It’s not just what you give it’s how you give

Philosopher Peter Singer, who gave the 2017 Knox Lecture at the University of St Andrews.
Philosopher Peter Singer, who gave the 2017 Knox Lecture at the University of St Andrews.

The term ‘one per cent’ is often used to refer to a wealthy elite but if you earn at least £27,000 a year, you are already in the top two per cent of the global population.

And the bottom ten per cent have to survive on our purchasing equivalent of £1.50 a day for all their basic needs – food, accommodation and health.

These were just two of the figures discussed by Prof Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers and ethicists, at a recent lecture in St Andrews.

Prof Singer was the guest speaker for the University of St Andrews 2017 Sir Malcolm Knox Memorial Lecture and spoke on Living Ethically in the 21st Century, and more exactly on the ethics of giving.

Singer has been described as the father of a movement called Effective Altruism and argues that those who have enough to spend on luxuries but don’t share even a tiny fraction of their income, have to bear some responsibility for deaths that they could have prevented.

He gave the example of the cup of coffee that so many buy every day without a thought, the cost of which is greater than that £1.50 ten per cent of the population have to live on every day. The implications of living on such an inadequate sum were many – malnourishment, no healthcare, children dying from diseases that do not exist in developed nations.

“Six million children are dying each year,” he said. “If we can prevent something without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.”

Effective Altruism is a relatively new movement based on having a life goal to make the world a better place and to use reason and evidence to do the most good.

One way to find out more is through research, such as through the non-profit organisation co-founded by Prof Singer –

Dr Theron Pummer, Lecturer in Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews, explained later: “Effective Altruism is a social movement concerned with using evidence and careful reasoning to address the question, “How can I do the most good with my time or money?”, and taking positive action on the basis of one’s answers.

“The intellectual roots of this movement can be traced to Peter Singer’s justly famous 1972 article Famine, Affluence and Morality. In this article, Singer argued that each of us has stringent and far-reaching duties to aid the world’s poor. Not to fulfill these duties, Singer argued, is morally on a par with walking past a child who is drowning in a pond, refusing to incur the minimal cost and inconvenience that would be involved in saving the child’s life.

“Since the publication of Singer’s article, there has been much discussion in moral and political philosophy of whether we do indeed have such duties, and of whether donating money is the best response to the plight of the global poor.

“We should not donate whimsically, and nor should we donate according to such heuristics as “proportion of donations spent on overheads”, but should pay careful attention to the evidence concerning how effective a particular charity is before choosing which charities to support. Moreover, if the aim is to do the most good one can per dollar donated, it is far from obvious that global poverty alleviation is the best cause to support.

“Effective Altruists are currently divided among themselves on whether the most cost-effective interventions are to be found in the areas of relatively direct poverty alleviation, political change, animal welfare, existential risk or other areas, and many support interventions in more than one of these categories. The purpose of this conference was to help advance the academic discussion of the ethics of charitable giving, which includes advancing “the Singer discussion” concerning how much to give, as well as newer discussions concerning where to give that are largely inspired by the Effective Altruism movement.”

You can also hear Prof Singer talk about Effective Altruism at this TED talk.