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Episode #085 ... Peter Singer on Effective Altruism

2016-06-21 | 🔗

Today we talk about the great Peter Singer, his views on the unique moral obligations that we face as members of modern society and how we might fulfill the obligations in the most effective manner. 

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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello, everyone, I'm Stephen West. This is philosophize. This no sponsor today, patriarch dot com, slash philosophize this we also the Amazon better. If you wanna click through it support the show both on the front page philosophize this org. Thanks for anything, you can do today we're going to be talking about the philosopher Peter Singer, and the ethical approach to life known as effective, altruism, let's get on to the pro So I want us all to imagine something. Imagine you just went out to dinner with your friends or your family or whoever imagine it was a good meal tasty meal. Imagine you had a really good time there. You know the staff of the restaurant, only song happy happy birthday to seven people around on this particular trip and as you're exiting the restaurant you're heading out to your car. You hear a sound you look over to your right and you're shocked,
a little girl, maybe four or five years old lying in the gutter. Crying bleeding out of her head looks terrified. You look around and nobody's really helping her. She doesn't seem to have any parents around getting help. What would you do if you're in that situation? Would you stop and try to help the girl. Or would you look at her and continue walk into your car and just go on about your day? Pretending nothing happened. I think, somewhere around. Ninety nine percent of people would say that they would stop and at least try to help the girl. Now new situation imagine instead you're watching this all unfold on the news. There's a story about a four year old girl that died in front of a restaurant and they were showing security footage of ten twenty people coming out of the restaurant look yet this little girl dying on the ground and they just kind of trouble
Their shoulders say oh well, and keep going to their car. What would you think of those people? Well again, I think most of us would say how could they possibly do that? More than that? How could you possibly live with yourself for the rest of your life? Knowing that you could have saved this little girl's life, you could have done something about it, but instead he decided to just turn a blind eye and go on about your day. What was so potent that a human life couldn't be saved Peter singer points out. We currently live in a world where six point: nine million children die each year of completely preventable poverty related causes the boils down to about nineteen thousand children every single day, We currently live in a world where each and every
one of those people that were negatively judging those other people walking pass a little girl bang on the news, have resources and access to charities that could drastically decrease that number. Yet they choose not to now, given that we ve already established that we care about the cause of children dying when we could have done something about it. Why are we so willing to help the girl in front of the restaurant and simultaneously so willing to turn a blind eye to the millions dying a year. When we could do something about it may be the best place to start. Maybe the place Peter singer would start is to congratulate you. That's right. Peter singer would like to personally congratulate you on winning the lottery. You know one people line up around the block to get their lottery tickets, that the Power Board gets up to like one point: seven trillion dollars as the power, but has surpassed the national debt, and these people are lining up around the block to see if they can get there
piece of paper with the right numbers on maybe enabling can win but just think about what they're doing there their essentially asking the universe to let them when the lottery twice in one lifetime, because one thing for sure for since we ve talked about all throughout the history of the show, if you're born into modern western civilization, in relation to every other human being that's walk the face of the planet. You have already effectively won the lottery. I mean the efficiency money commands the amount of money get paid for the job that you do, the benefits that you have access to fresh food, water, entertainment, health care. Of course, every one of these things could be better but from a historical context, the or the Sultan of Bernard. It's true, we all are the Sultan of Bernard yes, MA in civilization, pretty great it's become almost an inexorable fact of life that you go to work. You make your money, I bring it home
and then you use it to buy things that you don't necessarily need. Just think of how amazing that is think of the scarcity of hunted practically every generation of human being? That's ever lived when I try? its people anymore, we're not peasants trying to scrape by enough to barely feed ourselves with Every single person listen to this right now buy stuff that they do not need. Let me tell you, as someone that as homes at the age of nine living off a bread for three months of my life before child protective services came and got me trust me, you could be spending a lot less than you do and that doesn't make you a bad person. That's the point. Peter singer thinks this is actually a really exciting thing. Think of the opportunity that you have that no other human,
in the history of the world has ever had you have the resources at your disposal to save lives? Maybe a key point to clarify here is that there's a direct relationship between the resources you have at your disposal and your moral culpability in various situations that you find yourself in, for example, imagine there's a person drowning in a lake. Now, let's say that you're wearing clothes in this example- that's not not too of the stretch for you, you could in that moment, take off your shirt, hold the shirt out to the person in the water. That's drowning and pull them to safety, or I guess you could stand there and watch them drown, because that's your favorite t shirt. You just saw them over there on the dock, eating some flame and hot Cheetos not going to let them get their greasy red fingers all over your favorite shirt. Don't even make this shirt anymore now a lot. People, a lot of people would say there that you were wrong for not sacrificing your shirt to save a human life. Now. Imagine your in the exact same
