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Effective altruism: Peter Singer at TED2013

Posted by: Thu-Huong Ha
Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Moral philosopher Peter Singer starts the last session of TED2013, “A Ripple Effect?” with a shocking video of a 2-year-old girl in China who was hit by a van — and then a second van — and ignored by passers-by as she lay dying in an alley. He asks of the audience: Would you have stopped and helped this girl? Not surprisingly, the unanimous response was yes. Well, every day that we don’t help others, he says, it’s like leaving this girl crippled in the alley. In 2012, Singer says, UNICEF reported that 6.9 million children under 5 died from preventable poverty-relatable diseases like malaria. Does it really matter that we’re not walking past these children in the street, that they’re far away? According to Singer, there is no morally relevant difference.

There’s a new movement of people who are realizing how necessary it is to help others. It’s called effective altruism. Using empathy and intellect, it appeals to both heart and head. Because reason is not a neutral tool to help you get whatever you want, says Singer, but to get perspective on the situation. Effective altruism has been led by figures in philosophy, math, economics — which may be surprising because people think philosophy has nothing to do with the real world, economics is for the selfish, math is just for nerds. Indeed, the most effective altruists in history — Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett — are “nerds” who realize that it’s necessary to give to charity and to make sure that charity is effective.

Singer asks and answers questions about effective altruism:

1. How much of a difference can I make?

You don’t have to be a billionaire, says Singer. Meet Tony Ord, a philosophy researcher. He realized that with the money he was going to make over his lifetime, he could cure 80,000 people of blindness in developing countries and still have enough left to live a perfectly adequate life. He started Giving what we can, to ask people to give 10 percent of their income over their lifetime to fight against global poverty.

TED2013_0072024_DSC_94512. Am I expected to abandon my career?

Meet Will Crouch, a graduate student in philosophy who began 80,000 Hours (roughly the number of hours you spend in your career), which helps people find careers that make the biggest possible difference in the world. Surprisingly, one career he encourages people to go into is finance and banking, because the more you earn the more you can give. If you earn a big salary, rather than becoming an aid worker yourself, you could pay the salaries of five aid workers in developing countries.

Singer and one of his students started an organization called The life you can save, which aims to encourage people to see that charity is part of living a normal life.

3. Isn’t charity bureaucratic and ineffective anyway?

One of the most important aspects of effective altruism is measuring your impact quantitatively. You can pay to provide and train a guard dog for a blind American, which costs about $40,000. But with that money you could cure 400 to 2,000 people in developing countries of blindness from glaucoma, which costs about $20 per person. Resources like Givewell and Effective Animal Activism help find those organizations that are truly effective.

4. Isn’t it a burden to give up so much?

No, says Singer. Giving helps lift the immense weight of living a Sisyphean life. The consumer lifestyle is: Work hard, make money, spend money on goods, run out of money, start again to maintain happiness. It’s a hedonic treadmill you can never get off. Effective altruism allows you to demonstrably contribute to the lives of others while also adding meaning and fulfillment to your life.

Peter Singer’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com»

Comments (28)

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  • jane smith commented on Jul 31 2013

    So according to this guy, because he says we can cure 20 blind people in an impoverished country for the same price as getting a guide dog for a blind American it’s “obvious” what we should do.

    Really? I’m sure the loved ones of that blind person are really eager to jump to the aid of those people overseas at the expense of someone they personally care for.

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  • Pedro ADLER Jorge commented on May 21 2013

    Smart and inspiring way to end the talk. Thanks!

    As much as I see the benefit of Effective altruism how does this effectiveness address the following questions:

    1. How does charity improve the imbalance in salaries and wealth in society?

    2. What does charity bring to change the current political power?

    3. How does charity help people to learn how to fish instead of getting the fish for free and hoping the following fish also comes for free?

    Look forward for your advice and wisdom. Thanks.

    • Joey Savoie commented on May 23 2013

      I think the anwer to these questions would be different for every chairtiy but I can give some anwers related to Against Malaria Foundation AMF (the top recommended charity by many effective altruists).

      1) When a person has a bednet and is prevented from getting sick they can work and improve their country’s (and family’s) standard of life.

      2) AMF does not affect politics

      3) AMF focuses on prevention of disease and is part of a larger project to end malaria. Once malaria is ended people will no longer need more bednets. The problem will just be solved.

      “Social Experiments to Fight Poverty” is another Ted talk that gets into how we can affect change and measure it.

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  • A non commented on May 20 2013

    A superb and thought provoking talk!
    It’s amazing how much can be done to improve and help the lives of people suffering extreme poverty. Just by as many people as possible doing what they can to address the problems.

  • commented on Apr 10 2013

    Reblogged this on YBoris.

  • commented on Mar 23 2013

    Reblogged this on rickardvikstrom and commented:
    The ideas and arguments presented by Peter Singer in his book ‘The Life You Can Save’ can be truly life-changing. In this TED blog you get a good summary. Can’t wait to watch the TED video.

  • Sarah Morris commented on Mar 14 2013

    He talks the talk. But he doesn’t walk the walk. In years prior, Peter Singer advocated that parents should have the ‘right’ to kill their children (up to 2 years old — he varies this time frame) under the guise of being compassionate. His story showing the lack of compassion in society, during this presentation, is about a two year old who was hit be a car and no one came to her rescue. If people followed his line of thinking of parents being compassionate, the reason for people not helping this two year old would be that they thought she was too far gone and that it would be more compassionate to let her die — take her out of her misery. Peter Singer is a scary guy.

