Intro. [Recording date: December 20, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: Today is December 20th century, 2019, and my guest is philosopher and author Peter Singer, the IRA W. DeKamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and the Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. His most recent book and the subject of today's conversation is the 10th year anniversary edition of his book, The Life You Can Save: How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty. Peter, welcome to EconTalk.
Peter Singer: Thank you, it's good to be with you.
Russ Roberts: So, your book centers around our obligations to help people not just near us, but far from us. And to help them in dramatic ways, and to provoke thinking about that and to motivate the morality of those decisions. You give the example of a person on the way to work wearing a nice suit, maybe expensive shoes, and comes across a child. So describe that example and what we learn from it.
Peter Singer: Right. Yes, so as you say, you're wearing some expensive clothing to go to somewhere special, walking across a park on the way, when you notice that a small child has fallen into the pond and is floundering around, apparently in danger of drowning. You look around for somebody who is looking after this child, this child is too young to be on their own, but you can't see any parent, babysitter, anything like that. So it seems like there's only you and the child. You know that there's no danger to you if you were to jump into the pond and rescue the child because you know that the pond isn't deep for an adult, too deep for the child. So, it really is a case where you can quite easily rescue the child, but there is this cost that you will ruin your expensive shoes and nice clothing.
Now, suppose in those circumstances, you would think to yourself, 'This is not my child. There's no way in which I'm responsible for this child. Nobody ever asked me to take care of the child. The child is a complete stranger to me. And I don't want to be put at the expense of replacing my expensive shoes. So I'm going to ignore the child. I'll just--yes, the child is quite likely to drown, but it's not my business.'
Now, when I put that to audiences as I've done many times over the years and asked for a show of hands on whether that would be the wrong thing to do, it's either unanimous or there's one or two dissenters--I guess libertarians of some sort, maybe, who stick out their hand and say, 'Well, it wouldn't be nice, but it's not really wrong.' But, overwhelmingly people do think it's wrong. And I'm assuming that most of the people listening to this podcast will think that it's wrong.
And so then I ask you to think about: If that's wrong, is it really so different from the fact that we are living in a world in which there are children who are dying because they do not sleep under bed nets to prevent them getting malaria; they do not drink safe drinking water so they get diarrhea and may die from that. They're not well nourished, and they may die from that. They haven't been immunized against common diseases. And we know that we can change these things. We can donate to effective organizations that are doing all of these things; they will reach out to more children. And if we give maybe something equivalent to the cost of replacing expensive shoes and fine clothing, we are very likely to have saved the life of a child. Although the child is not in front of us: we don't know which child we've saved.
So the question that this example raises is: Are we doing something wrong? True, the children who are dying in these circumstances are not our children. There's a sense in which we're not responsible for them. But as the example of the child in the pond shows, it may still be wrong not to rescue a child where we could relatively easily do so. And we're aware of the possibility but we turn our back on it.
Russ Roberts: Not surprisingly, I agree with you that you should rescue that child. I want to, if I might, ask what seems to be a strange question; but as a philosopher, I know you're used to strange questions and you're used to answering them. Why should I? I agree with you that you should, but I'm curious why you think one should save that child.
Peter Singer: Different philosophers might give different answers to that question. The answer that I give is because the death of a child is a bad thing. That is, I think, something that pretty much everybody would agree with. Certainly, if you think about it from the position of if it were your own child, if you're a parent, you would be in no doubt whatsoever that this is a terrible thing, for a parent to lose a child. And, from the point of view of the child, it's a bad thing that the child doesn't have the opportunity to grow up and have a good life. So, if you can prevent something bad happening at small cost to yourself, then I think that it's wrong not to prevent it. And the cost to yourself here is small: it's not really important that we have those fine clothes and expensive shoes. Or, if that is important to you for some particular reason, then I'm sure there are other things that you spend money on that you would have to admit are not really important.
Essentially, the principle that I defend is if you can prevent something really bad happening without sacrificing anything that is remotely comparable in its significance to you--as the death of a child is for the child and for the parents and others who love and care for that child--then you ought to do it, and it's wrong not to do it.
Russ Roberts: As you probably know, Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments gives a not-unrelated example of how we might feel after an earthquake that killed hundreds of millions of people very far away from us who we don't know, don't know well, or probably at all. And he talks about how you might feel a little bit sad about that or feel bad. And you'd go to sleep and you'd sleep really well. But the next morning, you'd wake up and you'd be fine. You'd probably forget about it completely. He said: On the other hand, if you knew you were going to have your little finger amputated, you would sleep terribly, and you would wake up with great anxiety. And, he says that's our natural inclination. And yet, when asked, 'Would you have 100 million people definitely in order to save your little finger?' you would say that that's wrong.