Situation. Except now you're, a member of some new test brigade, nobody's going to say you did anything wrong there. You didn't have a t shirt that you could sacrifice in the first. Place. This is an example of how the resources at our disposal sometimes change whether were seen as morally reprehensible or not not. This point you might be thinking come on at that so unfair. What did I really do? I didn't actually do anything chair. I didn't donate to a charity, but it's not like. I went up in Karachi chopped one of these starving kids in the neck. In fact I didn't do anything. How can you say I'm a bad person when I really haven't done anything on either side of the issue. When the words of Peter singer being a good person or leading an ethical life, is not only about staying away from the Thou shalt, not sometimes earth that we are morally obligated to act on the Thou Shelt. I guess and there's a direct
relationship between the resources at your disposal and how many of these thou shells we have to consider during our time on this planet. And so really shouldn't come as a surprise me one episode. Fifty nine of the show, I believe, categorical, trolley cars. We talk about episode about the famous ethical dilemma. We're a train is barely down the tracks towards five people, all of them are going to die. The only way to save them is to pull a lever that would switch the train onto a different track where only one person is going to die. The question is Do you pull the lever to save the five over the one, we'll think of the lever in that ethical dilemma, as resources at your disposal fact is, if you didn't have a lever that could switch the train, a track, you wouldn't be making a decision at all. You wouldn't be at a moral decision point you just may just be some weird person and hangs on train tracks for some reason likes to watch people die the fact that you have the resource of the lever changes everything it gives you
more potential choices to pick from on the multiple choice: choose your own ending book of living and ethical life. Peter say I would say that inaction does not absolve. You have all guilt, no by choosing not to pull the lever by choosing not to use resources at your disposal, you're still making choice and you'd have to ask yourself, as someone who's already established themselves as a person who cares about the child dying in front of the restaurant. As someone who cares to the extent that they would feel it would be wrong not to intervene. In that scenario, someone who says we wouldn't give someone else a free pass if they did nothing, they said what I didn't do anything I just walk past again went to my car.
You'd have to ask yourself: why aren't we giving more to these causes? Is it just because, they're far away from us and we don't have to look the suffering in the eyes ourselves? Peter singer, talks about a sprightly young fellow named Toby ORD Toby ORD was a graduate student in philosophy at Oxford. When he asked himself this very question that we're asking ourselves he calculated how much money he would need to live comfortably turns out it's about eighteen thousand pounds a year and he subtracted that from the total amount of money he was going to make over the course of his career and what he realized was that, on top of living a totally comfortable lifestyle, he could also give back enough to cure. Roughly eighty thousand people of blindness and countries rife with poverty. There's a bacterial infection called Tacoma gets under your eyelids.
Pus starts oozing out gross point. Is it's completely treatable costs about forty bucks to do? But if you don't treat it fast enough, you eventually go blind blind for the rest of your life because you didn't have forty dollars. Her estimates are that around six million people have gone blind from Tacoma, and this is the cause that Toby ORD wanted to do the most he could to help him now. Peter singer would say sure it's great that Toby ORD wanted to give so much but we don't all have to give massive portions of our income to be able to make a difference. We don't all have to be Toby ORD in Peter singer's book, the most good you can do the advocates. Ten percent of your income, most churches, ask you to donate ten percent of your income for most people. It's not a life ending amount of money to give, but it is a life saving amount of money to give plus just think of where that money's going. If you give that money to your church-
What are they going to do with it fix up the wreck, room, maybe print up more of those glossy colorful pamphlets they like to leave on everyone's doorstep, no question they're doing good with it they're using it for the most good they can, but that money would accomplish so much more in Africa than it ever could in the United States. What he's saying is it's not enough just to give to charity. We have to be smart about it. We have to use this capacity of reason that we have defined not just where our resources are going to help marginally, but where resources will do the most good they possibly can. This is the effective part of effective, altruism and its extremely important We all have known somebody that you know they mean well. They really wanted to try to help somebody, but all the stuff they did ends up doing more harm than good cause. They didn't really think it through. We can all imagined somebody who has great intention
tons of heart, they feel so strongly for a cause, but if they don't think through what they're going to do they're just this big bundle of emotions with zero direction. So if you feel like donating money to try to make the world a better place instead of donating it, where people typically do in today, as well like your alma modern or to the church down the street, so they can get more lemon cookies for fellowship next Sunday, Peter singer, saying use that ability to reason to find where the money is going to do the most good at possibly can something interesting that struck me as I was reading. This is that this commitment to use your commit. Capacity to reason to find out how you can effectively do the most possible good for a cause that you care about, it really does extend beyond just the resource of money,
the cause of eliminating poverty. Like me, personally, I realize I'm not carrying the blind in Africa but, as you guys know, I think that philosophical thinking as a very important thing to spread around the world. I think that there is nothing that affects everything quite like philosophy. Does it? It's obviously a cause? I care about a lot now, I'm not getting rich doing the show. I I love doing it, but that's why I do it and about a year into doing the show had a pretty strong influx of people. People are respected that were telling me that I should quit the podcast go back to school and get my teaching certification, and then I could just go be a teacher somewhere. Maybe I could work my way to that prestigious job at the community college boys had my eyes on. Their point. Was I'd be making a lot more