    • Pedro ADLER Jorge commented on May 21 2013

      From one of the articles he wrote about this, Peter Singer writes about something completely different. Your comment misses the context in which he talks about this issue (fetus with severe problems) and the statement he makes along that goes something like this: when parents decide for the life of their children all support should be given in order for these children to have a good and social life.

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  • steve deeming commented on Mar 5 2013

    I have trouble with seeing B&M G and WB as the ‘most effective altruists in history’…is the money they have accrued been achieved in a moral way? Is it not off the backs of he poor and needy and thereby hurting people in the amassing of it? Is it not a bit backasswards to then give ‘some’ of it away to correct that harm? For me, effective altruism is when no-one would know who, when and where and when people have so huge amounts of personal wealth, then does that not hint at egotism/egoism?

    Wiki definition (for want of any other)
    Altruism or selflessness is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of “others” toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism or selflessness is the opposite of selfishness.
    Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of duty and loyalty. Altruism is a motivation to provide something of value to a party who must be anyone but one’s self, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (e.g., a god, a king), or collective (e.g., a government). Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self (e.g. sacrificing time, energy or possessions) with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).
    Much debate exists as to whether “true” altruism is possible. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as “benefits.”
    The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it usually contrasted to egoism, which is defined as acting to the benefit of one’s self.

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  • Bob Maheu commented on Mar 3 2013

    I have learned recently the more you give the more you get back. The more you get back the more you can give. Since I have adopted this philosophy, my business and personal life is flourishing at an ever increasing rate. My company bdzign at http://www.bdzign.ca now donates 2% of its total revenue to help finance interest free micro loans to people and groups in developing countries, in order to help them better their lives and realize their dreams. What you may do or give may seem like a drop in a bucket but oceans started with just one drop.

  • Kristian Rönn commented on Mar 3 2013

    His name is Toby Ord, not “Tony Ord”… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toby_Ord

  • commented on Mar 3 2013

    I love this article. I’m working on a startup that seeks to quantify the impact that people’s donations make. Check us out at http://www.makeworldwide.com

  • Dave Smith commented on Mar 3 2013

    Maybe people concentrate too much on the demand side of helping. Why don’t we look at the other side and work on a way to incentivize society to do good by providing those who do good with some future security. That by itself will create more supply of good. We call it the supply side of making the world a better place. It works for our economy and businesses, why can’t it work for social good?

    Help those who have made a positive influence in your life. It will allow people to concentrate on doing more good because they are given some kind of security by doing so. http://www.RepaySomeday.com

  • Philip Finlay-Bryan commented on Mar 2 2013

    BUT BUT BUT the whole financial system, the whole world economic system is corrupt. Poverty and associated deaths will NEVER be eradicated by supporting a corrupt system that has killed 400 million in the last 22 years; that has supported the top 300,000 in a seven fold rise in their profits at the expense of the rest of humanity. see Ending Poverty Thomas Pogge TheRsa.org The whole monetary system is corrupt. Charities working from within the system are doomed to, ultimately, have little to no impact. If the very rich gave up their profit margin for one year we could end poverty. Radical means “of the root” we need radical change not drops in the ocean.

    • Matt Sharp commented on Mar 2 2013

      It’s true that political changes need to be made (such as removing trade barriers and eliminating subsidies to rich farmers, so farmers in developing countries can compete with them on a fair basis), but it’s simply untrue to say charites have little to no impact. Look at the effectiveness of distributing anti-malarial bednets, for example:
      http://www.againstmalaria.com/images/00/18/18361.pdf

      And it’s worth pointing out that Thomas Pogge endorses Giving What We Can and has pledged to give at least 10% of his income away to the most effective charities:

      http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us/our-members/list-of-members

      • Philip Finlay-Bryan commented on Mar 6 2013

        I hear you and I do not decry the contributions being made (I live on disability I spend 10% of my income on shouting) J.P. Morgan has a portfolio of $2 trillion dollars owned mainly by The Vanguard Group, a private organisation. I’m not interested in Mr Pogge redistributing his wealth nor charities providing a water pump when thousands are needed. I revisit Thomas’s video. The inequality slaps you in the face. The whole system is corrupt. vodaphone shaved £1 billion off its taxes, other multi nationals have fiddled their taxes too. We cannot leave it to business to regulate itself, it doesn’t. i have no solution I only know there is a problem All I can do is be outrospective htt://outrospective.net thank you Roman Krznaric a great RSA Animate on empathy. i have been shouting “Redistribution of wealth” fot 25 years. Anybody listening?

      • Philip Finlay-Bryan commented on Mar 6 2013

        I hear you and I do not decry the contributions being made (I live on disability I spend 10% of my income on shouting) J.P. Morgan has a portfolio of $2 trillion dollars owned mainly by The Vanguard Group, a private organisation. I’m not interested in Mr Pogge redistributing his wealth nor charities providing a water pump when thousands are needed. I revisit Thomas’s video. The inequality slaps you in the face. The whole system is corrupt. vodaphone shaved £1 billion off its taxes, other multi nationals have fiddled their taxes too. We cannot leave it to business to regulate itself, it doesn’t. i have no solution I only know there is a problem All I can do is be outrospective http://outrospective.net thank you Roman Krznaric a great RSA Animate on empathy. i have been shouting “Redistribution of wealth” fot 25 years. Anybody listening?

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