TED2013

Peter Singer: The why and how of effective altruism

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If you're lucky enough to live without want, it's a natural impulse to be altruistic to others. But, asks philosopher Peter Singer, what's the most effective way to give? He talks through some surprising thought experiments to help you balance emotion and practicality -- and make the biggest impact with whatever you can share. NOTE: Starting at 0:30, this talk contains 30 seconds of graphic footage.

- Philosopher, ethicist
Sometimes controversial, always practical ethicist Peter Singer stirs public debate about morality, from animal welfare to global poverty. Full bio

There's something that I'd like you to see.
00:12
(Video) Reporter: It's a story that's deeply unsettled
00:16
millions in China:
00:18
footage of a two-year-old girl
00:20
hit by a van and left bleeding in the street by passersby,
00:22
footage too graphic to be shown.
00:27
The entire accident is caught on camera.
00:30
The driver pauses after hitting the child,
00:33
his back wheels seen resting on her for over a second.
00:35
Within two minutes, three people pass two-year-old Wang Yue by.
00:39
The first walks around the badly injured toddler completely.
00:43
Others look at her before moving off.
00:47
Peter Singer: There were other people
00:53
who walked past Wang Yue,
00:54
and a second van ran over her legs
00:56
before a street cleaner raised the alarm.
00:58
She was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. She died.
01:01
I wonder how many of you, looking at that,
01:07
said to yourselves just now, "I would not have done that.
01:10
I would have stopped to help."
01:14
Raise your hands if that thought occurred to you.
01:16
As I thought, that's most of you.
01:20
And I believe you. I'm sure you're right.
01:23
But before you give yourself too much credit,
01:25
look at this.
01:28
UNICEF reports that in 2011,
01:30
6.9 million children under five
01:34
died from preventable, poverty-related diseases.
01:38
UNICEF thinks that that's good news
01:44
because the figure has been steadily coming down
01:46
from 12 million in 1990. That is good.
01:49
But still, 6.9 million
01:53
is 19,000 children dying every day.
01:56
Does it really matter
02:01
that we're not walking past them in the street?
02:04
Does it really matter that they're far away?
02:07
I don't think it does make a morally relevant difference.
02:12
The fact that they're not right in front of us,
02:16
the fact, of course, that they're of a different nationality
02:18
or race, none of that seems morally relevant to me.
02:20
What is really important is,
02:24
can we reduce that death toll? Can we save
02:26
some of those 19,000 children dying every day?
02:30
And the answer is, yes we can.
02:35
Each of us spends money
02:39
on things that we do not really need.
02:41
You can think what your own habit is,
02:43
whether it's a new car, a vacation
02:45
or just something like buying bottled water
02:48
when the water that comes out of the tap
02:51
is perfectly safe to drink.
02:53
You could take the money you're spending
02:55
on those unnecessary things
02:57
and give it to this organization,
02:59
the Against Malaria Foundation,
03:01
which would take the money you had given
03:04
and use it to buy nets like this one
03:07
to protect children like this one,
03:10
and we know reliably that if we provide nets,
03:14
they're used, and they reduce the number of children
03:18
dying from malaria,
03:21
just one of the many preventable diseases
03:24
that are responsible for some of those 19,000 children
03:27
dying every day.
03:31
Fortunately, more and more people
03:34
are understanding this idea,
03:37
and the result is a growing movement:
03:39
effective altruism.
03:42
It's important because it combines both the heart and the head.
03:45
The heart, of course, you felt.
03:49
You felt the empathy for that child.
03:51
But it's really important to use the head as well
03:54
to make sure that what you do is effective and well-directed,
03:58
and not only that, but also I think reason helps us
04:03
to understand that other people, wherever they are,
04:07
are like us, that they can suffer as we can,
04:11
that parents grieve for the deaths of their children,
04:15
as we do,
04:17
and that just as our lives and our well-being matter to us,
04:19
it matters just as much to all of these people.
04:23
So I think reason is not just some neutral tool
04:27
to help you get whatever you want.
04:30
It does help us to put perspective on our situation.
04:31
And I think that's why
04:36
many of the most significant people in effective altruism
04:38
have been people who have had backgrounds
04:43
in philosophy or economics or math.
04:45