And when Smith grapples with that, he basically argues that--I think he calls it the weak--he says that benevolence is a very weak read of true altruism. And that our fundamental urge to do the right thing--to be kind and lovely, as he calls it--comes from a desire to be respected by others and by ourselves.
And I am pushing this example because I think it's--you say it's bad that a child dies. I'm curious whether you think we should save the child so we'll feel good about ourselves--our conscience won't hurt us--which is a common motivation? or whether it's just hardwired in us that we should care about others? or whether it's an ethical urge that is genetic? or whether it's none of those: It's a cultural creation of, perhaps religion, secular culture in other ways. How would you think about those things?
Peter Singer: So I'm happy to answer that question. But before I do, I want to make it clear that I think questions of the psychological explanation for our behavior and for our feelings is a separate question from the question of what's right or wrong for us to do. And I think the passage from Adam Smith, which you describe very accurately, is a passage about motivation, about explaining human nature, about explaining our reactions, the fact that we do react very differently to distant calamities that affect strangers from the way we react to something that affects ourselves even in a much, much more minor way. And these are the things about human nature which I think we can now explain.
But, as I say, it's a separate question as to what we ought to do when we are aware of the situation when we reflect on it. We can't just take refuge in the idea, 'Well, it's human nature not to care about distant strangers.' That's not a moral justification for not caring about distant strangers.
It might have some relevance to how we think about people who don't care about distance strangers, about whether we really want to blame them very severely when they're not doing anything very different from what most people do. That might be relevant there. But, to the question of: Is this the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? I think that's a separate issue.
Let me come then to the question that you did ask. I think the answer to that we can now be a little more precise than Adam Smith, thanks to Darwin coming in between Smith and ourselves. I think we can say: We have evolved, we have descended from human beings. And even before there were human beings, from primates from whom we humans emerged as social mammals--as mammals, that is beings who had care to care for their children over their childhood, and social beings who lived in groups. Most people think that we lived in groups of not more than 150 or 200 individuals for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years.
So, we evolved to survive and reproduce and have surviving offspring in those circumstances. And to do that, obviously, we had to care for those who are close to us. We particularly had to look after our own survival, hence to worry about even small things like losing a little finger. And we had to care about our children and worry about any risk of harm to them. And if we hadn't, then our genes would have got eliminated from the gene pool. So, the fact that we're here--our ancestors' genes were not eliminated--suggests that they did all those things. So, in that sense, yes, it is part of our nature to care more about ourselves and our close kin than we care about strangers.
At the same time, we also evolved the capacity to reason. And it's that capacity to reason that you and I and our listeners are using now in following what I'm saying. That capacity also emerged because it helped us to survive in various ways. Helped us to solve problems, work out what the dangers to us were, the best ways of avoiding them. So, yes, played a big evolutionary advantage.
But I believe--and this is perhaps the specifically distinctive view that I hold, and some others hold; it's not unique to me--that, once you develop a capacity to reason, in some sense, you free yourself from these other natural elements, the psychology that is evolved through nature. And we have the ability to reflect on it, to become self-aware, to criticize the way that we have natural tendencies to act; and to develop different standards--which, I think are standards that can be justified in terms of reason.
So, that's why I think there is this difference between our nature and between what it is that is right or wrong for us to do. They're not completely unrelated. We have to develop an ethic that is something that is possible for us. But at the same time, it can go beyond what is natural for us.
Russ Roberts: So, I see your book in many ways as being a plea--a cry--to overcome one's own nature about caring mostly for those or more strongly for those who are strongly for those nearest or closer to us.
And I do think it's important to make a distinction between how we feel and how we ought to feel, or how we feel and how we ought to behave, based on those feelings. A confusion that's common in economics, I think. I think in economics, there is an enormous implicit mistake: that somehow self-interest, because it is natural, is therefore good. And there are cases where self-interest is good. I'm going to defend some of those I hope today. But I certainly agree with you that overcoming our natural self-interest is sometimes what it means to be an adult, to be what might be called a mensch--a person of dignity and an honorable human being, a person more than one can achieve just following on one's own instincts and appetites.
