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The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically by Peter Singer

by Venky


Over the past three decades, Peter Singer has been continuously jolting us out of our reverie by goading us to think about some of the most pressing issues plaguing humanity. He takes this entrenched habit of his a notch higher with his new book “The Most Good You Can Do”. Deliberately provocative and dilemma inducing, this book provides a rousing flavor of what it means to lead a life characterized by ‘effective altruism’.

Himself, one of the founding fathers of this moralistic concept, Singer dwells on how best a life can be led in the service of other sentient beings, the beings here encompassing both human as well as non-human life. Singer takes great pains to enunciate the fact that effective altruism goes way beyond the customary donation to a random charitable organization that espouses the furtherance of a genuine cause. An effective altruist is one who reasons in favour of the maximum good being done to most persons who are in need of such generosity as opposed to enriching the physical and spiritual prospects of just one individual who is also equally in need of such magnanimity.

But the moral compass which Singer deems a pre requisite for being an effective altruist is not something that people would view as not just being controversial but also as something that is enveloped in a cloak of serious subjectivity. For eg. Is spending $10,000 on an initiative to eradicate the ill effects of malaria in a poor and developing nation a more worthy and noble cause than donating the same amount to Make a Wish Foundation to enable the Foundation to fulfill a wish of a 10 year old afflicted with leukemia? Or is the act of voluntarily donating a kidney much more weightier in substance than making an annual donation to an organisation that has as its motive reducing the prevalence of starvation across a particular Geography? The book also cites a plethora of examples of ‘effective altruists’ who have taken a pledge to donate a significant and substantial portion of their income/earnings (some as high as 80%) to altruistic purposes and choosing to lead an austere life. To be scathingly honest some of the illustrations read more like a spurring propaganda for evangelism rather than an exhortation to make lives more meaningful. Bombarding a potential donor with a barrage of examples where people have sacrificed a life of luxury to live in piety, with a view to attracting a material contribution, might in fact have an exactly opposite and counter intuitive effect. The potential donor might be put off with what she thinks to be an extremely exacting challenge which is totally disproportionate to the objective proposed to be achieved.

The book also contains the usual Singer offerings of Animal Welfare and charities devoting their time effort and energy towards the prevention of cruelty to animals. Singer also provides details about organisations such as Give Well which evaluate the work and worth of charities with a view to assisting aspiring donors in making a prudent and wise choice as to the charities to which they can donate their resources.

To conclude, “The Most Good You can Do” is a lukewarm mish mash that leaves one wondering whether the book is a clarion call for evangelical activism or a plenitude of genuinely noble motives for making the world a better place to live.

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