And that might seem surprising,
04:50
because a lot of people think,
04:51
"Philosophy is remote from the real world;
04:53
economics, we're told, just makes us more selfish,
04:57
and we know that math is for nerds."
05:00
But in fact it does make a difference,
05:04
and in fact there's one particular nerd
05:07
who has been a particularly effective altruist
05:09
because he got this.
05:13
This is the website of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
05:15
and if you look at the words on the top right-hand side,
05:18
it says, "All lives have equal value."
05:22
That's the understanding,
05:26
the rational understanding of our situation in the world
05:28
that has led to these people
05:31
being the most effective altruists in history,
05:34
Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.
05:38
(Applause)
05:41
No one, not Andrew Carnegie, not John D. Rockefeller,
05:47
has ever given as much to charity
05:51
as each one of these three,
05:54
and they have used their intelligence
05:57
to make sure that it is highly effective.
06:00
According to one estimate, the Gates Foundation
06:04
has already saved 5.8 million lives
06:07
and many millions more, people, getting diseases
06:11
that would have made them very sick,
06:14
even if eventually they survived.
06:16
Over the coming years, undoubtably the Gates Foundation
06:19
is going to give a lot more,
06:21
is going to save a lot more lives.
06:24
Well, you might say, that's fine if you're a billionaire,
06:28
you can have that kind of impact.
06:32
But if I'm not, what can I do?
06:35
So I'm going to look at four questions that people ask
06:38
that maybe stand in the way of them giving.
06:41
They worry how much of a difference they can make.
06:44
But you don't have to be a billionaire.
06:47
This is Toby Ord. He's a research fellow in philosophy
06:50
at the University of Oxford.
06:54
He became an effective altruist when he calculated
06:56
that with the money that he was likely to earn
06:59
throughout his career, an academic career,
07:02
he could give enough to cure 80,000 people of blindness
07:04
in developing countries
07:11
and still have enough left
07:13
for a perfectly adequate standard of living.
07:15
So Toby founded an organization
07:20
called Giving What We Can to spread this information,
07:22
to unite people who want to share some of their income,
07:26
and to ask people to pledge to give 10 percent
07:30
of what they earn over their lifetime
07:32
to fighting global poverty.
07:35
Toby himself does better than that.
07:38
He's pledged to live on 18,000 pounds a year --
07:40
that's less than 30,000 dollars --
07:45
and to give the rest to those organizations.
07:47
And yes, Toby is married and he does have a mortgage.
07:51
This is a couple at a later stage of life,
07:56
Charlie Bresler and Diana Schott,
08:00
who, when they were young, when they met,
08:03
were activists against the Vietnam War,
08:05
fought for social justice,
08:08
and then moved into careers, as most people do,
08:10
didn't really do anything very active about those values,
08:13
although they didn't abandon them.
08:16
And then, as they got to the age at which many people
08:19
start to think of retirement, they returned to them,
08:21
and they've decided to cut back on their spending,
08:25
to live modestly, and to give both money and time
08:28
to helping to fight global poverty.
08:33
Now, mentioning time might lead you to think,
08:38
"Well, should I abandon my career and put all of my time
08:41
into saving some of these 19,000 lives
08:45
that are lost every day?"
08:48
One person who's thought quite a bit about this issue
08:50
of how you can have a career that will have
08:52
the biggest impact for good in the world is Will Crouch.
08:55
He's a graduate student in philosophy,
08:59
and he's set up a website called 80,000 Hours,
09:01
the number of hours he estimates
09:06
most people spend on their career,
09:07
to advise people on how to have the best,
09:10
most effective career.
09:12
But you might be surprised to know
09:14
that one of the careers that he encourages people to consider,
09:16
if they have the right abilities and character,
09:19
is to go into banking or finance.
09:22
Why? Because if you earn a lot of money,
09:26
you can give away a lot of money,
09:30
and if you're successful in that career,
09:32
you could give enough to an aid organization
09:34
so that it could employ, let's say, five aid workers
09:37
in developing countries, and each one of them
09:42
would probably do about as much good
09:45
as you would have done.
09:47
So you can quintuple the impact
09:49
by leading that kind of career.
09:52
Here's one young man who's taken this advice.
09:56
His name is Matt Weiger.
09:58
He was a student at Princeton in philosophy and math,