But I don't--I don't see why--so again, I agree with you, but I don't see why I should care about someone other than myself. It's true that we have those feelings within us, along with the self-interested ones. But, in my case, for example, I believe in God; I think people are made in the image of the Divine. I think people are different from animals, something that you've written a lot about and that you disagree. So, I don't--without that, I want to hear you justify why I should care what happens to other people. So what if a child dies? It's a bad thing. I agree. But why should I care? Why should I try to prevent it?
Peter Singer: You should try to prevent it because it is a bad thing. I think that's sufficient grounds for trying to prevent it.
I think there are objectively good and bad things that can happen. Pain and suffering are bad things, happiness and pleasure are good things. Dying without experiencing the good things that you could is a bad thing; the grief of the parents or others who love the child, bad things. And, I think that that's sufficient to say why you should care.
It's true that some people don't care. And I think they're turning away from the reasons that exist for caring. And it's interesting that they apply those reasons to themselves. And very few of them are really consistent in accepting that if someone else says, 'I don't care about you, so if I were to see you in need of rescue, and I had to ruin some nice clothes to rescue you, I wouldn't bother doing that.' You know, most people resent that, or feel that there's something wrong with that.
I'm not saying that it's impossible for somebody to be totally tough-minded and say, 'Yeah, sure, you know: that would be perfectly fine. I couldn't say that you'd be doing anything wrong or I you know, wouldn't blame you for not caring about me and not reaching out a hand to help pull me out of the pond that I'm drowning in.' Most people would not do that, though; and I think that suggests that they're being inconsistent when they consider their own case and when they consider the case of others. And essentially, they're just falling back on this evolved nature that I talked about, which I don't think justifies or even if it explains.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it'd be repugnant--certainly if you didn't want to save me. And certainly if I'd saved you the day before. We could argue that that would be even worse, if you refused to save me. There's certainly--I believe very strongly in the Categorical Imperative: that, things that, if everyone followed them, would make the world a better place for things we ought to do even when they impose a cost on us.
But I'm pushing a little bit just to see how utilitarian you are and how you might deal with trade-offs. Right, if I'm on my way to work and--so, it's a silly example, but of course, all of these are silly at some dimension--they were all abstracted from the details of real life. I'm on my way to work. If I keep going to work, I'm going to become a very successful person, I'm going to make millions of dollars, and I'm going to give a huge chunk of that away. But if I save the child, I'm not going to get into the certain school, I'm not going to learn this trade, I might not get this promotion. Are there any trade-offs here? At all?
Peter Singer: Yes, there are trade offs.
I mean, in the real world, of course, you're not going to really know that. It's extremely unlikely. You can with certainty, say the person in the pond in front of you. It may affect your career, but you don't really know it.
So, in the real world, I think you want to save the person in front of you.
But if somehow, some prophet who has proven totally reliable tells you that, if you save this person, you won't have this successful career, you won't be able to donate these millions to effective charities, that means that not just one but thousands of people will die because they didn't get the kind of assistance that you would have provided for them--then I would say, you would be right to let the person in the pond drown. It would be hard to do, it would be emotionally very difficult because this person is right in front of you. We might even say, I wouldn't really like to be your friend if you're able to just do that. But, I do think it would be the right thing to do.
Russ Roberts: Do you put any stock in Smith's insight that--what you just said reminds me--right?--you said, 'Well, I might not want to be friends with you'--that our desire to be part of what we might call civilized company, is part of what motivates us to do the right thing, even though our nature might push us in the other direction.
Peter Singer: I'm sure for some people our desire to be part of civilized company is a strong motive for doing the right thing.
The problem with that is, of course, that it's conservative. Because, if the civilized company thinks that it's fine not to give anything to effective charities or to take, you know, add to[?] society--It thinks that if come Christmas or come the end of the financial year, you send them $100 to some organization--then you fulfilled your duty, then you can still be part of this civilized company, if that's all you do. And there are other things that I think we do that are wrong, too, including, the way we treat animals and the fact that we dine on products from animals from factory farms, who have had miserable lives. That doesn't stop you being part of civilized company; but I think it's seriously wrong.
So, I don't think that's a sufficient motive. I think we have to be more critical about what civilized company accepts, what kinds of standards it tolerates. And that's why it's not the ultimate standard of judgment here.
Russ Roberts: Okay, so let's move on to the next part of what we might call the moral equation of: We would, we should help a drowning child, so therefore, we should, in your case, the example you gave, give money to charities that help children at risk around the world.