money, teaching at a college, not to mention the wonders that would have done on my self esteem. I mean imagine, you guys know how awesome it is to have people groveling at your feet, begging for a grade every single day. It's magical, not that. I know I've never been a teacher, but I got to be honest. I thought about this move in my life a lot, but then I thought of something- and I haven't even considered being a teacher ever since. And it was this yeah professors make a lot more money, but they also charge their students tuition, which is extremely limiting. This podcast is free. Anyone can listen this, how many people am? I really going to be spreading this message to as a teacher what two hundred students a class five classes MAX, what one thousand people a semester? a thousand people download the show in an hour. My point is much like Peter Singer talk. About reasoning, to the way of contributing to a cause you care about, it's gonna do the most good
this: show is a much more effective way of getting this message that I care about so much out to as many people as possible, and I guess I just want to make the point that Whatever cause you care about personally,. Is there a way you might be able to sacrifice a little bit of personal comfort in the name of doing the most good? You can possibly do okay, so we've established that we care about the dying little girl, we've established that we would intervene and morally condemn others who did not choose to intervene. We've established that we do in fact have at least a dollar that we could give and that inaction is not a get out of jail. Free card. We've established all that, and yet I'm going to guess there probably are tons of people out there. Still listening to this, that really want to disagree with Peter singer on an operational level. How feasible is this? Actually, a lot of people feel attacked and, to be honest, it's easy to understand where they're coming from I'm not
bad person I volunteered down at the food bank, this old lady dropped her change purse the other day. I picked it up and I give it back to where I don't feel like I'm a bad person. Yet here I am Peter singer being told by you that I'm doing something wrong in my life. This sort of dynamic is a perfect recipe. If you want to get people to come up with arguments for why they act the way they do that are necessarily philosophically sound, but our attempts at trying to judge. To find the way that they already behave. You see this exact same sort of behavior when we talk to people about why they treat their significant other, the way that they do like in our insecurity episode when you talk to them about their criteria that they use to morally justify killing animals for food- and I guess, unsurprisingly, another area that Peter singer specializes in this one, the life of an effective altruist in today's extremely
unique world now, because of this dynamic, Peter singer, spins most of the works that he's done on this subject, answering common questions and covering counter arguments that people commonly throw his way whenever he has conversations about it. Let's look at some of the most common ones. One argument that always seems to come up is alright. Peter singer, you care about the children. Do you really care about the children? I think if you honestly cared about the children, you wouldn't spend your time sit around right and books about how every one else should be helping them. You'd quit your job as a philosopher go down there yourself and provide aid to these poor people, and on that same note, where do we even draw the line? Let's say that I feel really compelled now to go. Help and global poverty can be too much of a good thing like why shouldn't I can clued that I too should uproot me and my family life and move somewhere reckon constantly help the core thinking here in that. If I want to help out with a particular cause, the most
good that I could ever do is to be something like a mother Teresa or a Buddha dedicating every second that I have now at this point. The conversation Petersen would probably direct your attention back to that amazing and very unique life that you were born into. Indeed say that because of the tools you have at your disposal, you can really do the most good possible by just being a highly productive citizen living in the United States, as you already are, there's actually a whole group of people out there that are more extreme than Peter singer. That say that we as citizens with the sort of opportunity available to us to make a lot of money, we have a moral obligation to work really hard towards making more money and our careers so that we can give all that back to these causes much more extreme position to take with the sentiments still remains, and Peter singers point what he saying is that chair. You could quit your job move to Africa. And spend all day every day, handing out sack lunches to people or you
could continue living your life as you currently do, and eventually we donate enough money for a charity to employ three aid workers. Five aid work, All of which are gonna be doing the same job you would have done, but their people that didn't have the unique Opportunity like you, do to have their skills pay for the work of multiple people. Another common argument that people will come back with is a Help I want to sacrifice of that other people don't have to die. Why shouldn't I take that notion to the extreme. Why are we even need to be comfortable? Why, Why would any comfort of modern existence ever be more important than those dollars being spent? potentially save another life, why like a wallet and don't donate every penny I possibly can. In other words, why shouldn't I live in a box. Why shouldn't I eat once a week and in between meals, crush up rocks and water into a thick paste? It serves as a benign mass inside of my stomach tricking. Nothing then I'm full all the time. Why shouldn't? I do that again, because you were born into such a unique set of circumstances, one where you can,
use this opportunity to work to contribute truck loads of money to these causes, it actually is counterproductive for you to not be comfortably living. It's a little bit like when they say on the plane. Secure your oxygen mask before you secure the mask of the child. Next to you, the thinking being that if you're not breathing, it's probably going to inhibit your oxygen mask faceting ability now in the same way, if you're, weak and mentally foggy, because you're not getting your caloric needs, met if you're sick, because you're drinking your water out of the communal hose on the side of the apartment complex, even if it is not able to maintain a profession veneer and follow the dress code to your workplace. Oliver the things inhibit your ability to make the money to donate. If, in fact, you wanted to truly do the most good, you could possibly do another argument that people commonly give is that look everything you're saying is true. I'm on board. I want to donate, but unfortunately,.