10:00
actually won the prize for the best undergraduate philosophy thesis
10:03
last year when he graduated.
10:07
But he's gone into finance in New York.
10:09
He's already earning enough
10:13
so that he's giving a six-figure sum to effective charities
10:14
and still leaving himself with enough to live on.
10:19
Matt has also helped me to set up an organization
10:22
that I'm working with that has the name taken
10:26
from the title of a book I wrote,
10:29
"The Life You Can Save,"
10:31
which is trying to change our culture
10:33
so that more people think that
10:35
if we're going to live an ethical life,
10:39
it's not enough just to follow the thou-shalt-nots
10:41
and not cheat, steal, maim, kill,
10:45
but that if we have enough, we have to share some of that
10:47
with people who have so little.
10:50
And the organization draws together people
10:53
of different generations,
10:56
like Holly Morgan, who's an undergraduate,
10:58
who's pledged to give 10 percent
11:00
of the little amount that she has,
11:01
and on the right, Ada Wan,
11:03
who has worked directly for the poor, but has now
11:05
gone to Yale to do an MBA to have more to give.
11:08
Many people will think, though,
11:12
that charities aren't really all that effective.
11:14
So let's talk about effectiveness.
11:18
Toby Ord is very concerned about this,
11:20
and he's calculated that some charities
11:22
are hundreds or even thousands of times
11:25
more effective than others,
11:27
so it's very important to find the effective ones.
11:29
Take, for example, providing a guide dog for a blind person.
11:32
That's a good thing to do, right?
11:37
Well, right, it is a good thing to do,
11:40
but you have to think what else you could do with the resources.
11:42
It costs about 40,000 dollars to train a guide dog
11:45
and train the recipient so that the guide dog
11:49
can be an effective help to a blind person.
11:52
It costs somewhere between 20 and 50 dollars
11:55
to cure a blind person in a developing country
11:59
if they have trachoma.
12:02
So you do the sums, and you get something like that.
12:04
You could provide one guide dog
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for one blind American,
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or you could cure between 400
12:12
and 2,000 people of blindness.
12:15
I think it's clear what's the better thing to do.
12:18
But if you want to look for effective charities,
12:22
this is a good website to go to.
12:25
GiveWell exists to really assess the impact of charities,
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not just whether they're well-run,
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and it's screened hundreds of charities
12:34
and currently is recommending only three,
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of which the Against Malaria Foundation is number one.
12:40
So it's very tough. If you want to look for other recommendations,
12:44
thelifeyoucansave.com and Giving What We Can
12:47
both have a somewhat broader list,
12:50
but you can find effective organizations,
12:52
and not just in the area of saving lives from the poor.
12:56
I'm pleased to say that there is now also a website
13:00
looking at effective animal organizations.
13:02
That's another cause that I've been concerned about
13:06
all my life, the immense amount of suffering
13:08
that humans inflict
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on literally tens of billions of animals every year.
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So if you want to look for effective organizations
13:16
to reduce that suffering,
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you can go to Effective Animal Activism.
13:21
And some effective altruists think it's very important
13:24
to make sure that our species survives at all.
13:27
So they're looking at ways to reduce the risk of extinction.
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Here's one risk of extinction that we all became aware of
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recently, when an asteroid passed close to our planet.
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Possibly research could help us not only to predict
13:41
the path of asteroids that might collide with us,
13:44
but actually to deflect them.
13:46
So some people think that would be a good thing to give to.
13:48
There's many possibilities.
13:51
My final question is,
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some people will think it's a burden to give.
13:55
I don't really believe it is.
13:58
I've enjoyed giving all of my life
14:00
since I was a graduate student.
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It's been something fulfilling to me.
