Peter Singer: How Can Effective Altruism Help Us Do The Most Good During A Pandemic?

Jun 19, 2020

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Greater Good?

Are some acts of altruism more effective than others? Philosopher Peter Singer examines the greater good on a global scale, asking how we can maximize the positive impact of our actions during crisis.

About Peter Singer

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on applied ethics, philosophy, and "effective altruism."

Singer is the co-founder of The Life You Can Save, a non-profit organization devoted to improving the lives of people living in extreme poverty. He is the author of several books including Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and The Life You Can Save.

Singer holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford.

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On the show today we're talking about the greater good, and we've just heard two very different, very culturally specific perspectives on what it means to look out for our fellow citizens. But what if we didn't think of them as fellow citizens but as members of the same species?

PETER SINGER: Human beings are social mammals. We and our pre-human ancestors have lived in groups where we have helped each other within that group. So that capacity is there for all of us, I believe.

ZOMORODI: Peter Singer is probably one of the most famous living philosophers in the world.

SINGER: I am professor of bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

ZOMORODI: He's best known for a social movement called effective altruism.

SINGER: Effective altruism is a social movement where people - typically younger people, often students - decided that they wanted to live their lives in a way that would make the world a better place. They thought that was important to give their lives meaning, not simply to enjoy their lives for themselves but to do things for others. And what was really distinctive from past forms of altruism is that they did some serious research into what different organizations would do with a donation either of money or time, and how much good would that do? And they emphasized the importance of maximizing the value of whatever they were doing and found that, in fact, some charities will do hundreds of times more good with $50 or $100, whatever, than other organizations.

ZOMORODI: Peter Singer picks up this idea of acting globally from the TED stage.


SINGER: Take for example providing a guide dog for a blind person. That's a good thing to do, right? All right. It is a good thing to do. But you have to think what else you could do with the resources. It costs about $40,000 so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person. It costs somewhere between $20 and $50 to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma. So you do the sums, and you get something like that. You could provide one guide dog for one blind American, or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. I think it's clear what's the better thing to do.

So I think reason is not just some neutral tool to help you get whatever you want. It does help us to put perspective on our situation. And I think that's why many of the most significant people in effective altruism have been people who've had backgrounds in philosophy or economics or math. And that might seem surprising because a lot of people think philosophy is remote from the real world. Economics, we're told, just makes us more selfish. And we know that math is for nerds. But in fact, it does make a difference.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, so has the pandemic altered that idea of maximizing the most good you can do with a single act? I mean, many people here in the U.S. are seeing real hardship in their own neighborhoods like never before.

SINGER: Generally speaking, the effective altruism movement is saying it's still better to give to low-income countries than it is to give to affluent countries. Your money will go further and will do more good. And some of the organizations that have been working for many years in low-income countries and understand the scene there are doing very good work in terms of just informing people about what they can do to keep themselves safe, which, if you're living in a rural village in Burkina Faso in Africa, you may not have that information. And it may take a nonprofit organization to get on the local radio station, which may be the one news source that you have.

Now, there's also a quite different thing that a group of effective altruists have started, and they've set up a website called One Day Sooner. And the idea here is about getting a vaccine that will stop the pandemic. Every day that goes by that we don't have a vaccine, worldwide, thousands of people die. Therefore, if we can get a vaccine one day sooner than we would otherwise get it, we can save thousands of lives. How can we do that? Well, one of the stages of developing a vaccine is, if you've got a promising candidate, looks good, you have to test it to see if it really works. And the standard way to test it is to ask for people who would be prepared to get the vaccine, and maybe people at higher risk of getting a disease than others - for example, health care workers in the case of the pandemic - and you give them the vaccine. And then you have a control group of other people in a similar situation who don't get the vaccine, and you see whether it protects them.

Let's suppose that you had volunteers who said, I'll get the vaccine, and then you can expose me to the virus and we'll see if the vaccine works. Then you would get results very quickly, and you would get the vaccine out, not just one day sooner but months sooner. And so, in fact, this organization now has - well, it had a couple of days ago when I last checked the website, it had more than 16,000 volunteers who had said they are prepared to do that. They prepared to take part in what's called a human challenge trial.

ZOMORODI: We checked again, and there are around 30,000 volunteers hoping to test a COVID-19 vaccine. After the break, Peter Singer on making the difficult calculation of what a human life is worth. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, we're talking about the greater good, especially in this time of a new coronavirus. And for utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, doing the most good means asking uncomfortable questions, like how do we put a dollar value on a human life?

SINGER: Yes. They are uncomfortable. But of course, we do put numbers on saving human lives. That's been happening for many years in various government departments. Let's say the Department of Transportation does work to reduce road accidents and has to decide whether reengineering a dangerous bend where there've been accidents is worth doing or not, and they have a figure that's nine-point-something million dollars per lifesaver. In other words, they'll spend $9 million to do some road engineering that is expected to save a life over a period of years, but they won't spend $10 million or $12 million to do that. So they're putting a value on life and because we're funding them and we're taxpayers, we could say, effectively, we are doing that too. And that's a very high figure, by the way, by world standards...


SINGER: ...Because if you look at organizations like The Life You Can Save and GiveWell and the estimates that they put on it, you can save a life of a child in a malaria-prone region of the world by distributing bed nets, and that's going to cost you maybe $2,000 or $3,000 to save a life, not $9 million. Because after all, we are one world, and this virus shows it yet again.

ZOMORODI: You've been talking about effective altruism and advocating for it for a very long time. Has the pandemic tested you in any way? It's pretty much tested everyone, but I wonder how has it tested you? Has it tested your beliefs in any way?

SINGER: No, I don't think it's changed my beliefs. What it shows is that you really do need to be flexible as an effective altruist, not in terms of the ultimate values and goals, but in terms of how has the situation changed and what is the best thing to do now in this different situation? So it shows the need to try to find out the information about where you can be most effective. Is it better to keep giving to the organizations that we're doing, the things that of course are still taking lives, like malaria or diarrhea or various other conditions, and to help people to get themselves economically established and to be able to look after themselves. There are good NGOs that are doing that, and that's still needing to be done.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. It's interesting, whether or not they know it's called effective altruism, I think a lot of Americans are sort of asking themselves very similar questions that you ask your students to think about. But I wonder do you think that this experience will compel us, us Americans, to change our worship of individualism to sort of, I don't know, alter the social contract in some way?


SINGER: I think it may be a force towards rethinking that idea, yes, towards thinking that we can't really just be individualist, that no man is an island, as John Donne said, that we are all in this together, that things that affect others affect me too, and that this is not even just myself, my family, my city or even my country, but that we need to think on a larger scale. We need to push the circles of our moral concern outwards, and we need to improve things at all of these levels.

ZOMORODI: That's Peter Singer. He's a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. You can find his full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.