satisfactory solution exists.
Furthermore Singer’s ethical system justifies injustice. This issue was raised during question time to which Singer’s response was that we must ‘swallow the consequences’. Singer used one example, but I felt he conceded the broader ‘justice’ point. Thus at times murdering an innocent man ‘for the greater good’ can be justified. Injustice is a natural conclusion in a consequentialist system.
Effective altruism: a new movement
Unperturbed by these weaknesses Singer pressed on to outline effective altruism, which was a new movement based on a consequentialist ethic. At its core effective altruism is ‘to do the most good we can and we ought to use reason and draw on evidence to assess the options’. Singer proposed that the most good we could do involved saving lives of those in extreme poverty. This would maximise overall utility and promoting the greatest good.
However Singer conceded that it was unrealistic to do this at every moment in our lives. Unfortunately he proceeded to water down the ethic to ‘doing the most good, some of the time with some of our resources’. Rather than being a movement of ‘saints’ Singer proposed that praise be given to those ‘heading in the right direction’. Singer claimed that people can be ethical altruists even if they’re not doing it all the time. He offered a guide of 10% of income given away to define when a person ‘became’ an ethical altruist.
Ethical altruism is justified hypocrisy or not objective (or maybe both!)
I found this proposal most unsatisfactory. Singer’s overall ethic is worthy in its goal to maximise the good of the poor in the world, but unfortunately through his concession, his ethic falls to pieces. He demonstrates that his ethic is either justified hypocrisy or not objective or perhaps both at the same time!
The key problem is that Singer asserts that his ethic is based on ‘objective’ principles. To be truly objective the maxim, ‘to do the most good we can’ would be binding on all people regardless of whether we believe it or not. Therefore at any point if one is not ‘doing the most good we can’ we are actually acting immorally!
Hence justifying simply ‘moving in the right direction’ is inconsistent because it means that you don’t actually need to ‘do the most good we can’. The ethic is reduced to, ‘do the most good you feel you’re able to afford’, which is far less inspiring or objective. To justify inconsistency is tantamount to hypocrisy. i.e. we are aware that a binding moral framework exists, but instead we choose to justify not following it. The 10% rule also betrays a weakness of atheistic ethics – that it is based on the arbitrary determination of the will of humans. Why choose 10% of income? Why not 9% or 15%? Surely in a rich developed world with high disposable income something like 30% or 40% of income would be more appropriate? There is no ‘objective’ basis for choosing this number, it is merely arbitrary.
The atheist kill-joy: ethical altruism leads to guilt-ridden asceticism
The justified hypocrisy notwithstanding, the ethical altruism ethic is also impractical and fails to halt a slide to asceticism.
If Singer and the effective altruism ethic is correct, then then virtually every economic, social and moral choice made in Australia today is ‘immoral’. This is because when these decisions are compared with saving lives of people in extreme poverty then on the simple consequentialist metric outlined by Singer, saving lives of those in extreme will always ‘win’ i.e. they will always be morally preferable. Therefore when posed with the question, ‘should we build a new road in Melbourne? The answer under effective altruism will be ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’. Should I eat a chocolate cake on my birthday? ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’ Should we build a new school auditorium? Should we treat an injured knee? Should I treat my friend’s cancer? The answer to all these questions is the same – ‘no, because this could save lives of people in extreme poverty’.
Moreover other decisions which would have enormously beneficial outcomes for the extreme poor are also rendered ‘immoral’. For example this ethical framework would preclude funding Ebola virus research because the net ‘utility’ of lives saved in developing countries would be greater by providing Malaria nets or immunisation compared with lives saved through Ebola research.
Hence every decision must be reduced to its impact against the global poor. This renders it an impossible ethic to live by because it condemns virtually every decision that doesn’t involve saving lives in the developing world as ‘immoral’. In this ethical framework there is nothing to avoid the slide into a guilt-ridden (how can I ever enjoy chocolate again?) asceticism. Nothing beyond the basics could ever be enjoyed because they would be declared objectively ‘immoral’.
Furthermore there is often accused by atheists that it is more virtuous to do an ethical act out of freedom rather than because you are commanded. Yet the ethical altruism makes it an ethical command to do live like this, despite the outcome. Ironically it’s usually atheists who accuse God of being a cosmic kill-joy!
Effective altruism and the consequentialist ethic of Peter Singer reduces ethics to a kind of communist race to the communal bottom. Everyone is equal and if one person has utility above the lowest, then it becomes unethical. The only difference between communism and Singer’s ethic is that Singer doesn’t have a mandate for the state to enforce this ethic (yet!?).
Valid questions – just not objective
I’m not suggesting for a minute that questions of weighing up decision in comparison with the global poor are not valid questions. Indeed these questions are often not weighed thoughtfully or carefully enough. We should consider living simply so others can simply live. My point is that given the claim of the objectivity of this particular ethical system it becomes immoral to do anything which does not save lives of those in extreme poverty.
The Christian ethic urges the same result with more freedom and less guilt
So whilst I applaud the basic sense of ethical altruism, I think that the Christian ethic urges the same result but with far more freedom and less guilt.
The Christian ethic contains moral imperatives to love our neighbour and to be generous (these moral imperatives are based in the character and purposes of an eternal God and can be objectively grounded). Yet the imperatives also broadens the concept of ‘neighbour’ to include not just our global neighbours, but also our local ones, meaning we can build a school hall to the betterment of our local society and love our neighbours with cancer and perform research to help them. Therefore caring for the ‘good’ of our neighbours is achieved through both the Christian ethic and consequentialism, but the Christian ethic is more nuanced and sophisticated.
Contrary to the consequentialist ethical altruism ethic, Christianity simultaneously affirms the goodness of all things. All good things are to be seen as gifts of God and to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). This means I can enjoy a chocolate cake! The pleasures and gifts of this world can be enjoyed as gifts of a generous God.
Now a tension is created between receiving all things with thanksgiving and caring for others. Yet the slide into overindulgent selfishness is avoided by reminders that the Christian not think of themselves too highly, and to consider others more valuable.
Overall, the Christian believer is encouraged to live the ‘wise’ life. This is where decisions are made in a holistic sense for the betterment of self, family, the poor and the society. For example consider the wise woman of Proverbs 31 who provides for her family, opens her arms to the poor and is respected in the city. The woman is commended on her thrift, wisdom and generosity. This woman is a model of holistic Christian ethics. The Christian ethical framework of love your neighbour with humble wisdom is a liberating ethic which is far more robust and practical.
Yet most significantly the Christian ethic offers forgiveness for failure and selfishness. Jesus’ death and resurrection means that there is now no condemnation for selfishness and inconsistency to those in Christ. This doesn’t mean that inconsistency can be justified – Jesus’ was caustic towards the religious leaders who attempted to justify their hypocrisy – instead in face of failure, the Christian repents, knowing that because of his love, God freely forgives us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Indeed love is absent from the brutal consequentialist system advocated by Singer.
There is no forgiveness in ethical altruism, if you eat a chocolate for yourself, you are condemned under the objective guilt of knowing that lives could have been saved elsewhere in the world. There is no solution to the guilt of failure or of self-indulgence.
Whilst I commend the goals of ethical altruism it fails in attempting to provide an objective and liveable ethical framework. Ethical altruism has some helpful contributions to make in assessing how scarce resources be allocated, but my criticisms would be less savage if Singer didn’t claim it as an ‘objective’ system. If consequentialism and ethical altruism is objective then we are all condemned under a brutal loveless, ethical system which will lead to social improvement in the developing world but at the cost of an ascetic guilt-ridden hypocrisy.