Peter Singer’s case for effective altruism brings to mind Andrew Carnegie, or, rather, the well-known criticism, which Carnegie himself anticipated, that the steel magnate’s philanthropic largesse was made possible by squeezing value from his workers, deskilling most and forcing them into twelve-hour workdays of low-paid penury.
Had Carnegie shared his staggering wealth through decent wages and working conditions rather than built thousands of libraries, working people could have built their own libraries—and much else besides. Modern global poverty, Singer’s preoccupation here, emerged from a series of violent historical maneuvers similar to Carnegie’s—through the colonial seizure of land, political power, culture, and hard-won skill, which continues today by means of neoliberal trade policies that primarily benefit the financial sector. In “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued for the virtues of hard work against the slothful tendencies of aristocratic inheritance, and, in anticipation of the welfare state, defended progressive taxation of the wealthy should they refuse their obligations. In other words, the rapacious Social Darwinist Carnegie offered up the beginnings of a new politics—a proto-theory of the private sector’s relationship to the state—as a second, lesser choice to his own gospel of noblesse oblige. Although Singer’s utilitarian ethics align with Carnegie’s post-accumulation version of wealth sharing, he leaves the state’s historical role in advancing or reducing poverty out of the equation.
Effective altruism is a counterpart to global market fundamentalism.
Stripped of politics and history, Singer’s answer to the already-limited question, “What would make the world a better place?” is thin. Compare Carnegie’s defense of gains made through industrial production with Singer’s celebration of his ethically prized student Matt Wage, who joined a Wall Street arbitrage price-trading firm to make as much money as possible and give it away through global philanthropy. Several concerns arise immediately. Wage’s work in the debased financial sector furthers the suffering of global have-nots. His work hews to the abstract routinization of the algorithm; he too is being deskilled and degraded, if voluntarily and in the name of altruism. His “flourishing” through “doing good” for as many people as possible—from far away—does not necessarily advance his own or the world’s prospects, ethically or otherwise. Rather, it reflects a form of profound alienation.
Utilitarianism, with its bent toward quantification, for regarding people as abstract units, is the ethical system of distant administrators. It is no coincidence that it emerged in the nineteenth century with the rise of large, impersonal corporate entities. Singer’s variation rejects the ethical philosophy’s pleasure-or-pain calculus as too subjective and, potentially, hedonistic. His own preference utilitarianism seeks to rescue ethics from categorical abstraction while restoring grounds for subjective rational choice. In the realm of philanthropy, in an era of crushing global poverty, this means not only donating as much money as you can to alleviate suffering, but, even better, making as much money as you can so you can give more away to “do more good.” Such altruism isn’t the opposite of egoism, Singer argues, nor does it require self-sacrifice, for in lending meaning and fulfillment to one’s life, it leads indirectly to one’s happiness and flourishing. In this conflict-free ethical zone, it is a win-win.
Leaving aside how much this harmonious optimism resembles the ineffectual American Gilded Age discourse on altruistic reform, Singer elevates utilitarian abstraction to new heights—a bird’s eye view. The suffering are units to be managed effectively; the more of them so managed, the better from an ethical perspective. But donors are asked to do far more than give what they reasonably can. They are tasked with giving up meaningful work, even if it means lending their talents to the very financial institutions that deepen global poverty. Such circular reasoning makes a mockery of Singer’s bid for rational ethical agency and threatens to throw one’s moral compass off-kilter, putting painful, conflict-ridden political recourse at a dim remove. That is what happens when you reduce self and others to quantifiable widgets, much as the global financial markets regard us. Thus Singer’s effective altruism is not an antidote to impoverishing global market fundamentalism but a counterpart to it.