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.

21 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.

    1. >The civil rights movement may have been sexist in their operations, but their advocacy did not publicly seek to actively do harm to women.

      Neither is Peter Singer at an Effective Altruism talk, because infanticide – while abhorrent – has nothing to do with effective altruism. This is, in fact, the whole point.

      1. But where someone has promoted or given legitimacy to a harmful ideology on an ongoing basis and not retracted it (and, where applicable, made up for its effects), no-platforming or allowing them a platform without pay — including in unrelated contexts — is an acceptable response to avoid rewarding them for a status which may in part stem from their work in that area. If the civil rights movement had publicly thrown women under the bus to advance their agenda, that would have been more analogous.

    2. Now many other philosophers seriously disagree with Signer’s claims and think they are deeply wrong/immoral but they all take them seriously. Whatever else they are they are a serious intellectual argument not obvious bunk and if you don’t at least see the force of his claim you haven’t actually bothered to understand his claims. So before you call obvious bullshit how about you go ahead and resolve this famously vexing philosophical puzzle! Explain what is so much worse about a child who briefly enters the world and dies than a child who is never conceived at all? Is your argument compatible with abortions being moral?

      I could go on but if you haven’t actually grappled with his arguments all you are saying is that you DESPERATELY WANT Singer to be wrong. Criticism is only warranted if he actually is wrong.

      1. My beliefs about abortion being moral have to do with my absolute belief in bodily autonomy, and that no one should be forced to be pregnant against their will for any reason. It’s not incompatible with an anti-eugenics stance, in that I don’t have to agree with someone’s reasons for aborting to believe that they should be able to.

        There’s a very big difference between dying naturally and dying through someone killing you or failing to provide you with the medical treatment to keep you alive. This applies to disabled infants as well. My concern, as well as the concern of most disabled activists who object to Singer’s position, is that nondisabled people have a skewed idea of which lives are worth living, such that they would make the decision to kill or fail to provide treatment to an infant with a condition that’s not inherently fatal out of the belief that their quality of life would necessarily be poor (and that’s at the most benevolent). I could’ve easily fallen into this category because of the severity, actual or foreseeable, of the conditions I was born with — no one could have predicted with any accuracy where my life would go, but Singer’s position could easily be interpreted to allow them to impose their own ideas about disability on me before I even had a chance. Similar ideas have been adopted by parents who have killed their disabled kids, and by them, the public and in some cases the law in defending their actions.

        Also, please don’t be condescending to me by assuming to know what I think and that I haven’t thought things through.

  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.

    1. I agree with the thrust of your comment but I do think that (under mostly reasonable assumptions about your parents willingness to have more children and unreasonable ones about society accepting post birth abortions like the ancients did) it is entailed by his view.

      However, it is a misleading and confusing way to present it. I mean I think we can all agree that other things being equal prospective parents have a moral duty not to try to conceive in times/situations that would substantially increase the risk of a substantial disability in their offspring, e.g., during a short visit to a Zika country.

      The problem is that looking backwards it is easy to confuse the situation by redescribing the unremarkable fact that: parents should wait a few days before trying to conceive if that would avoid serious risk as “it would have been better if your parents hadn’t conceived you.” Not only does it make it personal and render a mild view hostile it fallaciously inserts one potential person (you) into our evaluation of this past scenario but not others (the person who would have been born had they waited).

      1. “Post birth abortions like the ancients did” included murder of people with cleft lip and palate (like me), which is not a life-threatening condition. Also, from here on in, every time I hear some variation on “Oh, we’re not talking about people like you, only the really severe cases,” I’m going to point to this.

  4. I think this is a brilliant, authentic and just way too attack an ethical but awful person. I wish Ozzy would trust their heart a little more though and trust is feeling that Singer represents a truly horrific philosophy.

  5. On reading your piece I was quite upset to see you (a well known figure in rationalist circles) never once address the merits of Singer’s arguments or observe that he really does have a very compelling case. I won’t make it here but if one believes that it is suffering (not the number of years you live) that matters it’s hard not to reach his conclusion (at least in the right social background) not to mention the serious issues drawing a principled line between abortion before x days of age and abortion before x month of pregnancy.

