Book Review: The Most Good You Can Do

I thought it worth posting my Goodreads review of Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. The book is great and has a lot of relevance to the topics I muse about here. Definitely worth picking up and considering seriously.

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As with so much of Singer’s work, I have conflicting feelings about this one. On one hand, the idea of understanding the impact of lifestyle and philanthropy is incredibly important. We need to be better about evaluating the organizations we give to and looking at what the greatest needs in the world are. We also need to expand our beliefs about whose lives matter and work to make the world, as a whole, better for everyone.

On the other hand, I’m not fully on-board with some of Singer’s conclusions. Being too committed to the “give by calculation of impact and need” metric can have problematic consequences. He brings up malaria quite a few times — it’s incredibly important to find ways to prevent the spread of malaria in developing countries, but it is also true that that is not the only issue and effort that deserves philanthropy. All these causes are part of an interconnected system, and other efforts that might seem less important than directly saving the lives of those threatened by malaria are equally important to human flourishing. Being too wedded to the “impact” metric has the potential to funnel money away from vital, though perhaps more fledgling, efforts.

Then I thought Singer was conveniently not wedded to his metric-focused approach concerning two issues: birthing children and working for Wall Street. Maybe I’m super attuned to the value and importance of adoption, but in the discussion about the impact of bringing additional kids into the world, not once did he talk about the value of adopting as a way to build one’s family. That is such an obvious oversight for a philosopher committed to living ethically towards the environment, and to one who believes all lives are equally valuable (wanting us to think beyond our in-groups).

Secondly, he talks about the value of working in high-paying jobs, specifically on Wall Street, in order to give away even more money (aka, choosing that career over working directly for a nonprofit and being able to give less money overall but living out the effort in the day-to-day). Singer ignored the very real damage that institutions like Wall Street have on a large segment of the population, and ignored that potential impact of contributing to that unjust system. Those metrics are inherently more difficult to track than just “money given,” and I didn’t feel as though Singer took those metrics (nebulous as some of them may be) as seriously as he should have.

(Which, of course, is part of the problem with these calculation-based efforts. There are so many factors to consider, and it is difficult to consider all the necessary ones. It’s a very worthwhile effort and I am grateful that Singer is continuing to explore these ideas, I just hope they’re read with an eye to the limitations of the approach, as well.)

Finally, I don’t think Singer gave enough credence to the responsibility we have to serve and protect our own communities. Yes, we should consider the whole world our community, but we do have greater responsibilities to those with whom we interact on a day-to-day basis. That is part of our human nature, part of what makes life worth living, and I think we should take that proximity and mutuality very, very seriously as part of the whole way we live our lives. I wish Singer had taken that responsibility a little more seriously even while impressing upon his readers the need to value all humans as equally valuable, even those “out of sight, out of mind.”

I know it sounds like I’m very critical of the book overall, and I swear I’m not! Singer makes some great points about rethinking what it means and looks like to think and live ethically, and I agree with his overall points. This is the kind of philanthropy and ethical living we would all do well to adopt. Especially for those of us living in the US, we can cut way down on our consumption and lifestyles in order to donate more to those who truly need the funds. It motivated me to rethink where I spend my money and find ways to cut back (unfortunately, not as many as I would like since I live in one of the most expensive places on earth). I want to remember Singer’s arguments when my husband and I actually settle in a place and are buying a house, expanding our family, engaging with our community, etc. I don’t agree with all of Singer’s conclusions, but the general idea of effective altruism is important and I think everyone should engage with it and what it would mean for the way they structure their lives.

 

Image source and link to purchase.
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