Reviewed by Michael S. Dauber
Peter Singer’s new book The Most Good You Can Do is the latest installment in a series of works dedicated to advancing altruism as a way of life. The book expands directly on Singer’s work in The Life You Can Save (2010), a best-selling text that argued that our obligation to help the poor overseas is just as strong as the obligation to save a drowning child one comes across in a river: if one can easily help, one is required to, and distance and nationality are not excuses to withhold aid.
The Most Good You Can Do is not nearly as theoretical as some of Singer’s earlier work. Instead, the book provides examples of what Singer calls “effective altruism,” a system in which individuals attempt to earn as much money as they can for the specific purpose of giving large sums away. For the extremely rich, one might give as much as half of one’s earnings to charity, as in the case of Singer’s former student, Matt Wage, who works on Wall Street in order to amass wealth to give to the poor. On a more reasonable scale, an effective altruist might give 10-20% of his or her earnings to charity.
The strongest objection people come up with is that giving that amount of money would make it difficult to live one’s life enjoyably or to save for the future. Yet the strength of Singer’s work in The Most Good You Can Do is that he presents numerous examples of people without high incomes that still find ways to donate several thousand dollars per year while maintaining an enjoyable existence and putting away money for college educations. Such can be accomplished by cutting back on expensive operas, performances, sporting events, or even taking public transportation instead of owning a car. Scaling back on such luxuries may be an inconvenience, but Singer makes a poignant observation: with the money you spend on such indulgences, you could save the lives of several starving children overseas.
The second half of the book answers some of the questions opened up in Singer’s earlier work; namely, which causes should receive the most priority (treating humans in grave need over giving to charities focused on entertainment or wildlife, for example), what careers are excellent for the altruistic model, the importance of giving overseas as opposed to simply helping one’s immediate location, and whether or not it is worthwhile to donate to efforts to prevent a global apocalypse. Well written, carefully reasoned, and supported by examples from all walks of life and backgrounds, The Most Good You Can Do offers a persuasive argument for effective altruism. One can only hope that the book is as effective as The Life You Can Save: the only result would be a better existence for thousands of individuals in need.
Michael S. Dauber is a member of the class of 2015, the co-founder of The Philosophers’ Society, and the editor-in-chief of Akadimia Filosofia. He will be attending NYU in the fall, studying Bioethics.