The big blind spots in Peter Singer's 'philanthro-capitalism'

June 28, 2016

The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically
By Peter Singer
Yale University Press, 2015
272 pages

Living up to his moral philosophical tradition of utilitarianism, with its “greatest good” principle, Australian philosopher Peter Singer's latest instalment is The Most Good You Can Do.

The book — endorsed by software monopolists and corporate philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates — is based on Singer's “Castle Lecture” at Yale University in 2013.

The book approaches “the most good” idea in four parts: effective altruism; how to do the most good; motivation and justification; and choosing causes and organisations. Singer, according to a New Yorker quote on the book's cover, “may be the most controversial philosopher alive; he is certainly among the most influential.”

Singer's argument follows a three-fold logic: capitalism remains with us for the time being; it creates social, economic, and moral pathologies such as extreme poverty; and as a consequence, we have a moral duty to alleviate the worst impact of capitalism (a word that barely appears in the book) by doing — individually — the most good we can do.

For supporters of utilitarianism, there is a moral duty to donate whatever we can to charities that work for the poor. But Singer also discusses what makes a good charity — for instance, Oxfam. In this sense, his book is quite often political rather than moral in its philosophical character.

Given the recent problems with the “phony generosity” of the super-rich, Singer's book provides a timely examination of the “charity industry”. But before discussing charities — a US$200 billion industry in the S alone — Singer dives into his concept of “effective altruism”. He defines this as “we should do the most good we can”.

Singer acknowledges — and this seems to be despite the “good intentions” of neoliberalism — that today, “millions of children die each year from diseases that we can prevent or cure”. But he says the democratic majority — carefully guided by the corporate mass media — is choosing not to prevent this.

Singer does not shy away from directing the critical torch on to his own institutions: Princeton University, where he is a professor and Yale University that invited him for the lecture.

Singer writes: “Princeton has an endowment, at the time of writing, of US$21 billion and Yale of US$23.9 billion … the money you donate to one of them could probably do more good elsewhere.”

Many, if not nearly all, examples in Singer's book are from the global elite. For example, he discusses the case of an Oxford University student “living on a £14,000 a year scholarship [which places him into] the richest 4 percent of the world's people”.

But Singer also discusses questions like “is it okay for us to be going to the movies and drinking chai lattes while 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty”.

Perhaps movies and chai lattes are rather small fish compared to the global military spending of about $20 trillion last year.

But Singer stays away from big numbers. He keeps his discussion rather individualistic, noting that “strong social ties to family and to friends are a basic source of happiness”. So best not to think about the money wasted on militarism, wars, or, for example, senseless advertising making us “buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like”.

Throughout the book, the reader gets the impression that Singer accepts that “capitalism in its current global form is worsening inequalities”. But he is also convinced that “those who think the entire modern capitalist economy should be overthrown have consciously failed to demonstrate that there are ways of structuring an economy that has better outcomes”.

There seems no awareness that capital and its political executors have worked hard to ensure the failure of anti-capitalist projects. Just some examples include the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871; the liquidation of the German revolution of 1918/19; the massacre of Spanish revolutionaries in 1936; the killing of up to 1 million leftists in Indonesia in 1965; the 1973 overthrow of the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile; and the use of carpet bombing and use of chemical weapons in Vietnam in a bid to stop a socialist-led national liberation movement.

The list seems endless, but it helps ensure that comfortable professors in their chairs at elite universities conclude what capitalism has pre-engineered for them.

Another engineered problem may be the one that Alexander Berger, from the elite Stanford University who works for the GetWell charity, sought to help with when he donated a kidney.

Discussing Berger's case, Singer writes that “on average fourteen people on the waiting list die each day in the USA before receiving a kidney transplant”. That this may have something to do with neoliberal capitalism — specifically a privatised, healthcare system beyond the reach of the poor and unable to be resolved by the ethos of individualism — seems to escape Singer.

After discussing additional charity cases involving people from Yale, Princeton and MIT universities, Singer reaches the conclusion: “We can speculate that people with a high level of abstract reasoning ability are more likely to take the kind of approach to helping others that is characteristic of effective altruism.”

But unfortunately, unlike almost all examples in his book and Singer himself (who studied at Oxford), most people are not graduates of elite universities. Neither utilitarianism nor Singer's “effective altruism” offer a solution to the problem of the distorting powers of mass media in assuring the pathologies of capitalism go unreported and, often, unnoticed.

Utilitarian philosophy focuses on maximising happiness. On this, Singer notes: “Studies of the relationship between income and happiness or well-being indicate that for people at low levels of income, an increase in income does lead to greater happiness, but once income is sufficient to provide for one's needs and a degree of financial security, further increases have either much less impact on happiness or no impact at all.”

But for Singer, this does not lead to a push for higher minimum wages, progressive taxation, taxing multinational corporations, or other redistributive measures. It does not even lead to a critique of rampant consumerism and capitalism, other than to say: “Perhaps we imagine that money is important to our well-being because we need money to buy consumer goods, and buying things has become an obsession that beckons us away from what really advances our well-being.”

At no point is this linked to capitalism. It escapes Singer that the consumerism he questions is pushed by a huge global marketing system and underpinned by a neoliberal ideology that converts everything into a marketable good.

Since the advent of Fordist mass-production and mass-consumption, capitalism has largely run on making us believe that one plasma screen makes you happy and two makes you twice as happy.

But global capitalism not only creates rampant overconsumption, it also creates more than a billion people [who] are living in extreme poverty.

Singer laments people choosing to donate to “a new museum wing [that] will cost $50 million” rather than donating to tackle extreme poverty. But he fails to notice that the US alone will spend $57.52 million on defence every hour this year.

Singer notes that renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, completed in 2004, cost $858 million. But the US military will spend more money than this museum renovation before Mr Singer has lunch — every day.

The avoidance of facts like these even leads Singer to false hypothetical questions, such as: “If $100,000 can prevent blindness in 1,000 people, is that better than using $100,000 to feed the starving?”

A sum of $100,000 is small change for the “Military-Industrial Complex”. Is all this too complex for a philosopher? For its part, the morally worthless advertising industry wastes more than $500 billion a year globally.

Singer's hypotheticals are nice for philosophical articles in utilitarian journals, but they camouflage the realities of the causes of global poverty.

But Singer is right to note that “most gifts to charities are emotionally based. Two-thirds of donors do not research at all before giving.” Starving babies on the TV around Christmas work well for charities. It increases donations, but does not seem to alleviate global poverty.

Singer points out that it seems to work well for charities like “the Children's Charity Fund, Inc. a small Florida-based organisation, spending 84 percent of its revenue on fund-raising activities and nearly 10 percent on administration expenses, leaving just 6.1 percent for its programmes”. No wonder there are millions of charities.

Singer seeks to pre-empt critiques along the lines made in this review by emphasising that “political advocacy is an attractive option because it responds to critics who say that aid treats just the symptoms of global poverty”.

In his afterword, Singer almost admits as much when saying, “as I complete this book, the most recent UNICEF estimate is that 6.3 million children will die, while the number of children dying from preventable diseases has dropped from 27,000 to 17,000”.

But Singer's capitalism-accepting notion of “the most good we can do” is unable to resolve that undeniable crisis. In the end, Singer's book brings to mind the words of Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara, an advocate of the left-wing liberation theology movement, who once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Many regard Singer as a saint, because he advocates giving food to the poor, yet he stops at asking “why are they poor”.

[Thomas Klikauer teaches at the University of Western Sydney.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.