Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Giving Satisfaction

The other night I went to hear Peter Singer talk about altruism. I was hoping I would find out how to behave better towards other people, (not that I spend all my time engaged in wild fist fights or anything). I wanted answers to the big questions - eg, when I give money to beggars is it an act of altruism, given that I'm usually doing it to get rid of 50-cent pieces, which I hate (lumpy, ugly, confusingly large)?

I didn't get many answers, as I explain over at Overland, (apparently the headline is intentional).


  1. I agree with your review - it is crumbs from the table. Singer came up with something much better 20 years ago, in his book How Are We To Live?, which is relevant to every income group. I'm not just interested in persuading a few bankers to be less selfish, but also in encouraging the great unwashed to become better neighbours.

    1. Singer's interesting, but he is too purely utilitarian I think.

  2. My simple definition of altruism: giving away, out of the goodness of your heart, something that is of significant value to you, with no expectation of a reward of any sort.

    Sticking to money/material things, this means that no matter how many billions of dollars Bill Gates donates to anything, it does not come under my definition of altruism. As long as he has his mansion in Seattle and access to a few spare billions of dollars – or even millions, it not truly altruistic. It's great that he's doing it, but I see no personal sacrifice there.

    Consequently, the word “altruism” in Singer calls “effective altruism” is a misnomer. Call it what it is – high-class fundraising. Peter Singer is engaging in sleight of hand – euphemism, not altruism. He's on a mission to extract large amounts of money from people who can afford to give it and their reward is to feel good about themselves. But it makes no positive societal change.

    The $5 that the old pensioner gives and which s/he probably should be spending on heating has more intrinsic worth than Gates's funding of an entire university. If every person by choice gave an amount they find hurts their pocket or lifestyle, then the world would be a completely different and better place. Not that it's going to happen.

    Your lovely tongue-in-cheek description of giving away the $.50 pieces was nicely un-altruistic. I'm deeply shocked, I tell you.

  3. Your 50c piece is in the post.