After ‘effective altruism’

Peter Singer /

Coronavirus permitting, Peter Singer, the utilitarian Australian philosopher, will tour Australia and New Zealand later this year. It sounds like a gruelling trip, with addresses in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland. The cost of the tickets ranges between $60 and $160.

Not many professional philosophers, if any, draw such crowds to their lectures. Most visiting academics speak to a handful of scruffy graduate students in dusty seminar rooms. If they charged for admission, the seminar rooms would be empty.

Why is Singer so appealing? He’s not charismatic. He won’t make you rich. He’s not particularly eloquent.

Nor is it due to his philosophy. Singer is a utilitarian who believes in maximising the good consequences of human actions. It’s a dry and uninspiring ethical theory.

No, Peter Singer is popular because he is a prophet who calls people to devote themselves to a cause. Initially it was animal liberation. He helped to mobilise animal lovers around the world to save the whales and free imprisoned lab rats. In recent years he has been promoting utilitarian philanthropy, which he calls “effective altruism”.

You’ll find this set out in one of his latest books, The Life You Can Save. Everyone attending his evenings will receive a free copy – it’s the tenth anniversary of its publication.

Even the Wall Street Journal, read round the world by the “greed is good” crowd, liked it. Its reviewer praised Singer as a “compelling moral voice seeking far more compassion for those who ‘have the least’.”

The Life You Can Save is not like reading Wittgenstein or Sartre. It’s almost folksy, with dramatic yarns about philanthropic people, a bit of practical ethics, and a few down-to-earth ideas on what we can do to save the world. Think Anthony Robbins with a very big vocabulary.

As I read it I couldn’t help thinking that I’d heard this stuff before. And when I read Singer’s story about Zell Kravinsky, I remembered where.

Kravinsky is a clever fellow who lives in Philadelphia. Not only does he have two PhDs, he also made millions in real estate. Which he gave away, leaving only enough to give his family a minimum of security. At one point he only owned one suit, purchased from a thrift shop for $20. He gave away one of his kidneys to a total stranger. He had two, so why not?

That reminds me of Francis of Assisi, the 12th Century Italian saint who gave away all his worldly belongings so as better to imitate Christ.

In fact, Singer has created a demanding, self-sacrificial Franciscanism without God. Kravinsky is a utilitarian monk. As is Singer himself, who has been described as “"a man with plastic shoes and ironclad principles". He is a vegan and gives away as much as 40 percent of his salary.

So it’s not surprising that Singer appeals to high-minded Gen Xers, even if they profess to believe in “nothing”. What they do believe in is self-sacrificial altruism, which is a watered-down, secularised version of Christian charity – and Christianity is in their cultural DNA. If you X-ray “effective altruism”, you see a Christian skeleton.

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time.

This struck me forcefully recently when I visited the Bendigo Art Gallery, a splendid little museum in an old goldfields town a couple of hours from Melbourne. In the 1880s Bendigo was one of the richest cities in the world, thanks to its numerous gold mines. So its art gallery went on a shopping spree in London and brought back some fine Victorian paintings.  

Amongst its treasures is “Homeless”, painted in 1890 by the English artist Thomas Kennington. It’s sentimental, to be sure, and represents an artistic style and outlook on life which were both destined to go out of fashion a few years later. But in its own way, it’s masterful.

In a sombre London fog a beautiful young woman in widow’s weeds is kneeling on a wet footpath. Beside her sits a roughly tied swag with her meagre belongings. In her arms she clasps a young boy, presumably her son, who is dead or dying. It’s a powerful portrait of destitution in the days of robber-baron capitalism. Dickens would have loved it. 

But it is something else as well. The woman is not weeping. We see only her profile, but her expression is serene and tender without being impassive. The boy’s posture is unusual. His mother supports his shoulders; his head is tilted away from her; his legs are bent at the knees.

We’ve all seen this before: it’s the mediaeval motif of the deposition from the Cross. The best-known example is probably Michelangelo’s Pietà, in which the corpse of Christ is draped across the knees of his Mother. Underscoring the Christian imagery, to the right of the canvas is a leafless tree shaped like the cross on which Christ died.

A key to the painting is the background. Through the smog and drizzle, behind a wall, we glimpse the silhouette of smokestacks, factories, cranes. Like Christ who was crucified outside the city walls, the martyred waif is dying on the outskirts of industrial England.

The message, if you look for messages in paintings, is not just to inform us that “the dark Satanic mills” impoverished the proletariat. It also motivates non-believers to work for reform. No supernatural faith is needed to be altruistic, the painting tells us. Nowadays Christian almsgiving ought to be superseded by government welfare. A century before Singer’s desiccated Franciscanism, Christian faith was already withering.  

Another image: in the Australian bush you often see “strangler figs”. Wrapping themselves around a tall tree, these plants send their roots down to the forest floor and their branches up to the canopy. Gradually strangled, the host disappears in the fig’s parasitic embrace.

And when the host eventually decays, a good wind sends tree and fig crashing to the ground together. Perhaps the real point of interest is not how much Singer’s brand of altruism resembles Christianity, but if altruism itself will survive if Christianity collapses.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet


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