Should we be Effective Altruists?

Long Reads, Philosophy
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Peter Singer’s belief and argument in support of giving to charity is broadly based on three main things. Firstly, that the problem of poverty exists and can be solved. Secondly, that people are principally responsible in solving poverty. Thirdly, that giving to charity is the best way to alleviate this suffering and reduce poverty. It is through these three premises that he tries to show that we need to give to charity.

What is poverty?

His critics broadly suggest two main issues with regards to the idea of poverty. They suggest that poverty is not the actual problem, but rather a symptom of any society and therefore that poverty is unsolvable. This because any society requires some sort of order, thus requiring a hierarchy. This in turn means that those at the top need to be reciprocated for the extra work they do, and will also use their control of the system to benefit themselves, thus always resulting in inequality. This is self perpetuating, as inequality allows those in charge to continue to benefit themselves, creating relative poverty. This demonstrated in the way most communist governments have resulted in collapse and a transition to a capitalist one. They also then suggest that individuals do not have enough money to give to make a big difference. Singer gives a compelling clarification, explaining the difference between relative and absolute poverty. Even if you cannot get a completely equal society, you can get one where no one is starving on the streets and one where children are not dying off by the dozens due to preventable diseases. This distinction is enough to show that any work and any donation is still meaningful in improving people’s quality of life, even if only marginally. Therefore poverty is a problem, and in fact one that is reduced every time someone helps and donates.

Do we have duties?

The existence of poverty may be harmful and problematic, but it does not in and of itself mean people have a moral responsibility to act and try to solve this. Thus the second area of contention is on people’s duties. 

The most direct response is to say that we do not have responsibilities to other people. This is usually based on three main ideas: moral relativism, the idea of reciprocity, and a libertarian idea of keeping to oneself. In response to the first, Singer’s response is to appeal to pathos with examples of cruel acts like torturing animals, and the fact that most if not all people would have a problem with that. He also gives a principle reason for this, conceding that while moral relativism might exist, at the point where you engage into society and are using society’s resources, you are accepting the moral standards that people have established through democracy, which is simply a way to aggregate subjective moral views into one most people accept. Thus, those same standards you have accepted apply to you in other situations, like for charity. His reply to the second idea is to suggest that while we may have a reciprocal right to the things we have worked for, most of the benefits we get are dependent on factors we do not control, and thus did not work for. He uses the idea of a birth lottery to explain why our lack of choice in where we were born means we have a duty to equalise the inequality caused by those structural factors, such as social capital, which accounts for 90% of our wealth. In fact, Warren Buffett acknowledged the importance of being born in the USA and having access to good education and healthcare, as well as a stable and reliable judiciary that protects legal rights and ensures financial stability. The idea of equalising inequalities is also part of his response to libertarians, as he shows that we are complicit, if not directly responsible, for many of the systemic reasons why poverty exists in other regions. This involves our purchase of unethically sourced goods that exploit labour or resources and thus preventable sustainable economic development in those places, or use of services that contribute to global warming that affects everyone, especially those in agrarian societies. As such, we do have a duty to them, and cannot simply ignore their plight, as our actions have not left them alone.

Then there are those who suggest that while we have a duty to help others, this duty is most true to people close to us, like our family or our local communities. This is because they are often responsible for how we have benefitted, such as by providing services, and they are also more dependent on us under the status quo, such as our children needing our money. Thus, we should prioritise their needs. Here, Peter Singer again uses the idea of a birth lottery, which suggests that people do not choose to be born in certain places and thus do not deserve that treatment any more than those who were arbitrarily born in other places. He also suggests that the way we maximise utility is by allocating a fixed zero-sum amount of resources to those most in need. This is because of the idea of diminishing returns on utility, which suggests that $1000 spent on those who have $100 will make much more of a difference that those with $10,000. However, this does not explain why given that they have been born, there isn’t still some sort of moral duty we have to them. This simply means that moral arbitrariness is not sufficient in showing a lack of moral significance, and the random nature of our births does not change the fact that how we treat others still matters given their existence.

Finally there are those who do concede that some sort of duty to people far away from ourselves exists, but then argue that this is something governments should do and do do. This also voids individuals of their duty to act, because the people are the state, and governmental foreign aid directly comes from the pockets of its citizens. Peter Singer shows why this just is not empirically enough, giving statistics that underscore the distinct lack of money that goes from developed nations to other countries. For example, the USA gives one of the lowest percentage of national income as aid out of developed nations, with only 0.18 cents on the dollar as foreign aid, which is even lower than many developing nations. 

On balance, although he does not prove why our duties are equal to everyone, he does show that some sort of duty does exist, and thus we should try and help the poor, regardless of where or who they are. 

How do we help others?

His argument does not just say that one needs to help the poor: it specifically suggests that charity donations are the way to do so. This final clash in his argumentation is about whether giving money to charity actually solves the problems of poverty. Critics point out three broad issues with charity.

