Peter Singer discusses altruism, affecting change

    Princeton professor Peter Singer spoke to an overflow Harris Hall audience Wednesday night about how individuals can maximize their financial and physical contributions to helping the world.

    In a One Book One Northwestern talk titled “Effective Altruism: What it is and why we should do it,” Singer highlighted people who have committed themselves to donating large portions of their salaries, their time and even their kidneys to affect positive change in the world. He reserved his greatest praise for Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, “the three most effective altruists in all of history,” he said.

    Singer argued for an ethic of utilitarianism, that people should ensure that their charitable donations of time and money accomplish the most amounts of good. For the cost of training one seeing-eye dog, Singer said that one could prevent between 800 and 2,000 cases of trachoma, a preventable cause of blindness in impoverished nations.

     “I think clearly preventing someone from becoming blind is an even better thing to do than to giving someone who is blind a guide dog,” Singer said. “When you multiply it by the numbers, it’s an indication of how important it is that if you are donating to charity, you are donating to a highly effective one.”

    Singer’s talk touched on other issues that have sparked controversy throughout his career, including his support of animal rights and not donating to arts institutions. Using the example of the $45 million purchase of Duccio’s Madonna, he argued that more good would have come had the money gone to charity so that a million people would not go blind.

    Although not everyone may be comfortable donating their kidney to a stranger, Singer said one still should do as much good as they are comfortable doing for their world.

    “People draw their lines at different places,” he said. “You can have reasonable grounds to drawing your lines at different places, but you need to think ‘I am doing something significant about this. I am trying to do some good for the world.’”


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