Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

4 min read

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. –

Effective Altruism (Defining Characteristics)

  • A person who gives a large part of their income to the most effective charities.
  • A person who choses the career in which they can earn the most, not in order to be able to live affluently, but so that they can do more good.
  • As well as talks to others and spreads the idea of effective altruism, researches and discusses which charities are the most effective, and someone who might give parts of their body (blood, bone marrow, or even a kidney) to a stranger.

An effective altruist is sufficiently concerned aboutthe welfare of others to make meaningful changes in their lives. [75]

What counts as “the most good?”
Some of the values of the most good include:

  • A world with less suffering and more happiness, is better than one with less happiness
  • A world in which people live longer, is better than one in which people live shorter lives
  • Helping people in extreme poverty

Does everyone’s suffering count equally? 
Effective altruists do not discount suffering because it occurs far away, or in another country or afflicts people of a different race or religion.

Do you value your life 4,000 times more than that of a stranger?

Now when skeptics ask: How do I know that my donation will really help people in need? There is a good reply: if you give to one of GiveWell’s top-rated charities you can be confident that your donation will do good and be highly cost-effective. [16]

Examples of people who are effective altruists [23]
Although there can be no certainty that the children of effective altruists will, over their lifetimes, do more good than harm, there is a reasonable probability that they will, and this helps toto offset the extra costs of raising them. [31]

The more you earn, the more you can donate. [39]

How does earning a lot of money and giving a lot away compare with becoming an aid worker for an effective charity? Will MacAskill puts forward this argument: Suppose you could have worked for an effective charity but instead you accept a job with an investment bank that pays $200,000 a year.

He goes on to say that donors can then easily switch their giving to a better charity [42]

Ian Ross’s argument being an effective altruist who is also vegan:

  • Modern animal agriculture causes an immense amount of suffering
  • We are responsible both for what we do and for what we refrain from doing
  • We have the means to reduce the suffering caused by modern animal agriculture. Therefore:
  • It is imperative for each of us to do so [44]

New Yorker Cartoon
“I’m working harder than I ever have, but all I get out of it is larger and larger paychecks”

“On average, fourteen people on the waiting list die each day in the United States.” – Peter Singer. The main takeaway from this chapter is that you have the power to save a life by donating a kidney. [68]

We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individiuals. [78]

“The good of any one individual is of no more importance from the point of view of the Universe, than the good of any other; unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realized in the one case than in the other” – Henry Sidwick [81]

“In one study, people were shown a photo of a child and told her name and age. They were then informed that to save her life, she neede a new, expensive drug that would cost about $300,000 to produce, and a fund was being established in an attempt to raise this sum. They were asked to donate to the fund. Another group was shown photos of eight children, given their names and a drug that would save all of their lives. They too were asked to donate. Those shown the single child gave more than those shown teh eight children, presumably because they empathized with teh individual child but were unable to empathize with the larger number of children. To effective altruists, this is an absurd outcome, and if emotional empathy is responsible for it, then so much the worse for that kind of empathy… Effective altruists are sensitive to numbers and to cost per life saved or years of suffering prevented. If they have $10,000 to donate, they would rather give it to a charity that can save a life for $2000 than one that can save a life for $5000 because they would rather save five lives than two” [78]

The effective altruists we met earlier do not generally see what they are doing as a sacrifice. [97]

Egoism: the idea that people always do what is in their interest [Thomas Hobbes] [103]

It costs about $40,000 to supply one person in the United States with a guide dog; most o the expense is incurred in training the dog and the recipient. But the cost of preventing someone from going blind because of trachoma, the most common cause of preventable blindness, is in the range of $20-$100. If you do the math, you will see the choice we face is to provide one person with a guide dog or prevent anywhere between four hundred and two thousand cases of blindness in developing countries. [111]

“More than a billion people are living in extreme poverty.” Some of the stats, and arguments around this page suggest that almost all of these people are living outside of the United States. [111]

Those who are poor in the United States are poor relative to the majority of members of a society that is, by historical standards, extraordinarily affluence. [112]

“What is the most urgent issue?” is not the right question to ask because a potential donor should be asking, “Where can I do the most good?” [117]

“If art is not directed toward the social it becomes purely self-indulgent, like sex without love.” – Jeff Koons [124]

Ben West has shown that: “If your goal were solely to slow down climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you could do that more effectively by donating to organizations that are encouraging people to go vegetarian or vegan than by donating to leading carbon-offsetting organizations.” [144]

Quality-adjusted life-year (QALY)  – is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions.

Disability Adjusted Life-Year (DALY) – The disability-adjusted life year (DALY) is a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death. It was developed in the 1990s as a way of comparing the overall health and life expectancy of different countries.

“9.1 billion animals annual are raised and slaughtered for food in the United States.” – That’s more animals than the entire human population, being born and slaughtered annually. [137]


Title: The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically
Author: Peter Singer
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (April 7, 2015)

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.