Issue 37 People Lifestyle

The Hopeful Pragmatist

Ethicist Peter Singer on why working on Wall Street might be your most charitable act yet by Jed Oelbaum

June 20, 2016

All charity is not created equal. Or so say the adherents of a movement known as effective altruism, quickly gaining traction among millennials as a more practical view of charity. Decisions about how to allocate your contributions are based on quantifiable outcome, not emotion. Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist and author of The Most Good You Can Do (Yale University Press), is considered the father of effective altruism, having spent 40 years challenging the conventional wisdom behind our ethical choices. In 1975, his book, Animal Liberation, became the foundational text of the non-human rights movement, with copies a common site in the back pockets of campus intellectuals and punk rockers alike. The 69-year-old currently teaches ethics and philosophy at Princeton University and the University of Melbourne, and his work is more influential than ever. In addition to his teaching and writing, Singer advises large charitable organizations and billionaire donors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett on how to get the most good done for their philanthropic efforts. Here he explains a controversial idea: Why working at a bank might be better than joining the Peace Corps.

GOOD: How can we best understand effective altruism?

Peter Singer: Effective altruism is the idea that making the world a better place ought to be a substantial part of our life’s aims. Not necessarily the only thing we do, that would be too saintly, but it ought to be something that we think about. And at least part of our resources, whether time or effort or money, should go toward making the world a better place. The “effective” part of it is that whatever resources we put into it, we ought to try and do the most good we can. This means thinking much more purposefully than people usually do about what they are actually doing to make the world a better place. You put some thought into: “Is this the best thing I could be doing?”

How does this differ from the way a lot of people think about doing good? Because when you say “Do the most possible good in the world,” people respond with, “Right, of course, that’s what I’m trying to do already.”

Well, there are many ways. One thing is that when people say, ‘Yeah, I’m doing that already,’ most people—most Americans—would be thinking about doing things locally, in their own communities, perhaps with organizations they’re already involved with. But given the way the world is, how wealthy Americans are compared to people in developing countries, that’s almost always a mistake. You can do a lot more with your resources by directing them toward people in extreme poverty than you can by directing them toward people in what is already one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And even those who aren’t well off by American standards seem to be fairly comfortable by global standards. So thinking globally is an important part of this. Also, not being influenced so much by emotional appeals. You see a picture of a sick child with cancer who has a wish you might want to fulfill—it’s a nice idea, but it’s not a very cost-effective way of really helping people.

You see a picture of a sick child with cancer who has a wish you might want to fulfill— it’s a nice idea, but it’s not a very cost- effective way of really helping people.

Effective altruism seems to focus on what individuals can do. Are there times when traditional charitable institutions or governments can operate more efficiently than individuals?

Effective altruism rejects the idea that any charity is as good as any other. Like, if David Geffen gives $100 million to what was the Avery Fisher Music Hall, and is now going to be the David Geffen Concert Hall, in Lincoln Center in New York, we should all just applaud. Effective altruists think, “Ok, now a lot of pretty wealthy concertgoers in New York are going to have a somewhat better experience in a renovated concert hall.” But is that the best use you can make of $100 million? Given the way the world is, I think the answer to that is clearly no. You’re just going to want to apply some standards to which institutions are worth supporting and which are not.

Sometimes we may actually be trying to change institutions at a larger level. So for instance, we may be talking about advocacy to improve the United States aid program. That would be a very big institution, difficult to change. But if you could have an impact on it, it would be very far-reaching. Same with climate change. Pushing governments to do more on climate change is very hard to do, but it would have a big impact if you were to succeed.

You’ve said that most effective altruists are millennials. Is there something about the philosophy that particularly appeals to this generation?

The movement is a relatively new thing. So why is it taking off now? That may have something to do with the idea that millennials are more interested in values and living their lives by those values. Perhaps they’re also more globally centered than previous generations. Of course, we have some interesting examples of people who’ve made a lot of money, often through tech startups, and then have used that money in innovative ways to try to do good in the world. I think that’s also had an influence on a lot of millennials. They might say, “I don’t have billions to give away that I can use to start a foundation, but I can still do something along those lines and I want to do something along those lines.”

