Your $5,000 could save one life in your community but seven lives in Africa. Where would you choose to give? And why?
Altruism, like love, is a trait that resists quantification. Its existence can’t be reduced to a numerical value because altruism is inherently relational. When the relational aspect is removed or diminished, altruism becomes less about others and more about ourselves. Instead of being an end in itself, altruism becomes a means to an end; and that end is almost always self-focused.
Peter Singer, Princeton University’s controversial professor of bioethics, depicts (unintentionally) just how far away we can get from the act of altruism when we understand it in terms of a means to an end; in terms of “effectiveness.”
At the outset of his Ted Talk (see below) Singer shows the audience a graphic video that is almost too disturbing to watch. A British news reporter is commenting on security camera footage that shows a two year old girl getting hit by a van in an alleyway in China. The driver, realizing that he (or she) just hit someone, stops his (her) vehicle for a moment as if to ponder whether to get out and help. Before the viewer can fully process what has just happened, the van is gone and the little girl is still lying in the street. Shortly thereafter, three pedestrians approach little Wang Yue’s limp body: the first walks around her, literally changing his direction to avoid having to step over her, while the other two steer their bikes around her and continue on their way. As if this behavior wasn’t horrifying enough, another van approaches and runs over the poor girl again.
Singer asks his audience to raise their hand if they would have done something to help. All their hands go up. He then goes on to cite some statistics about the tens of thousands of children that are dying every day from preventable diseases, and insinuates that his audience, while compelled to help little Wang Yue lying on the street in front of them, might be somewhat less willing to help children abroad whom they cannot see and have never met before. He goes on to ask, “Does it really matter that we’re not walking past them in the street? Does it really matter that they’re far away?”
Singer has a perfectly valid point. A life is a life. Whether or not we’ve had personal contact with someone is irrelevant to their worth as a human being. Singer could have gone from here to motivate his audience to invest themselves in helping people abroad just as much as they do in their own community. He could have unpacked the relational nature of philanthropy and imagined possibilities for what it might look like to cultivate relationships with people halfway around the world.
But Singer goes in completely the opposite direction. Instead of talking about the reciprocal nature of philanthropy and its dynamic effect on both the giver and the receiver, he treats philanthropy as essentially a one-way transaction. To Singer, philanthropy is a numbers game. The more people we feed or animals we save, the more “effective” our philanthropy. Thus, the “effective altruist” aims to affect the maximum possible number of people or animals or fill-in-the-blank given his limited amount of resources. Singer scatters stories throughout his speech about people who have assumed this approach to philanthropy, meant to inspire his audience.
But if we carry his philanthropic approach through to its logical conclusion, what we’re left with is something utterly antithetical to philanthropy.
Let’s take a look at one of his own examples. Toby Ord, a research fellow at Oxford, calculated that if he gave a certain percentage of his income away every year over the course of his academic career, he could help cure 80,000 people of blindness in developing world nations. Toby, who is married and has a mortgage, has pledged to live on £18,000 (less than $30,000) per year in order to make the greatest possible impact on the world.
There are many noble aspects to this pledge, and these should be commended. But as it relates to Singer’s point, there are also some serious problems.
For one, Singer holds up Toby as an example of someone who has sacrificed greatly for people he will likely never meet in his life. As noble as this is, Singer suggests that there is no difference between giving your money to people you will never meet and giving your money to people with whom you can (or will) have face-to-face contact. In other words, proximity means very little in Singer’s world. Relationship is not pertinent, or at best trivial, to philanthropy.
Another problem: it would seem that Toby has committed himself to investing in developing world populations at the expense of doing anything to help his own community in Oxford (I don’t know Toby, so this might not be the case, but Singer suggests that it probably is the case). Numbers appear to drive Tony’s approach to philanthropy. Abroad, he can get the greatest return on his investment in terms of number of lives saved. So when it comes down to investing abroad or investing locally, the former always trumps the latter.
“All lives have equal value” as Singer says (quoting the Gates Foundation), but that belief is clearly contingent on a greater belief. If five people in Uganda can be fed for an entire year on a £1,000 donation, or one person in Oxford for the same amount, an “effective altruist” would determine that the persons in Uganda are more worthy of his money. In other words, the people in Uganda are more “valuable” to the effective altruist because his pound goes further with them than it does with the person in England (with whom he might have the opportunity to develop a personal relationship).
Extending Singer’s beliefs still further, let’s say Toby catches wind from a friend who was just admitted to a cancer clinic in Oxford that the clinic is in need of donations to meet its operating budget for the year. An effective altruist would call the hospital and ask roughly how many patients the clinic serves each year, as well as what their operating budget is. He would also ask for the mortality rate of patients passing through the clinic. With that information, he could do a simple calculation to figure out how much money it costs to treat a person at the clinic and their success rate. He would then compare the cost per life saved to another part of the world. Most likely, the Oxford clinic’s cost would be significantly higher – and persons treated significantly lower – than an NGO clinic in a developing country. The effective altruist, who understands impact only through numbers, would neglect his own community’s – even his own friend’s – needs for communities he’s never seen before.
Finally, if we take this numbers-based approach to philanthropy to its furthest possible extent, it begins to look a lot like the video clip he showed at the beginning of his talk.
Again, when Singer asks his audience to raise their hand if they would have done something to help little Wang Yue, all their hands go up. But if we extend the logic of Singer’s “effective altruism” approach through to its conclusions, the hand of an effective altruist might not go up. He would ask himself how much time and even money it would cost for him to rescue this one child dying right in front of him. If, considering the cost, he could save two lives in India for the same investment, he too would choose to walk right by little Wang Yue.
This is where Singer gets philanthropy dead wrong. If we reduce philanthropy to a numbers game we suck the humanity out of the practice. It ceases to become philanthropy and looks more like narcithropy. Our motive becomes less about the people we’re helping and more about a growing tally that puffs up our own pride. Altruism then, which is disinterested and selfless concern for others, ceases to exist altogether.
Wisdom, and even shrewdness, should certainly play a part in the way we give back to the world. But Singer goes beyond this in his approach, so much so that it actually risks objectiying the persons being helped. The more stress we place on the “effectiveness” of our philanthropy, the more we (unintentionally) sieve the relational component out of the practice. As the relational aspect to philanthropy recedes from view, we become conditioned to seeing people more as autonomous units than as unique individuals worthy of compassion and care.
With this understanding in mind, it is hard not to see that the effective altruist is really just taking the easy way out in his approach to philanthropy. After all, it frees him from the inconvenience of having to entangle himself in the messiness of relationships. It’s easy to love thousands of people in the abstract; it’s agonizing to love them in person.
Love requires relationship. When love ceases to be the chief motive for our philanthropy, serving others becomes more about serving ourselves. Quantifying our impact isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when we make it the ultimate thing, we begin to lose our humanity.
–Original Photo: Kirsty Andrews/Flickr