The Advantages of Altruism

Thursday, Dec 7, 2017

As the statesman Edmund Burke put it, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values, was recently featured in a Business Insider article, “How donating money can actually make you happier.

In the article, Singer contends that if you don’t have much money, getting more money will make you happier; however, once you get above the $70,000 mark, this effect starts to drop off very dramatically. “The marginal utility of any extra income starts to fall,” Singer says. “And the line doesn’t go quite flat, but it goes almost flat...”

After this point, Singer believes that donating to charity actually makes people happier. “There’s lots of good research linking happiness and donating to charity at all sorts of different levels,” Singer says. “People who are generous, people who think of others, people who don’t just think of themselves are significantly happier in their lives.”

This idea is closely related to a philosophical position that Singer champions, called “effective altruism.” In 1972, Singer published a seminal essay, "Famine, Affluence and Morality," which argued that people in affluent countries who are spending money on luxuries should be giving much more to help people in dire need.

“That article influenced many students over the years, but it seems that the time was not really ripe for a movement to form,” Singer observes. “That happened only about 10 years ago, and I'm pleased with how [effective altruism] has developed and spread.”  

In his fall 2017 course, “Practical Ethics,” Singer explored effective altruism with his students through reading material and real-life projects. The students participated in a “Giving Game,” where they chose one of four charities to which they could give $100.

“The $100 is real money, donated by Matt Wage ’12, who took the course in 2009,” Singer says. “There are 26 precepts, so students ended up giving away $2,600.” 17 of the precepts donated to Against Malaria Foundation, eight to Give Directly, and one to Ploughshares, an anti-nuclear war organization. 

For more information about effective altruism, Singer suggests visiting websites like GiveWell.org or TheLifeYouCanSave.org, the organization Singer founded in 2013.