Why Peter Singer is Wrong About ‘Effective Altruism’
16 July 2015 at 9:35 am
Peter Singer’s views on ‘effective altruism’ are simplistic and have potentially unintended consequences for social justice, writes social impact specialist Richard Meredith.
On 30 April 2015 philosopher, Peter Singer, gave a talk titled “Effective Altruism” at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Singer commands a huge audience of people who are interested in social justice and who want to do good.
Peter Singer contends that the charitable sector would be better off if a person of certain talents decided not to work in the sector and instead joined a finance company where he earned a big salary, part of which he gave to charity. This, he says, is “effective altruism”.
Singer argues that this talented person is unlikely to offer the social justice sector anything special because, it is inferred, the sector doesn’t demand really talented people and therefore an equally suitable worker will be found next in the job queue. While the logic may be sound attractive, there are several problems.
Firstly, good leaders in the charity sector are NOT easy to find. As societies across the globe become increasingly unequal, it is charities, not governments (governments always side with the wealthy) that will be needed – more and better ones – to mend the holes in the social fabric.
To engineer the transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor requires both passion and genius – an emotional commitment, an ability to advocate convincingly and, because our society is lubricated by money, strong financial knowledge and skills. There are of course a range of other skills required but these three provide a sufficient argument against Singer’s contention that the talented should go and earn money elsewhere because there is little need for great talent in the social impact sector.
Singer glibly underestimates the importance of getting the best people
Singer glibly underestimates the importance of getting the best people into the sector while acknowledging the enormity of the global social justice challenge. There’s something of a contradiction there.
Furthermore, it is a disturbingly dismal idea to suggest that a talented person with a passion for social justice and a willingness to earn less than he would in a finance company should forego his passion and deny his true spirit.
In 2014 I worked with seven not for profit organisations or projects. They might all be described as under resourced, struggling, and lacking organisational capacity and management capability. Not all of them would qualify for every one of those epithets. The key point is that each of them needed leadership and management skills and expertise of the highest order in order to grow and to become viable. Given the unique nature of working in the not for profit sector, it is not necessarily the 40 year business executive nor the senior government bureaucrat who make the ideal social impact leader. Empathic leaders with great knowledge and skill are rare.
Think of the millions Singer’s ‘talented person’ might extract
Just think of the millions Singer’s ‘talented person’ might extract from the truly wealthy if he combined his talents and passion and put them to work in a social justice organisation.
Social Ventures Australia has underlined the challenges the sector faces: “In our work we see three factors that influence how well organisations can adapt to competitive pressures and improve their impact: lack of relevant management skills, scarcity of resources (people, funds and data), and conflict between organisational objectives and market orientation.” (SVA quarterly, March 2015)
Of the seven organisations I worked with, to date only one has received adequate funding. Two have good leaders, although in one case all the executive work is currently being done pro bono. The other project used part of its funding to employ a very talented project manager, the kind of person who, if she had taken Singer’s advice, may well have ended up becoming an “effective altruist” employed in a finance company. Fortunately, she followed her passion, accepting that to do so would mean receiving a lower community sector wage.
If the complexity of social justice was a matter of simple statistics – so called ‘value for money’, if you could truly compare apples with apples, if the world was flat, smooth and square rather than being lumpy and sort of spherical, Singer’s simplistic notions of “value for money” might hold. Not once were small, new, emerging organisations mentioned.
In this complex environment a variety of approaches is needed. Not once in Singer’s speech were small, specialised organisations mentioned. His entire focus was on, and indirectly a promotion for, big charities on the basis of simplistic notions of efficiency or “value for money”. I have nothing against these behemoths but they already take the lion’s share of funding – private and public. Their staff are well paid (community sector wages). Yet, no one would argue that they can deal adequately with all the problems we face.
Singer’s focus on “effective” which he interprets as a simple conversion of the number of units of product or service (mosquito nets or blindness operations) per dollar spent, simply denies the value and importance of the work of small organisations and the importance of, for example, one-on-one therapy with damaged young people, which will never meet ROI measures. When asked about the small population of Australian aboriginals with eye disease compared with the thousands of Africans, Singer fudged the question by indicating that he felt in Australia – a rich country – it was a government responsibility. (See my comment above about governments, wealth and the social sector above!). When challenged, it seems, Singer could not defend his own simplistic logic.
Effective altruism diverts attention from the complexity of the problem
The unintended consequence of Peter Singer’s talk is that it purports to provide a road map for effective altruism, yet it diverts attention away from the complexity that needs to be considered in evaluating social justice work. It is a “sin of omission” which I would expect someone in Singer’s position to be aware of and sensitive to.
Simplistic notions such as his easily become justifications that potential donors can use to make their first (and often only) evaluation of a potential charity – on the basis of efficient return – pushing them towards large, established organisations and away from small, targeted and emerging organisations or those whose clients have intensive, high cost needs. Once that sort of simple benchmark is created in people’s minds, it forms a barrier to a comprehensive assessment an organisation’s work and the outcomes it achieves.
Singer’s audience is influenced by his public standing and his opinions. His simple logic and easy answers are beguilingly attractive. Yet there is no rule that says a charity must be efficient or profitable to be effective. There is such a rule in commerce (though even there it has nuances). And there is no rule that says you can or should choose your charity on the basis of a so-called ‘objective measure’ of value for money, as Singer claims. Were that the case, almost all the social justice organisations that work with the homeless, with abuse victims, with various therapies and in caring would simply fail the test.
It is vital that we argue vehemently against those who use only logic and rationality as their weapons of argument because they create a world of ‘easy’ answers that overlook complexity. In the end they damage the causes they aim to support.
About the author:
Richard Meredith is the chairman of The Good Life Farm, which provides animal based healing for extreme ‘at risk’ young people who have suffered from violence, abuse and neglect and who are unable to cope in normal school and community settings.
He is the founder of Bridging the Gap, a leadership company that helps under resourced social impact organisations to achieve long term viability. He is a practitioner at Creative Practice.