This is an image of Peter Singer. He is a white man with white hair and a receding hairline. Singer is wearing wire-frame glasses and a tan suit.

In Defense of Effective Altruism

When I saw the recent protests by disability rights advocates of Peter Singer’s talk at an effective altruism club, I cringed.

I support disability rights because I am a disabled person and I do, in fact, have a sense of self-interest. I support effective altruism because I was aware of all the suffering there was in the world and I felt powerless to actually do anything about it. Through evidence and reason, effective altruists try to figure out how ordinary people can best improve the world. We ask questions like “if you want people in the developing world to be better off economically, is it better to pay for deworming treatments because children without worms grow up to earn more money, or just to give them cash?” And “if you’re trying to do good, is it better to get a high-earning job so you can donate lots of money, or to work at a nonprofit yourself?” And “how do we reason about really uncertain things, like the risks to humanity from advanced technology?”

I have been an effective altruist for more than five years, and I can count on one hand the times the “should we kill disabled babies?” conversation has happened. The only reason it has ever happened was because someone learned that disability rights advocates object to Peter Singer and was curious about why.

It’s pretty obvious why it doesn’t come up: Because it’s not effective altruism. Effective altruists are more likely than most people to agree with Peter Singer on many topics, including infanticide, as one would expect from a movement founded in part by Peter Singer. But the majority of effective altruists, like the majority of people everywhere, think infanticide is wrong. Even if an effective altruist does agree with Peter Singer on the subject, there is no plausible argument that trying to get more people to kill disabled babies is a good way to spend your time.

Effective altruists tend to consider causes on three metrics: scale, neglectedness, and tractability. “Scale” means how many people it affects and how much they are affected: for instance, something that has a huge impact on the lives of millions of people has a larger scale than something that affects ten people a little bit. “Neglectedness” means how many other people are working on it: if a cause already has millions of supporters and billions of dollars in funding, your money and time probably does less good than if the entire cause consists of six people in a basement. “Tractability” means how much your effort leads to better outcomes: for instance, it would be really cool if everyone had a personal faster-than-light spaceship, but since that probably isn’t going to happen, you should spend your resources working on something else.

The murder of disabled babies is certainly a neglected cause. But it has a very small scale: While 3.2 million infants are born each year with a lifelong congenital disability, this pales in comparison to, say, the 212 million malaria cases annually. Even the most ableist effective altruists would agree that many of the 3.2 million children with a lifelong congenital disability have happy lives that are well worth living. And the cause isn’t tractable, in part because of the relentless activism of disability rights advocates. Peter Singer, over the course of his career, has not managed to legalize the euthanasia of disabled infants. He has, however, ensured that whenever he tries to give a talk anywhere people will yell at him about how eugenics is hate.

I want to repeat that the majority of effective altruists disagree with Peter Singer about whether one should murder disabled babies. However, even the minority of effective altruists who agree may advocate for companies to have cage-free egg policies, or the reduction of mass incarceration in the United States, or malaria prevention, or even just giving poor people money. They are not going to advocate for the legalized killing of disabled babies.

Among effective altruists, support for infanticide of disabled babies does not necessarily imply that they will mistreat disabled people. Of course, I do not mean to imply that it isn’t ableist to think that one should kill disabled babies. Nor do I mean to downplay the harmful Effects of arguing that disabled people don’t have lives worth living. The yearly death toll of disabled people murdered by their caregivers out of “mercy” should be enough to demonstrate that those effects are very real. Certainly, most people who think disabled babies should be killed will mistreat disabled children and adults as well.

But effective altruists are selected for being people who have really weird philosophical opinions and then actually follow them. We’re the sort of people who read Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence and Morality and say “okay, time to donate a quarter of my income!” Effective altruists who agree with Singer typically believe that many disabled people have lives not worth living and that disabled people matter as much as everyone else, that all disabled people should be able to live free and independent lives, and that any decent society provides reasonable accommodations for the disabled.

In my experience as a disabled effective altruist, my requests for accommodations and supports have been treated with respect far more often in the effective altruism community than they have in the rest of the world. Of course, I am only one person, and my experience may be atypical. But to me what really matters is not what someone says in response to a thought experiment, without ever putting their words into practice; what matters is how they treat the actual disabled people who are in front of them.

You might ask, why am I supporting Peter Singer at all? His support for infanticide is unconscionable. As one of the protesters said, asking Peter Singer to speak about charity is like asking Steve Bannon to talk about recycling. If someone says hate speech, then giving them a platform for their non-hateful opinions is legitimizing what they say.

Peter Singer helped found two movements that are very close to my heart: animal liberation and effective altruism. Peter Singer also believes that one should kill disabled babies because disabled people’s lives aren’t worth living.

When I think about Peter Singer, I find myself thinking about the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was sexist in many respects. Women marched, demonstrated, cooked, and cleaned, but they were kept out of top jobs.For instance, Ella Baker was forced out after a brief tenure as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Women were even treated less well than men at the March on Washington, as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about how he had a dream that his children would be judged by the content of their character. That does not erase the tremendous good done by the civil rights movement. Schools were integrated, discriminatory laws were overturned and children were allowed to drink from the same water fountain.

Silencing the sexist leaders of the civil rights movement would not have helped to further the goals of the Civil Rights movement. I do not think it would have helped anyone if the I Have A Dream speech had been interrupted by activists yelling about the underrepresentation of women. I am glad Ella Baker helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after her experience at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, instead of writing off the entire movement as irredeemably sexist. We can be inspired by the example of the civil rights movement, even as we are aware of its flaws.

