Effective Altruism: Is It Up To Rich People To Save the World?

by on October 9, 2015 · 3 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Life Events

By John Lawrence

Peter Singer has written a book The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (Yale University Press, 2015). Singer has been called “the world’s greatest living philosopher” and is currently a Professor at Princeton so we must take his work seriously. Yet I’m bothered by the implications of his work as condensed in an essay: How You Can Do the Most Good: It’s Not as Simple as You Think.

He tells about one of his students who, though caring to extreme about the plight of poor people in the world, nevertheless, chose to go to work on Wall Street when he graduated. His reasoning was that he could help the most poverty stricken by dedicating a large amount of his considerable salary to helping them rather than going to work as a volunteer working directly with them in Africa, for instance.

A huge amount of money contributed to the right charities would alleviate the conditions of more people than would be helped by a person of meager resources who devoted his working efforts to their cause.

The utilitarian part of me can’t argue with this approach to helping the poor. However, I’m bothered by the fact that this guy went to work for the Evil Empire (pardon my hyperbole) in order to do good for others. This isn’t exactly the Robin Hood approach. Robin Hood didn’t go to work for the devil; he stole from him. To my way of thinking, this is an ethically better approach.

I consider many occupations to be unethical including working on Wall Street. To say that a greater good can be accomplished by taking ill-gotten gains after contributing to an enterprise’s evil activities can’t be justified by saying that, on a utilitarian basis, more good can be accomplished than bad created.

Singer is saying that those who go into teaching because their passion is helping children would do better by going into a profession in which they could earn far more money and then using a portion of that money to help the uneducated. This is pure nonsense. When taken to extremes he justifies the sacrifice of some people for the greater good of saving a larger number.

For example, suppose you were faced with the proposition that you could earn a million dollars by killing someone. With that million dollars you could help 100 poor children escape poverty. Does that justify killing one person? I don’t think so.

Should One’s Life Work Be Ethical?

I consider one’s life work to be something that should be considered from an ethical viewpoint. There are jobs and occupations which, although legal, are, from my viewpoint, unethical. Take, for example, petroleum engineering. There are very high salaries for college graduates in this field and jobs are readily available. But in an age where climate change is being exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels, I consider it unethical to go to work for the fossil fuel industry.

There are other jobs and professions I consider to be unethical and others that I consider ethical. This is just my own personal assessment. Others would disagree, but I consider working for the military-industrial complex unethical because it supports the war industry instead of putting time and energy and money into the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

I consider working in the advertising industry unethical because it exists to convince people to part with their money for the enrichment of corporations while pretending to be concerned about the welfare of the individuals they seek to influence. It promotes “unbridled consumerism” as Pope Francis has said.

The pharmaceutical industry which charges what the market will bear for life-saving drugs is clearly unethical. The drug, called Daraprim, was acquired by a former hedge fund manager. The price was immediately raised to $750 a tablet from $13.50, bringing the annual cost of treatment for some patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I consider teaching, care giving, nursing, providing services to the local economy such as those provided by tradesmen or craftsmen to be ethical. Factory farms I consider to be unethical; organic farms I consider to be ethical. I could go on creating two lists: ethical and unethical jobs and occupations, but I won’t.

Other people can make up their own lists. Most Americans would probably consider any legal job or occupation to be ethical. I disagree obviously.

Here is Singer’s very persuasive argument:

I met Matt Wage in 2009 when he took my Practical Ethics class at Princeton University. In the readings relating to global poverty and what we ought to be doing about it, he found an estimate of how much it costs to save the life of one of the millions of children who die each year from diseases that we can prevent or cure.

This led him to calculate how many lives he could save, over his lifetime, assuming he earned an average income and donated 10 percent of it to a highly effective organization, such as one providing families with bed nets to prevent malaria, a major killer of children. He discovered that he could, with that level of donation, save about one hundred lives.

He thought to himself, “Suppose you see a burning building, and you run through the flames and kick a door open, and let one hundred people out. That would be the greatest moment in your life. And I could do as much good as that!”

Two years later Wage graduated, receiving the Philosophy Department’s prize for the best senior thesis of the year. He was accepted by the University of Oxford for postgraduate study. Many students who major in philosophy dream of an opportunity like that—I know I did—but by then Wage had done a lot of thinking about what career would do the most good.

Over many discussions with others, he came to a very different choice: he took a job on Wall Street, working for an arbitrage trading firm. On a higher income, he would be able to give much more, both as a percentage and in dollars, than 10 percent of a professor’s income. One year after graduating, Wage was donating a six-figure sum—roughly half his annual earnings—to highly effective charities. He was on the way to saving a hundred lives, not over his entire career but within the first year or two of his working life and every year thereafter.