And I'm a fan--a big fan of that, actually. And I should mention that your work was the stimulus for the Effective Altruism Movement, I think in main part, in large part, and that we had William MacAskill on the program, Will MacAskill, talking about that a few years back. We'll put a link up to that episode. And I should tell listeners that your book The Life You Could Save, if you go to thelifeyoucansave.org you can download the book, simply by signing up for their mailing list, which is an organization stimulated by the book as well.
So I'm very positive in general about the idea that we shouldn't just care about looking good when we give money: We should actually do good.
And I think the Effective Altruism movement is important for that encouragement: that the impact is what matters. Not the signal, not the gesture, but the actual impact. So it's not enough to give money away. You should give money away that is effective.
So, let's turn to that question. How effective do you think we can be with our money? And in particular, you seem to believe--what you strongly in the book, you make the case--that we can end world poverty if we were just for generous. Defend that.
Peter Singer: Okay, so let me qualify that slightly. I think that we can end large-scale world poverty if we're generous. I'm not saying that we can end world poverty everywhere. From time to time there are countries where the environment is too difficult to work in, where there's a civil war going on, or where the institutional structure of the government is so poor that it's difficult for nonprofit organizations to operate. So, there are going to be exceptions, in that sense. But, we have dramatically reduced extreme poverty in the world, just over the 10 years between the first edition of The Life You Can Save and the new edition that's just released now.
In the first edition, I quoted World Bank figures that were current at the time the book went to press: that there are 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty--that is, not having enough income to reliably meet their basic needs and the needs of their dependents.
In the new edition, the figure I quote, again, the latest figure from the World Bank at the time the book went to press, is 736 million.
So, it's almost been cut in half in 10 or 11 years. So, that's pretty impressive progress. And I think we can keep making that kind of progress and bringing it down.
The Sustainable Development Goals call for an end to poverty by 2030. I think that's optimistic. But, you know, some time maybe over a somewhat longer time frame. I think the methods that we're using to help people get out of poverty, partly through some of the aid projects, but also, of course, through economic development, through better terms of trade for developing countries--if we continue along those lines, I think we will reduce extreme poverty to manageable numbers.
And in terms of being generous, in the book I have a kind of a giving table--something like a tax table where you have progressive income taxes where the percentage that you pay rises with your income. I have something like that for suggested giving, starting with just one percent for moderate income levels, rising to a third, 33%, for people who are earning millions every year. And I set these levels at levels that I don't think really could be said to impose a serious hardship on anyone. So in that sense they derive from the child in the pond example, where it's not a terrible hardship to have to buy new clothes for most of us.
And, when you total up how much this would raise if all the billion or so affluent people in the world were to give according to those levels: It's far more than the total amount of foreign aid given. It's several times the total amount of foreign aid given.
And if you think about 736 million people living on less than $2 a day, which is roughly the World Bank's line for extreme poverty, it would be possible to bring all of those people up above that level.
Now, of course, there are going to be various costs in doing that--transfer costs, maybe inflation because of more money going in and it'd take some time for more goods to be produced, a variety of other problems. But it does look like with effective organizations doing this, you would have more than enough to lift everybody out of extreme poverty. As I said, setting aside with problems that make it just too difficult to operate in some countries, at any given time.
Russ Roberts: As you point out, and are aware of, you pointed out, you alluded to it just now and you pointed out in the book: the--actually, let me say it a little more strongly than you said it.
The overwhelming impact or result of decreased poverty over the last 10 years, in the last 25 years, came from the economic growth of China and India. You can debate whether that was mostly top-down decisions that they made of steering resources in certain ways or whether it was turning to more market-based approaches to economic activity. Probably some of both.
But, there's not a lot of evidence that aid--private aid or certainly public aid. Public aid has got a terrible track record. Perhaps it's been--that case has been overstated. But much of it, of course, isn't designed to fight poverty. It's designed to help American military manufacturers make more money because it often comes with strings. It's often not directed to aid. But, large scale aid in, both from the governmental stand--for whatever reason, whether it's badly designed or not, or badly motivated or not--it hasn't really done very much that we can measure that's positive. It may have even made things worse. It may have ensconced bad leaders in positions of power because they've basically stolen the money.
So it's harder--I think it's much harder to make--if anything, you could argue that people should donate to EconTalk to spread better economic ideas. That was a joke.