And so with Peter Singer and Effective Altruism.

Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save was one of the first effective altruist charities. The Giving Games they run have exposed thousands of people to the idea that some charities do far more good with a single dollar than others. His book Animal Liberation was one of the most influential works in the creation of the animal rights movement. Singer’s latest book The Most Good You Can Do is a powerful and compelling explanation of the moral necessity of helping the weakest among us and making sure that you’re actually doing good instead of just doing things that feel nice.

Peter Singer also thinks it would be better if I had been killed at birth.

I am not exactly happy about this state of affairs. If I were in charge of the world, I would have not have chosen Peter Singer as one of the effective altruism movement’s founders (also, there would be no such thing as menstruation and Skittles would be good for you). But I am not in charge of the world. I have to work with the allies I have, not the ones I wish I had. Making the decision to throw out the rest of Peter Singer’s work means, in my opinion that there will be more animals tortured in factory farms, more children dead of malaria, more poor people without the money to feed their families. That is not a trade-off I am willing to make.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Effective Altruism”

  1. You can simultaneously protest someone and benefit from their work. I don’t agree that the I Have a Dream Speech analogy is relevant to modern distribution of information. I see him as better suited to have his good works carried on by others (as they will be). That is what happens when he is protested. Someone less hateful has to replace him to get paid to present places.

  2. TW: Mention of rape (as well as the obvious discussion of ableist murder)

    As someone else who would have likely been in Singer’s category of disabled babies who would be better off dead (having been referred to at one point as “a life sentence” on my parents), where I come down is that:

    1) there should of course be no law against Peter Singer speaking anywhere, but
    2) I’m gonna side-eye the fuck out of an org that invites him, and
    3) I don’t think that they should pay him for his attendance — a tenured professor who advocates for killing disabled babies; has not apologized for doing so; and is not above taking the opportunities to publicly advocate for it in those situations in which he is asked to do so can very well pay his own way.

    I would also disagree with your comparison of civil rights leaders’ sexism to Peter Singer’s ableism. The civil rights movement may have been sexist in their operations, but their advocacy did not publicly seek to actively do harm to women. By contrast, this situation involves an active argument in favor of murdering people on the basis of disability. If civil rights leaders had publicly advocated for the position taken by such people as “RooshV” (that raping women ought to be legal in certain instances), that might be more analogous. To be fair, though, there’s a strong argument to be made for the reverse — that the civil rights leaders’ sexism was worse because it had more direct tangible effects (e.g., keeping or forcing women out of the movement), where your experience as a disabled person is that advocates for effective altruism have not been exclusionary on the basis of disability.

    I also think that it’s a bit limited to think about this only in terms of people trying to make killing disabled infants legal in the U.S., even besides the fact that it is legal in at least one European country (possibly more now?) to do so. Given the political situation in the United States, even a significant effort to legalize outright killing of disabled babies would likely be unsuccessful, and official sanction of causing disabled people to die is likely to continue in more subtle ways instead. My concern is that this belief is still seen and framed as being “controversial” rather than outright bunk, and that his using his clout, even sporadically, to legitimize it adds that much more to the perception that the value of our existence — and even our existence itself — is up for debate. The concrete effects of society’s ambivalence about the worth of disabled lives include things like refusals to provide life-saving organ transplants to people with I/DD, and sympathy and impunity for parents who murder their disabled children. I won’t go so far as to say that any one murder of a disabled person can be traced back to Peter Singer’s beliefs. What I do think is that each contribution to the widespread (if usually unspoken) belief that disabled lives are burdensome and disposable makes it that much easier for the next person to commit and justify such an act and/or deny justice for the victim.

  3. It is very good that you, in your article, try to separate the debate from the debaters. You partly succeed, but still the main theme of the article seems to be how to cope with Peter Singer and not about how to treat disabled people in society.

    Still you make casual but strange (and unsubstantiated) claims regarding the debate itself like:
    “Certainly, most people who think disabled babies should be killed will mistreat disabled children and adults as well.”

    My knowledge of Peter Singer up till now is limited to his efforts on animal welfare in our mass bio-industrial industry. I live in The Netherlands wher every day 1 million animals are killed after an unseen live in large dark barns. This has led to the “Partij voor de Dieren” (Party for the Animals), first political party in the world that sets this on the polical agenda. At recent elections the PvdD grew from 2 to 5 seats (3,3%) in our gouvernment.

    What I would like to add to your ‘opion piece’ is the following. It is clear that not all 3.2 million people born each year with a lifelong congenital disability you refer to, are in the same condition. I’m no expert, but a quick look at the numbers on Wikipedia give me the impression that a large part of those 3.2 million can lead happy lives like you. But at the same time there are cases (forms of congenital disorder) where we can be pretty sure that they will not. The real debate is how we (society) will let the people imvolved (parents, doctors, etc, deal with those cases.

    The real problem is the diversity and our tendency for rules that cover a whole group/problem/etc. People in general have a fear for uncertainty (while it in fact is our basic situation).

    What I quickly could find that Peter Singer says in Practical Ethics (1993) [https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1993—-.htm], is a very carefull approach to issues on euthanasia. About infants he concludes:
    “So the issue of ending life for disabled newborn infants is not without complications, which we do not have the space to discuss adequately. Nevertheless the main point is clear: killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

    You say: “Peter Singer also thinks it would be better if I had been killed at birth.”
    I do not think this is true and it seems to me your discrediting Peter Singer in a very nasty way. It makes me wonder what you really try to achieve with this piece.

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