How does the philosophy of effective altruism factor into choosing a career path?

Not many people really think seriously about their career choice in terms of what will do the most good in the world. I think that’s still a fairly new way of thinking that more people are taking up. But most people probably follow some path along the lines of what a school counselor or their parents suggested as a career that might suit their abilities and talents. And given that we put many years of work and effort into our career, I think it’s surprising how little time we actually put into deciding what career to choose.

What kind of mental math should people looking for a job be doing? How can someone examine their own resources, temperament, and skills to have the most impact?

Think about, “What’s the most amount of difference I can make?” A career that doesn’t immediately seem directed toward good values could make the biggest impact because it would give you the resources. An organization called 80,000 Hours has recommended that some people get a high-paying job on Wall Street—you’re now a high earner and therefore have a lot of money you can donate to the most effective charities. If you hadn’t taken that job on Wall Street, someone else would have taken it, would no doubt have done a pretty similar job for the firm, but would not have used the income to donate to effective charities. So that’s a case where you’re making a difference through your choice.

There isn’t really a formula, because it can be really hard to predict and there isn’t data on how often, say, a schoolteacher will make a positive, life-changing difference to the students that pass through that school. I’m sure it happens pretty regularly. But I don’t think anyone has that data and that’s what you would need. So you have to act on hunches.

Despite the rise of Bernie Sanders, Wall Street is going to be around for quite a while.

So it’s not just about what you can donate—for a lot of people, becoming a teacher or something like that might actually be the area where they can make the most difference, right?

Absolutely, yes, it may be. And that’s still going to be a good thing to do. It would depend on what your opportunities are. We need to recognize that not everybody has those talents that, in our society, are very highly rewarded. But there are other talents that one might have for human relationships of the sort that are important for teachers and counselors. And those talents are also very valuable. It’s unfortunate that our society doesn’t reward them to the extent that it rewards the mathematical abilities that Wall Street is looking for.

It seems counterintuitive for an altruist to take these sorts of jobs—we don’t tend to think of working in finance as a smart career move for those who are interested in helping others.

And that’s why so many people think there’s something so shocking about this recommendation, and that it somehow supports Wall Street or provides a façade of justification for what Wall Street is doing. I don’t see the revolution as being on the horizon. So, despite the rise of Bernie Sanders, I think Wall Street is going to be around for quite a while and therefore you have to also think, “Well, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing if people with some concerns about making the world a better place actually do get into significant positions in finance.” Because they’re going to make decisions at some point—“Do we want to finance this new coal mine?” And maybe if you have more people with a conscience, they might take a principled stand and say no. People with a conscience getting into Wall Street firms is a good thing, quite apart from their ability to give away large sums of money.

Within your own career, you now spend time with a lot richer, higher-earning people than you used to. Do you think about the world differently now that you’re hanging out with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett?

No, but I think that’s because the wealthy people I do have contact with are saying, “I want to do something good with this. Money isn’t the be–all and end–all.” It reinforces the idea that I’ve been on the right track—and for that matter, philosophers since Socrates have been on the right track—that the good life is not just material comforts. There’s a lot more to it.

Altruism Chic

Expressing kindness toward others may be an inherently human trait, but the word “altruism” wasn’t popularized until the 19th century by British theorist Herbert Spencer. This specific term was used to define a new, secular concept of virtue to which modern people should aspire. By the 1890s, at the height of the Gilded Age, being altruistic was fashionable, with clubs and magazines devoted to the topic. (See the Google n-gram chart, right). Magnates like Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller founded libraries, universities, and hospitals for the public good, while progressive reformers spurred government creation of social welfare programs and labor unions, which contributed to the rise of the middle class throughout the 20th century. As the divide between rich and poor grows once again, so increases the popularity of the a-word, for better and for worse. 

by Laura Bliss

Art by Alison Dubois

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The Hopeful Pragmatist Ethicist Peter Singer on why working on Wall Street might be your most charitable act yet