I was reading Smith Journal a few days ago and had one of those brilliant 'I've never thought about it like that' moments. In 'things I believe' an article written by the talented Chris Harrigan (issue 22, p104), the radical Australian-born philosopher, Peter Singer is asked to share some pearls of wisdom.
To me, one was a little pearlier than the others. It was all about the balance of "effective altruism”, an area of philosophy concerned with a facts-based analysis of charitable and philanthropic engagement. Singer has been a leading authority in this area for some time.
Effective altruism is defined as "the use of high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible" (source).
In the article, Singer introduces the Spectrum of charitable behaviour. On one end you give nothing and actively take as much as you can for yourself, and on the other, you are so benevolent that you will sacrifice even your own personal safety to help others.
Ideally we would all be somewhere in the middle.
If you are reading this blog, chances are you are one of the affluent middle-class people Singer is referring to. You are not likely to be reading this article in a cardboard box, nor a super yacht in the Miami keys. It is also likely that you wouldn’t feel it if you dropped a few coins in a charity tin at the supermarket. You are somewhere in the middle. You can't go out and solve the problem by throwing large amounts of money at it but you are able to offer an amount of your time, effort and cash to help others.
In the article, Singer explains "I think that middle-class people in affluent countries like Australia are obliged to do something for people in poverty".
In my experience, people feel even more obliged to help those in need when they are in community context. The obligation might grow stronger, for example, if a colleague has asked for donations so that they can shave their head and run across an iconic bridge in a Panda onesie. It makes us feel good to know that our work ‘team’ managed to donate a collective $1273 to the worthy cause. That is, until you realise that your team’s collective income is over $1million per year, and that your donation was worth barely 10% of the amount you dropped at the bar for the last staff Christmas party.
Effective altruism isn’t about stopping people from having a great time shaving their heads for a good cause, or having a beer at the end of a busy year. It is about making balanced and fact-based altruistic decisions.
Decisions like understanding who and what your donation is going towards. There is a balance which can make altruism effective. You could choose to eat out only once a month, have your friends over to your place instead, and put the money you save towards local homeless housing projects. You'll gain skills in the kitchen, help your local community, and probably end up with a few bottles of decent wine that your friends don't drink when they're over. It's a win-wine situation.