Evaluating Effective Altruism with Peter Singer

By: Leah
Leah is participating in Allowance for Good's autumn 2013 Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy program.

Hi! I’m Leah, I’m 17, a senior at ETHS, and I’ll be writing this week’s blog post.

On Wednesday night we heard Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton, speak at Northwestern on the topic of effective altruism.  Peter belongs to a utilitarian school of thought and generally approaches issues through a secular lens.

At its core, Peter’s argument was that we should find ways to make each dollar we donate go as far as possible. This seemed based on a hierarchy similar to Maslow’s pyramid, guaranteeing all people their basic rights and necessities before addressing the non-basic needs of others. One of the examples Peter used to effectively show this point revolved around the problem of blindness. Cataracts are an incredibly common and treatable cause of blindness, especially in the developing world. A cataract surgery, giving someone the gift of sight, costs within a range of $20-50. Giving a seeing-eye dog to a not preventably blind person in the first world costs around $40,000.  Peter argues that the obvious choice is to cure many more people of preventable blindness rather than assist one person who will remain blind for the rest of their life.

Peter stressed the fact that he believes all human lives have the same value, which is something a think a lot of us coming from privileged backgrounds overlook too often. I think we need reminders, like Peter’s lecture, that we are people in exactly the way that people from Cambodia, Laos, Botswana, Uganda, Columbia, and Nicaragua are people and that we cannot assign their lives any less value than we assign our own. This is a topic we discuss a lot in ELP and I think it merits our attention.

Some of the Northwestern students in the crowd asked questions that were frankly kind of stupid. Through my learning about the world (in ELP and elsewhere) and by simply listening to Peter’s talk, I felt confident enough to answer. Hopefully more students in my generation will learn what I have the privilege of learning now in ELP and the power of listening so that we can avoid silly questions and truly get ot the core of helping our world.

Leah, left, shares her group's venture philanthropy idea during one of the Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy sessions.