One is that charities are simply not that efficient with their money. This is because they need to appeal to the masses in order to get donations, and this involves huge media campaigns and advertisements, all of which cost money. In addition, like any organisation, they are somewhat bureaucratic, with costs like paying staff, bank transaction fees and registering as a charity. This gets exacerbated by the fact that there are many niche charities, which means that you have 900 cancer charities just in England, and it means that each charity has a very limited amount of money. This means all the aforementioned overheads get larger as every charity needs to have those costs. This is also less efficient than having money aggregated in one charity, because of the idea of economies of scale, where if there were just one charity for a certain area or problem, it could use the fact that it has lots of money to buy aid products in bulk and at a discount, reducing costs. This does not happen when every individual charity has little purchasing power. Furthermore, many charities are religious charities, or have some sort of agenda. This means that part of their costs go towards spreading that message through propaganda or building churches, detracting from helping people. As such, these two factors mean that optimistically, only 10% of the money ever gets to aid for firing nations, and 30% is used for religious purposes like repairing cathedrals. It also means that they might not do work in areas with opposite views, even if it is logistically easier for them than for other charities, also wasting money. The industry of charities also faces another issue, which is that competition and accountability is nonexistent. The fact that no one gets detrimented or harmed if they are inefficient means that few have an incentive to keep them accountable, thus meaning that inefficient spending is rarely kept in check. This is specifically problematic because charities are notoriously opaque with their accounts. Finally, even with an optimised and efficacious charity, the fact of the matter is that the places which need charities the most are the places which are least developed, and thus have the most corruption. This means that money is lost along the way to government officials and tribal leaders, thus reducing its effectiveness. Peter Singer’s response here is hugely inadequate, as he basically says to choose charities that have better QALY, something that does not deal with structural problems with charities that exist for all of them. Given that all charities are somewhat inefficient, are there other ways to solve poverty?

This leads on to the second issue, which is of resource allocation. It is accepted that resources are limited, and so it is a question of who we choose to give to. Many point out that monetary capital can be better allocated as spending or investment. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it could be used to grow more capital that can be spent later on charity. Secondly, spending is probably more impactful than charity, because it allows those poorer to earn money in the long term. If we spent money on goods and services, this translates to money that goes to their pockets and is less likely to be reduced by corruption, and gives them a job that funds them not just right now, but in the future as well. This relates to the systems of capital, and another issue with resource allocation, this time allocating political capital. The fundamental problem that faces poor people is not one of a lack of money, as much as it is the structures and institutions that created this symptom and defined how goods and necessities are made and distributed. Lobbying to get people to buy more ethical goods means poor people are paid more, something that will hold true long after we stop giving them aid. It also means we can get more long-term developmental aid, which is drastically and perpetually underfunded. Thus, instead of giving people malaria nets, we build and ensure a system of healthcare that protects everyone from many more diseases. Capitalism in and of itself also causes this poverty, whether that is through exploitative labour, environmentally destructive

farming techniques, or just lobbying governments to provide subsidies and tax cuts. Although rich nations give give around $130 billion aid to poorer countries a year, they are also taking over $2 trillion out of poor countries each year through trade mispricing, debt services, and unfair trade rules. Charity not only funds this system, such as by buying rice from the rice companies that pay exploitative wages that mean people are starving in the first place, but also means that you get a sense of complacency which means you never deal with the institutionalised culture that stops misery and poverty if and only if it is profitable to do so. All of these things cannot be fought for if all the political capital is spent on persuading people do donate $10, instead of voting for a government that will undertake large scale systemic change that is much more valuable than the tiny amount of money they donate. Peter Singer says that problems also grow, and so donating now will stop problems before they start. However that seems less important, given that these problems already exist and are unlikely to get that much worse, whereas capital accumulation can happen faster. His only response to the idea of political capital is to encourage people to donate to charities that also lobby for this or to donate to charities that also provide developmental aid. At best, this mitigates some of these harms and allocates political and monetary capital more efficiently, but even so, it does not deal with the fact that any capital spent is going to the pockets of those who will lobby in the exact opposite way. At worst, what it means is that you leave people right now suffering because you do not get aid to them in the present.

The final problem with charity is about wider societal harms. This plays out in two main ways. Firstly, it creates dependency in communities. This is because those in the areas with aid will think that they do not need to work. This is especially due to the lack of reciprocity, which means that charities rarely reduce their aid because locals are not productive. This also translates into impacts further up the power structure, with leaders and provincial governors ignoring the problems there, because they know they will be fine as long as their people receive aid. In the long term, this means that nothing gets done there, and the situation people are in right now stays the same, meaning people do not get out of poverty. Secondly, it undercuts local economies. Aid is heavily subsidised or just completely free. This means that for example, local farmers cannot sell maize or corn, because charities provide it for free. As such, there is little to no incentive for people in those places to get jobs and build an economy, thus further discouraging the set up of a entrepreneurial businesses that reduce poverty. Here, Singer’s response again amounts to a critique on the type of charities we give to, but he never characterises the sort of charity that does stimulate long term growth. Even if developmental aid sidesteps some of these problems, only giving this sort of developmental aid means that you let millions starve in order to potentially accomplish a long term goal. This seems ethically dubious, because you should not instrumentalise people for a larger goal, since people have some sort of free will and right to bodily autonomy. In addition, you simply owe more duties to the present due to your moral proximity, and because the future versions of people simply do not exist, whereas you are actively harming someone who currently exists. This means that it is illegitimate to value a potential future gain that you cannot guarantee over a definite harm to someone who exists and has moral rights. 

Overall, you cannot solve a system of exploitation and taking with individualised cases of giving, nor can you create economically stable communities by providing handouts that get withered down by the inherent flaws of charities. 


Ultimately, it seems rather intuitive that poverty does exist as it is something we can see with our own eyes, and even if relative poverty cannot be solved, absolute poverty can be alleviated if not solved. This would greatly benefit many people who have a low standard of living. Singer also relatively compellingly paints a picture of why we have some sort of responsibility to others, although how we allocate this to people far away is more up to dispute. This means that while we can dispute over who gives the aid, or who to give more to, it is undoubtedly true that we should try to help the poor. However, he fails in the third main idea on the way in which you actually benefit those in poverty. He does not show why charities are efficient and have wider societal benefits, and therefore why the best way of allocating resources is to charities. Given that his argument is contingent on charity actually being effective, his response is inadequate. As such, his argument has quite serious flaws and thus falls. 

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