Another thing that makes this time period I live in unique is that we live in a world where charities are often wasteful, ineffective or even downright car. I wish I didn't have to go through a charity. I wish I could just give my money more directly, so it doesn't have to go through this middle man that might be stealing it where I have no idea where it's going. It's the charity that prevents me from donating. It's a good point. There was a poll that Peter singer sites in book. Seventy percent of Americans that give to a charity do absolutely
zero research into where the money is actually going and around twenty nine percent of that remaining thirty. Do an extremely cursory look over things, usually looking for a single criteria to be met. Typically, what percentage of the money actually goes to the people versus administrative costs, but even that statistic can be misleading, even though it sounds great on paper right, oh they're, given ninety eight percent of every dollar I spend to people that are actually in need, oftentimes. The fact that they only use two percent to cover administrative costs makes them much less effective at providing the health than some other charity. That used say five percent also because they have
such a low budget to operate on oftentimes the service they're? Providing isn't the most effective way to help the people they want to help? For example, imagine a charity that has a very low operating cost and they use two percent of the money donated to travel, to places where people are dying of malaria and give the malaria vaccine pretty simple operation versus another charity that sends teams of people out to these communities and teaches everyone how to make their own nets that prevent mosquitoes from biting them. In the first place now The second operation might cost a little bit more to execute, but think of how much more good is being done as a result of it. So no question can be tough to separate the wheat from the chaff and comes to finding What charities are actually gonna be doing good, but again Petersen, I would say a hallmark of the time period that we live in is that we have access to information. There are independent groups right now, but do nothing but just audit charities all day long. Exposing any waste exposed.
In corruption showing where every dollar goes, they even give them a ranking so that you can very quickly and easily see which ones are actually doing good again? This goes back to the effective part of effective, altruism, it's not enough just to have a knee, jerk emotional response to something we need to be willing to do a little bit of digging to find out what organization is going to be doing the most good with our money, but by far probably the most common argument that people give back when they're. Faced with this thought, experiment about the little girl dying in front of the restaurant. Is that look? It's not that I don't want to help for me. It's the problem of how much good can I actually do. I mean I'm one person, I'm not a billionaire. I don't have millions of dollars to be thrown around yeah. I could give a dollar
I could give five bucks a month or something, but how much good is that actually doing? Well? What if five million people have that exact same outlook? There's the millions of dollars that could have actually made a huge impact by the way real quick, I feel obligated to say this. I am walking proof of how big of a difference the dollar five dollar donations made me I'd. I pay my bills and survive from the one two dollars episode. People given patron so for all you out there that didn't say what good could I possibly do. Thank you because you make this show possible. The same dynamic applies to people dying in developing countries right,
Peter singer talks about how we're born into a world that tells us hard work is a virtue and that's the paradigm that you're supposed to strive for is to make more money so that you can spend more money. You know it's an exciting thing when you get that big raise at work, because now you get to buy the car that you've always wanted. Now you get to have a bigger and better house more square footage. You make more to be able to spend more, but singer says what often happens is that you find yourself on this hedonic treadmill, where you're always thinking about what the next thing is you're going to buy, and then once you get it it's on to the next thing you're going to buy and then on to the next thing and so on and so forth. Until you realize that the stuff is never going to bring you satisfaction, The sad fact needs to come from the inside piercing or ass. Why does it have to be this way? Why? I, politically speaking, couldn't we live in a world where we had the same idea that hard because a virtue we still want to make a lot of money, but instead
making more so that you can spend more you make more so that you can give more when it's all said and done when you're eighty years old. Looking back on your life, Peter singer would ask you, which would you rather look back on a lifetime where you made tons of money that you didn't need and bought all sorts of stuff that you didn't need stuff, that's all sitting in a landfill somewhere now or would you rather look back and say I made much more money than I ever needed and with that money I was able to save a hundred thousand lives. A hundred thousand people are alive today that otherwise would have died, and that's because of me, that's because of this guy. Thank you for listening I'll talk to you next time.
Transcript generated on 2020-09-30.