Global poverty might sometimes feel to people like a problem they are powerless to do much about. What if it isn’t, though? What if you could easily make a real impact in helping those most in need? Since its launch in 2009, The Life You Can Save is a book that has acted as a guide in showing millions of people how to take actions that are powerful in transforming the lives of people thousands of miles away.
The book is all about effective altruism (EA): doing the most good, and its author, known as the father of effective altruism, is my guest today on Inside Ideas. Currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers.
That influence extends far beyond academia. His work has changed the thinking of millions and improved the lives of just as many. More than book, The Life You Can Save has mobilised a global movement achieving outcomes that can be characterised by the amelioration of human lives.
After buying the rights to the book Professor Singer made the ebook and audio versions free through the Life You Can Save charity, with Stephen Fry and Kristen Bell among the celebrity audiobook narrators.
I think we can get to a better world that isn’t imperilled like the one we’re living in now is.Peter Singer
“We have a whole movement called effective altruism that talks about how to be the most effective altruists. To not only give away some of your money and do some good but really make sure you are getting the best value for everything that you give. And that kind of idea applied to global poverty is in the book. It recommends and talks about some of these charities and directs you to our website where you can get the latest updated recommendations plus – you don’t have to pay.”
There are also lots of EA groups worldwide from ‘small social groups to larger professional networks’ – find one near you.
Alleviating animal suffering is a key focus for the EA movement and Peter’s seminal book, Animal Liberation, included by Time in its 2011 all-time top 100 best nonfiction books published in English, was one PETA labelled a ‘philosophical bombshell which forever changed the conversation about our treatment of animals’.
“We need to have a broader, more global, more impartial, less speciesist, ethical approach. And then, if we use our intelligence and our technologies and our abilities I think we can get to a better world that isn’t imperilled like the one we’re living in now is,” he said.
The covid pandemic is the latest harsh lesson on the unhealthy relationships and interactions humans have with animals. And Professor Singer hopes it can be harnessed to inspire a change in destructive eating habits.
“A few years ago, in something that I wrote about food I did point out that factory farming is a way of producing viruses. You take 20,000 chickens for example, you crowd them into a single shed, they’re stressed from the overcrowding and, of course if viruses get into one of those birds, they’ll get into all of them and they will mutate as they go through the flock.” he explained. “So they may change and they may become more transferrable to humans, and then you have human handlers coming in to pick them up and throw them into crates to be chucked off for slaughter so they can easily pick up the viruses. And viruses have arisen this way – the swine flu pandemic of 2009 came out of a factory farm. I’m not saying that the coronavirus that we’re experiencing at the moment did, but certainly it seems to have come from animals, and the more contact we have with animals in terms of rearing them for food, capturing wild animals, removing the habitat, the biodiversity so that animals are closer to us and come to invade our properties more, all of those things create risks and we would do better if we produce less meat or ideally no meat and didn’t have the same risk, or a much reduced risk of pandemics.”
He added: “There are a lot of really bad things we are doing to the planet, to ourselves, to animals, but – it’s an opportunity, to eat less meat, as it is one of the easiest ways in which we could take out 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions that are going into the atmosphere right now without sacrificing anything. It would be much better than some of the other things we think about – how are we going to cope without flying or air conditioning? This is one that is really a win-win for everyone.”
Professor Singer does not just discuss the world’s biggest questions he elucidates the behaviours, actions, and mindsets that can answer them. So I am delighted to take a deep dive into some of these questions with one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of our time.