Is Effective Altruism Really Effective?

Coming out of the Peter Singer talk last week, audience members were abuzz at Founders Hall. Impassioned voices of frustration, anger, and incredulity were prevalent as students discussed Singer’s presentation, “The Most Good You Can Do,” which outlined his controversial perspective. Singer is moral philosopher and Princeton professor best known for his role in Effective Altruism, a philosophy and social movement that seeks to use reasoning and evidence to find the most effective ways to improve the world. While this generalized description of the movement does not seem inherently controversial, the methods Singer champions as doing “the most good” did not sit well with many members of the audience.

Singer believes that donating money to certain charities that aid the global poor is the most effective way to improve the world. He emphasizes investing in charities that have proven themselves to be effective in using their donated funds to save the most lives possible. At face value, donating to these organizations is not a bad thing. But Singer’s view is extremely narrow-minded in that he views this method as one of only a few pragmatic ways to change the world for the better. Even if the greatest good were solely defined by aiding global poverty, Singer diminishes the importance of other actions such as charity work and protests that target systemic issues.

During his Q&A session, Singer was asked by a Haverford student why he ignores these root causes of global poverty. In response, Singer claimed that in most cases systemic problems were not the whole story, and that trying to dismantle governments and other problematic institutions is unrealistic. But what Singer fails to realize is that flawed and corrupt systems are indefinitely a primary reason why issues such as poverty are able to persist in many countries. For example, in many of the impoverished countries where Singer focuses his donations, failures in wealth distribution, education, and healthcare all play a role. In addition, foreign aid rarely comes without stipulations, thus forcing impoverished countries to become dependent. Without individuals and countries working together to change these systems, the problems that Singer is attempting to improve will continue to persist and grow.

For example, at the end of the talk, Singer presented two charities he supports that he planned on giving his speaking fee to – Against Malaria and Give Directly. He polled the audience to determine which charity he should choose. Against Malaria distributes mosquito nets to regions, primarily in Africa, where the disease is a prominent whereas Give Directly uses donations to provide direct cash transfers to impoverished families in Kenya and Uganda. While these are noble causes that improve the quality of life for many people, only focusing on donating to charities like these ignores the greater issues causing malaria and poverty. It is necessary to also work towards more permanent solutions for these problems, including attempting to find cure for malaria and restructuring governmental and social systems. Singer would say these solutions are unrealistic, but in the absence of support for these causes, the world just digs itself into a deeper and deeper hole.

Additionally, I believe that such solutions are not futile at all. Yes, the process may be slower and less “efficient” in the short-term. Finding the cure for malaria, for example, requires a much greater investment of money and time for a less certain outcome. However, such investments are necessary if we expect to solve the problem instead of merely putting a band-aid on it. In no way am I saying that Singer’s causes are not important, but rather each individual may have a different role to play outside of financial donations. In fact, here at Haverford, students in Professor Robert Broadrup’s chemistry superlab course are attempting to synthesize antimalarial target compounds in collaboration with the Open Source Malaria project. While more utilitarian, short-term solutions may be somewhat necessary, it is vital that we do not diminish the significance of other efforts in favor of monetary investments with more direct consequences. They should just be a small piece of a greater long-term solution seeking to provide impoverished countries with greater independence and a better quality of life for its people.

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