Should One Sell His Soul to Wall Street in Order to Do Good?

So Singer apparently considers working for Wall Street a more ethical job than being a professor. I don’t think so. He doesn’t stop to consider the ethically corrupting influence that Wall Street will have on Wage himself who may at any time decide his money will be better spent on his own noncharitable predilections or may decide that selling his soul to Wall Street, even for a good cause, is something he can no longer do.

He doesn’t stop to consider how much evil Wage will be participating in simply by doing his job. He doesn’t consider the corrosive influence that working in a toxic environment will have on Wage’s soul. He doesn’t consider that Wage might not be able to tolerate working in that environment for more than a short time like many young people who went to work on Wall Street right after college. In short, Wage is selling his soul for a mess of pottage, pottage to be sure that he intends to give away to help others, but pottage gained by losing his soul, his humanity and his integrity nevertheless.

Singer’s argument suggests that it’s up to rich people to save the world. In fairness, rich people do a lot of good through their charities. But it’s not an unmitigated good. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done much good in the world which wouldn’t have been possible without the success of Microsoft Corporation. The Gates Foundation is not without controversy, however, including their support for GMOs and charter (privatized) schools. Gates and other rich people who have gotten rich off of technology naturally feel that there’s a technological solution for every problem.

So is it up to billionaires to do the most good in the world because they possess the most resources? We also must consider that not all billionaires are up to doing good with their money. Many of them use their considerable resources, instead of helping people, to maintain a system of oppression over people, lest those people take their resources away from them. That’s why we can’t trust that billionaires are going to save the world. Many of them are up to making it worse, particularly the plight of the least well off.

An article in Salon says it better:

As H.L. Mencken writes, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.” While some philanthropists support good causes (like Bloomberg’s fight against Big Tobacco), other pet causes are not so humanitarian. While we may applaud the work of Bill Gates, many philanthrocapitalists, like the Adelsons and the Kochs, have decided that their philanthropic venture will be empowering the Ted Cruzes of the world to wreak havoc. Wealth is power, and concentrated wealth is concentrated power. The most benevolent inventions are also the cruelest.

A better approach might be to limit the economic power that can be accumulated by corporations which then ends up in individual hands. Some billionaires do a lot of good in the world; some do bad, but not everyone can be a billionaire. Everyone can aspire to working in an ethical job or occupation. A system that results in the accumulation of economic power by the 1%, no matter how much resultant good comes with it, is not ethical especially when that means that the plight of the lower classes worsens from year to year. A good society would distribute economic well-being more equitably and democratically. Then we all wouldn’t be so dependent on the noblesse oblige of the rich.

Charity is Good But What About Justice?

Some make a distinction between charity and justice. Charity deals with the immediate needs of desperate people. Justice deals with setting things up so that they don’t become desperate in the first place:

Justice directly confronts the challenge of preventing people from ending up in vulnerable situations. What causes over 15 million children in the U.S. to go to bed hungry each night? Why don’t we have universal public health care? Why aren’t public colleges and universities tuition-free like high schools in the U.S. and [colleges in] most western European countries? Why are our public works crumbling and creating unnecessary obstructions for disaster relief (reaching people stranded after hurricanes)?

It is advocacy promoting justice that seeks the prevention of the causes that lead to so much misery, institutional harm, poverty, and the loss of human life and potential. Repairing the wreckage of wars places huge demands on charity. Waging peace and negotiating arms control agreements places huge demands on justice.

Singer says, “Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place.” You can’t argue with that, but that applies to everyone in the economic spectrum not just to rich people. And many are so hobbled economically that they don’t have any spare resources. They need an inflow of charitable or societal resources just to make ends meet. They should not be contributing to charity at all.

If society provided more opportunities for people to do good, i.e. by transferring resources from the war machine to the Peace Corps for instance, more people could work in ethical occupations and pull themselves and others out of poverty at the same time. Too often, however, what the American society provides is opportunities to work in unethical occupations which are rewarded handsomely while working in ethical occupations is rewarded minimally or not at all. If the budgets of the military-industrial complex and those of the Peace Corps were transposed, a massive movement of those working in ethical occupations would provide a greater force for good than the combined forces of ethical billionaires.

Reliance on billionaires to do good in the world is a return to feudalism where kings were the only forces for good or bad in the world depending on whether they were enlightened despots like Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great or just plain despots like Ivan the Terrible or Caligula.

We must consider whether a society which creates “opportunities” for some people to become obscenely wealthy, even though they can then supposedly turn around and use their money to do good, is as good a society as one which creates opportunities for most people to work in ethical occupations and do good at the same time.

