Reviewing Susan Neiman’s Why Grow Up?, Vivian Gornick characterizes maturity, or “inhabiting adulthood,” as “contributing materially to the making of the a world as it ought to be.” Neiman believes philosophy can help in facing this moral challenge; Gornick is not so sure. We don’t lack for good intentions, she argues, but our internal conflicts guarantee that “every day of our lives we transgress against our own longing to act well.”
Acting well and doing good is the topic of our forum in this issue. Philosopher Peter Singer endorses a growing philanthropic movement, effective altruism, whose proponents believe that living a morally decent life requires committing a significant percentage of personal income to charity. Indeed, some effective altruists pursue high-paying careers in order to maximize giving. They believe, too, that they ought to give in ways that maximize impact: do “the most good you can,” as Singer puts it. Such targeted giving means that philanthropic choices should be guided by measurable results, not warm and fuzzy feelings for identifiable individuals.
Some contributors to our forum—from economist Angus Deaton to social entrepreneur Leila Janah—question the efficacy of effective altruism. Others challenge its utilitarian ethics; does it undermine the agency of aid recipients and lead their governments to mistake short-term successes for long-term solutions? Others focus on the agency of the givers: Daron Acemoglu wonders if the movement might eventually change what we think of as a meaningful life. Will we come to judge our lives by the sum of money we’ve earned and donated to help strangers?
In his reflections on David Brooks’s new book, The Road to Character, Claude Fischer (“The Problem with David Brooks”) suggests other criteria for a meaningful life. Fischer recognizes the individualistic road to virtue that Brooks applauds—and that effective altruists might well endorse—as a deeply American impulse. But he urges us instead to consider “the collective building of institutions that, by the material conditions they create and the moral lessons they convey, promote virtuous habits of the heart.”
Nowhere have Americans struggled more with the imperative of building such institutions than in the arena of racial justice. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan report, Stephen Steinberg documents just how sharply American liberals turned away from the pursuit of just institutions at the very moment the country seemed most ready to lay their foundations.
Finally, we are happy to announce the winner of our 2015 short story contest, Barbara Hamby, for her story “Dole Girl,” set in a pineapple cannery in 1970. We hope you enjoy it.