“The Most Good You Can Do” Author Peter Seeger

Australians give more than $2.2bn a year to charities – but how well is that money spent? This conundrum is tackled by the philosopher Peter Singer in his new book The Most Good You Can Do.

Singer espouses the benefits of a growing movement called “effective altruism”, which demands targeted, evidenced-based giving that does the most good to alleviate poverty and reduce suffering.

Singer’s book is full of vignettes of people such as his former student Matt Wage, who decided to embark upon a career on Wall Street purely because he could earn more money to give away.

Effective altruists have worked out, Singer argues, that you can comfortably live without, say, 10% of your income and provide a net benefit to the world. He spoke to Guardian Australia about the book.

Oliver Milman: How would you describe effective altruism in a nutshell?
Peter Singer: It’s people who want to make a significant contribution to making the world a better place. That’s the “altruism”. “Significant” can mean 10% of your income, but for some people that can mean time or another contribution.

The second part is thinking about how to maximise what I’m giving – the time, the money, the skill – to make the world a better place. That’s where the head part of it comes in.

So are most people giving to charity for essentially selfish reasons?
There are a lot of “warm glow” givers. There are a lot of people giving without doing any research at all about whether their gifts are effective. So that’s a big problem.

I’m not so worried by people’s motivation. Maybe people do it because it makes them feel good. I’m not going to say “it makes you feel good so it’s not a sacrifice, you’re not an altruist”. I think that’s the wrong way to think about altruism.

We want to think that people who help others are altruists. We want people to feel good about giving, not good because they’ve got a bigger yacht than the next guy.

You talk about charities using pictures of children and animals, rather than hard details, to elicit a response.
It’s what people say about newspapers – the public gets what it deserves. People are prompted by the smiling faces and in some cases are even put off by too much detail and transparency, it’s hard to blame the organisation for doing this.


What’s pleasing is that there is a new breed of organisation that is appealing to the savvier group of donors who want information, they want hard information about what’s happening with their money, they want transparency.

Should there be a data-driven approach?
It’s fairly data-driven and certainly some people are like that. It’s not an accident that a lot of people into effective altruism are from the hedge fund area, computer-based stuff, startups and the like.

It’s all very pragmatic, isn’t it?
In the way of achieving an effect, yes, it’s completely pragmatic. Charity is a huge thing, in the US it’s $230bn a year, so it’s pretty big by any standards. And yet a lot of it isn’t going to the right place.

What information should altruists be looking for?
Firstly they should be saying “we chose this particular intervention because the data showed us”. So, they chose to distribute a certain number of bed nets in malaria-prone areas because there is data showing that is an effective way of preventing people getting sick and dying.

Take a larger organisation, such as Oxfam. I’d like to see them say, “We have a large number of projects and we chose these projects as a result of the following process.”

Who decides whether Oxfam would spend money on a rural savings and loans program in rural Mali and that it would spend money on assistance for relief from a cyclone? How were those decisions made?

Oxfam’s supporters don’t know the answer to that and it would be good to see the data upon which those decisions were made. Preferably, there would be independent evaluations of those projects.

I’m hoping the word gets around that if you do this, do it well, you’ll get money and organisations not providing the data won’t be on recommended lists. In a way I’m looking to shame organisations.

Is a lot of money wasted?
Yes. I’m not saying there are a lot of charities where it’s doing no good at all, but if you are giving to a charity to save a life for $100,000 and there’s another charity that could save a life for $5,000, then I’d say you’ve wasted $95,000.

Not all lives are considered equal though. People generally see their family and people around them as more important than people in faraway countries.

Yes, if there’s anything universally true of every culture, people pay more attention to the needs and interests of their close kin.

I’m not trying to fight that. That would be hopeless. I’m just saying it doesn’t have to stop there, that people’s altruism isn’t only related to kin and reciprocity, that there’s an element of it for distant strangers. It shouldn’t just be a plateau and then falls off a cliff if you’re not related to me or are my friend.

Why should people care about distant strangers?
Because you can make a big difference to their lives at a small cost to yourself, you are making the world a better place.

Even if we assume that your welfare is going to drop a little bit, and the welfare of several other people rises a lot, you are living in a better world. I think we ought to think about that, it should be a motivating factor.

Assuming you are a comfortable middle-class person, you are spending a lot of money on things that don’t make a huge difference to your life. Whether you change your curtains or buy a new car or new clothes, those sort of things make a pretty small difference. Whereas making a big difference to someone can be so much more fulfilling, so much more worthwhile. Even from a broadly self-interested sense, you’re better off.

How would you class how public policy in Australia is going at the moment?
I think the cuts to foreign aid are deplorable. I say that in a non-partisan way because it was the second Rudd government that started it off, because there had been bipartisan support for moving to 0.5% of gross national income, then that Labor government said they’d postpone it. I think it’s shameful that Australia gives so little aid.

Look at Britain. David Cameron pledged to reach 0.7% and he did it, despite financial problems.

Maybe the political atmosphere has got more poisonous in Australia, maybe that gives people licence to attack others on matters that should be bipartisan, like foreign aid. I don’t know.

Does that debate, where we demonise the poorest, those fleeing persecution, impact upon peoples’ altruism?
The debate about asylum seekers is very unfortunate, but in a way there’s a loss of sense of proportion in how we are doing in accepting refugees and by that standard we are doing OK. That’s something we should be positive about.

Even after the aid cuts, we are giving more than the Americans, by proportion, so we aren’t doing badly, but I wouldn’t like to compare us with the Americans. They are very anti-government, more anti-government than us and more anti-government than anyone should be.

We should compare ourselves to reasonably affluent nations such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway and of course Britain. Australians, generally, think we are better off than Britain, so why can’t we give as much aid as them? We should do better.

What change would you like to see in an ideal world?
The ideal scenario is when people think “am I living ethically?” they aren’t thinking “have I stolen something, have I lied or cheated?” or whatever – usually you can tick those boxes and say no.

I’d like people to think more “have I done something significant to make the world a better place?” That could be through reducing animal suffering, reducing the risk of catastrophic disasters by acting on climate change or dealing with an epidemic.

Whatever you’re doing, you need to make sure it’s as effective as possible.

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