Singer’s world view is one where everyone is well off and gives to charity without sacrificing any of their own self-interest at all. They needn’t do that because after all they are billionaires and have much more money than they ever could spend on themselves. It’s not the real world. It applies to a small fraction of rich people – those who want to use their money for good purposes. They barely, if at all, offset the rich who use their money to perpetuate bad purposes.

Perhaps Wage will find out that he cannot sacrifice his own soul to gain the world even if he gives half of it away.

In an article in Salon Sean McElwee says : Charity is great, but it won’t bring real change — and worse, it perpetuates the myth that we need the ultra-rich:

Think of the planet’s best human being. Who are you thinking of? Pope Francis? Your parents? Justin Bieber? According to Business Insider, it’s Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Because he’s planning to donate $1 billion (less than 5 percent of his massive fortune) to charity. While it’s certainly welcome, philanthropy is far more insidious than it appears at first sight. It tends to lead to fawning press coverage, but little in the way of good reform. Worse, it perpetuates the myth that society’s problems can be solved by the rich and powerful. …

There’s a very real sense in which it would be hard for Zuckerberg to have done less for the poor. After all, he and his rich Silicon Valley friends regularly use their wealth to lobby for policies that would make them even richer — even if in the guise of social responsibility.

Billionaires Do Not Always Use Their Money for Good Purposes

And that’s the rub. The rich in addition to their charitable endeavors also use their money to perpetuate the system that made them wealthy in the first place even if that system fosters subjugation and oppression for the vast majority. McElwee writes: “In charity, the rich approach the poor not as equal citizens but rather [as] benefactor and serf. It perpetuates a class society, where the poor and middle class are dependent on the wealthy.”

We must also consider the rationale and ethics of a society that makes some people insanely wealthy for inventing things of questionable and even trivial value.

For instance, take Snapchat. Snapchat has made its corporate owners, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy fabulously wealthy. Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as “Snaps”. Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps after which Snapchat claims they will be deleted from the company’s servers.

The main purpose of SnapChat is so users of the application can take pictures of their “junk”, send them out and then not have to worry that a prospective employer might view them. In June 2013, Snapchat raised $60 million in a funding round led by venture-capital firm Institutional Venture Partners.

According to Forbes, Snapchat’s chief executive Evan Spiegel and co-founder Bobby Murphy, have made it to the 2015 Forbes 400 list. Mr. Spiegel, who is 25, is now the youngest billionaire in the world and currently his net worth sums up to $2.1 billion. Don’t tell me that we live in an ethical society when a piece of crap like SnapChat can raise $60 million, make Spiegel a billionaire and poor kids go hungry.

In addition, it turns out that Spiegle didn’t even invent SnapChat. It was invented by former “friend”, Reggie Brown, who was subsequently shut out of the company. This is reminiscent of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg shutting out the Winkelvoss twins, who actually invented Facebook, and later settled with them for $65 million, a large amount to be sure, but not the $35.7 billion Zuckerberg is worth.

Long story short, people screw their friends over huge amounts of money. This is an ethical society when things like this can happen and people can make huge amounts of money for crapola?

On May 9, 2013, Forbes reported that Snapchat photos do not actually disappear and that the images can still be retrieved with minimal technical knowledge after the time limit expires. The Electronic Privacy Information Center consequently filed a complaint against Snapchat with the Federal Trade Commission, stating that Snapchat deceived its customers by leading them to believe that pictures are destroyed within seconds of viewing.

Snapchat eventually settled with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations it deceived users over the amount of personal data it collected and was responsible for a security breach that impacted 4.6 million customers. It will face privacy monitoring for 20 years.

That’s the story in a nutshell. Unethical people making huge sums of money in unethical enterprises while the poor and people striving in ethical professions such as teaching and caregiving starve to death.

Capitalism, especially as it is currently conceived, manifested and practiced, is unethical. Make no mistake about it: capitalism is not some absolute thing-in-itself that has always existed from time immemorial. It is a moving target, continuously being reinvented and updated to advantage the already rich with every new wrinkle that some financial expert can come up with.

In other words, it evolves and not necessarily in benign ways. Its original purpose, to develop pools of money that could be used in enterprises which would benefit society, has long been forgotten. It allows for despoilation of the environment, the granting of huge rewards to insiders who come up with stuff that only degrades the culture and the complete neglect of the kinds of enterprises that are necessary to make peace in the world and build a better and stronger society.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bearded OBcean October 9, 2015 at 10:23 am

Unfortunately the trade off is that everyone lives in poverty.


Old Hermit Dave October 11, 2015 at 4:02 pm

I we could have Good Super Rich GODS not Greedy ones, be a better World—


John Lawrence October 12, 2015 at 10:07 am

I think Bernie Sanders has a better way: Medicare for all, free college education and tax the rich to pay for it. If that’s socialism, I’m in.


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