    Look maybe people who agree with Signer on this point couldn’t be more wrong BUT IF SO THEY ARE MERELY MISTAKEN ABOUT A VERY THORNY MORAL QUESTION. Indeed, even in seriously wrestling with these questions they are being more responsible in examining their moral beliefs than almost any of their opponents.

    “Certainly, most people who think disabled babies should be killed will mistreat disabled children and adults as well.”

    That’s absurd. Most people who think disabled babies should be killed are academic philosophers and other kind gentle people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s bad enough when people who don’t know better suggest that Utilitarian arguments for killing/aborting (at/after birth) disabled babies are the result of malign/cruel intent BUT YOU KNOW THAT MOST PEOPLE WHO ESPOUSE THIS VIEW ARE DRIVEN BY SOLID SEEMING RATIONAL ARGUMENTS NOT HATE/CRUELTY so I’m disturbed to see you feeding this perception.

    Having said this I do understand that in writing this piece you had to make choices and more people are helped if you don’t alienate potential effective altruists by defending Singer. But I still strongly object to you casting people who earnestly wrestle with complex moral issues as villains rather than merely being wrong.

    1. I would like to challenge you with the fact that people in the disability rights community are quite familiar with Singer’s work and are not simply being irrational when we say that many aspects are abhorrent. How abhorrent and what to do with that information is obviously not unanimous. Ari Ne’eman, former executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, actually goes a step further to assert that as a result of Singer’s positions, effective altruism is completely incompatible with disability rights. He goes very in depth. http://nosmag.org/effective-altruism-and-disability-rights-are-incompatible-peter-singer/

      Ari’s piece and Ozy’s piece are part of a wider project to discuss controversial issues within the disability community. That is the context of this conversation. If you are only here to argue that the disability community is irrational and uninformed, you’re going to have a bad time.

  6. Ohh it should probably be added that it isn’t Signer’s calm careful arguments in which he specifically rejects the fallacious inference that his position supports any kind of “lack of respect or equal consideration for people with disabilities” that hurt the cause of disability rights. People (such as the strongly pro disability rights philosophy community) who actually read and understand Singer’s arguments seem (if anything) more sympathetic to and cogniscent of the trials and tribulations of disability in a disability unfriendly world and willing to do more to avoid adding to those burdens.

    If anyone is setting back disability rights it is people mindlessly protesting Singer without understanding the context of his actual arguments. Without the protestors Singer’s effect on disability rights would be exactly 0 and only a few moral philosophers would even be aware of his position on non-voluntarily euthanasia.

    It is entirely the result of disability rights advocates (often misleading) loud protests that the world believes that an eminent moral philosopher thinks it’s no biggie to club disabled babies to death. Now maybe the resulting PR is a net benefit. I don’t know.

    However, what is abundantly clear is that any practical harm this issue has caused disability rights is entirely the result of illconceived protest convincing the public that viewing the disabled as subhuman is a respectable academic view. In contrast to Singer’s actual view which instructs us to take the suffering of severely disabled children seriously and not shy away from euthanasia which might spare them pain just because of our horrified emotional reaction or desire not to make such hard choices.

    1. A horrified emotional reaction is entirely warranted where it would allow other people to make decisions about which lives are worth living. There’s history to those ideas, and it’s not a happy one for disabled people. Failure to learn from it, and recognize the sheer extent of ableism and how it impacts people’s perceptions of which people’s lives are valuable and have the potential for happiness, in favor of operating in a bubble by assuming that people will act rationally and without bias is irresponsible.

      1. Neumeier; you just show that you do no read but just react with opinions beside the actual things that are being said by Singer, Gerdes and me.

        1. Hi, I am the editor of NOS. Please refrain from personal attacks. I have approved this comment for the purposes of issuing a warning. If you do it again, I will delete further comments.

        2. And you didn’t respond to anything I actually said. When the value and personhood of lives like yours is considered up for debate, you’ll maybe have standing to lecture me about how I should react and respond to this.

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