14:03
Charlie Bresler said to me that he's not an altruist.
14:06
He thinks that the life he's saving is his own.
14:08
And Holly Morgan told me that she used to battle depression
14:12
until she got involved with effective altruism,
14:16
and now is one of the happiest people she knows.
14:18
I think one of the reasons for this
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is that being an effective altruist helps to overcome
14:23
what I call the Sisyphus problem.
14:27
Here's Sisyphus as portrayed by Titian,
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condemned by the gods to push a huge boulder
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up to the top of the hill.
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Just as he gets there, the effort becomes too much,
14:37
the boulder escapes, rolls all the way down the hill,
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he has to trudge back down to push it up again,
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and the same thing happens again and again
14:47
for all eternity.
14:49
Does that remind you of a consumer lifestyle,
14:52
where you work hard to get money,
14:55
you spend that money on consumer goods
14:57
which you hope you'll enjoy using?
15:00
But then the money's gone, you have to work hard
15:03
to get more, spend more, and to maintain
15:06
the same level of happiness, it's kind of a hedonic treadmill.
15:09
You never get off, and you never really feel satisfied.
15:12
Becoming an effective altruist gives you
15:15
that meaning and fulfillment.
15:18
It enables you to have a solid basis for self-esteem
15:20
on which you can feel your life was really worth living.
15:24
I'm going to conclude by telling you
15:28
about an email that I received
15:31
while I was writing this talk just a month or so ago.
15:33
It's from a man named Chris Croy, who I'd never heard of.
15:38
This is a picture of him showing him recovering from surgery.
15:41
Why was he recovering from surgery?
15:45
The email began, "Last Tuesday,
15:48
I anonymously donated my right kidney to a stranger.
15:51
That started a kidney chain
15:55
which enabled four people to receive kidneys."
15:57
There's about 100 people each year in the U.S.
16:02
and more in other countries who do that.
16:04
I was pleased to read it. Chris went on to say
16:07
that he'd been influenced by my writings in what he did.
16:09
Well, I have to admit, I'm also somewhat embarrassed by that,
16:13
because I still have two kidneys.
16:16
But Chris went on to say that he didn't think
16:22
that what he'd done was all that amazing,
16:24
because he calculated that the number of life-years
16:27
that he had added to people, the extension of life,
16:31
was about the same that you could achieve
16:33
if you gave 5,000 dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation.
16:36
And that did make me feel a little bit better,
16:42
because I have given more than 5,000 dollars
16:46
to the Against Malaria Foundation
16:49
and to various other effective charities.
16:52
So if you're feeling bad
16:57
because you still have two kidneys as well,
16:59
there's a way for you to get off the hook.
17:03
Thank you.
17:05
(Applause)
17:07
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Peter Singer - Philosopher, ethicist
Sometimes controversial, always practical ethicist Peter Singer stirs public debate about morality, from animal welfare to global poverty.

Why you should listen

Peter Singer may be, as The New Yorker calls him, the planet’s “most influential living philosopher.” The Australian academic specializes in applied ethics, to which he takes a secular, utilitarian approach -- minimize suffering, maximize well-being. He gained recognition in the 1970s with his groundbreaking book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, which questions society’s tendency to put human needs above those of members of other species. And he draws fire from critics who object to his fascinating argument in favor of an obligation to help the global poor that sets the bar so high that it means we are almost all living unethically. His defense of euthanasia and infanticide, in some circumstances, has led to protests against his lectures and to teaching position at Princeton.

But Singer’s collective body of work is more acclaimed than controversial. He has written the classic text Practical Ethics and many other books, with more in progress. He lectures at Princeton, where he is professor of bioethics, and the University of Melbourne, where he is a laureate professor. You can find dozens of brief, brilliant essays at Project Syndicate, where Singer examines the philosophical questions surrounding current topics like Obamacare, computer piracy and obesity.