But, it's not clear that aid, privately given aid--forget government for the moment--is going to dent poverty. And by poverty, I mean help people prosper and flourish, not just avoid the worst kind of suffering. The worst kind of suffering, we have a little bit of idea of how to do that.
But for me, a lot of this is what Hayek would call the knowledge problem--our inability to know from a distance. So, when you talk about people who struggle to care enough about people in the distance, part of the reason that that's a good thing is that I don't know what they need. It's not so easy for me to help them. Does that concern you at all? And I'm sorry, I said more than one thing there. Go ahead.
Peter Singer: That objection concerns me less as we develop better methods of assessing what does work.
And one to escape your attention that the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics this year went to three researchers who have done just that: Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer. And they have pioneered the development of assessing interventions to help people in poverty by the same kind of methods that pharmaceutical companies use to assess new drugs that they're putting out. That is, they run randomized trials against either a placebo or if there is a treatment that's not as good as they think they need treatment will be against the standard treatment. So, it's not just the Nobel Prize winners, but they have spawned a whole field of studies with many people now doing these kinds of assessments.
And so, although it may have been true, even as recently as 20 years ago, that it was really hard to know what was helping people get out of poverty-- which aid interventions were effective--that's less so and increasingly becoming less so all the time.
For example, in terms of getting people out of poverty, there's an organization called Give Directly. It's one of the organizations recommended on thelifeyoucansave.org that is experimenting with a very small but basic income-- that it's distributing to tens of thousands of people in East Africa. I think if I remember rightly, it was about $12 a month that they're giving people. And they go into particular villages, and they give everybody in the village this basic supplement income supplement, and they tell them that they are guaranteeing it for, I think, it's 12 years. And that's being compared with other villages that are not receiving this and seeing whether people are better off.
Also, of course, testing hypotheses like, 'Well, if you give people money, they'll just stop working and they won't be any better off.' Or, 'They'll spend it on alcohol or gambling or prostitution.' So, it's testing these theories and the preliminary results look as if it is positive--as if this is making people significantly better off and not just in the short term.
But really to see the long term effects, of course, it will take some years.
Another intervention run by an organization called Village Enterprise, also recommended on thelifeyou cansave.org, is not simply giving a cash or sometimes another asset like chickens, for instance, to villages, but is providing them with training in how to start a small business.
And after the training is over, it continues to mentor them. It also encourages people in the village to form a group of people who are running these small businesses and to provide each other with advice and assistance, and perhaps even to pool some of their savings so that they can be loaned to people to tide them over a bad period.
And this also seems to be effective. It's been tried and I think was tested in six different countries on different continents as well and it worked well in five of them.
So, I'm optimistic that with proliferation of these methods, we will start to understand much better which interventions do really help people get out of poverty and which are the ones that waste money.
And I quite agree with your remarks that, in the past, we didn't know it as well. And certainly a lot of official aid, as you correctly pointed out, was not really even motivated by trying to help the poorest people in the world. But that's improving, too. At least some countries. Norway, United Kingdom, some other European countries, are putting much more thought into their aid programs and into what will really do the most to help people in poverty.
Russ Roberts: I encourage listeners to go back and listen to the episode we did with Chris Blattman, where we discussed some of these issues about giving money directly as opposed to other attempts to change infrastructure, other ways to help growth or help people escape poverty.
Russ Roberts: But I'm less excited about the application of the techniques of the pharmaceutical industry to economics. I think it's a great example. The initial enthusiasm, for example, about deworming, helping children avoid parasites that would then ideally let them perform better as students at school and then, as adults--some of that enthusiasm which was shown in randomized control trials, people became skeptical of the results when they didn't scale up so well. And it's still an open question, I think, as to whether the enthusiasm for deworming which was one of the four charities that were recommended by GiveWell for a long time based on science and theory. I think it's a much more complicated process to understand what helps people. I don't think it's anything like actually the pharmaceutical industry and the human body, although it has some of its complexity.
So I'm less sanguine than you are; and I think in the movement of effective altruism is that we can understand what will scale and what will work well.
And in particular, I think it's really hard to know how to move forward in situations where there are many, many constraints that make it hard for people to prosper.
I want to quote an obvious--I wish I remember who told me this, but someone, one of my listeners put a variation on our very old saying, 'Give a person a fish they eat for a day, teach them to fish they eat for a lifetime.' That's the standard idea that it's better rather than just giving people sustenance, it's better to help them become self-sustaining on their own.
But the deeper insight I think, came from this listener who said, 'Give them access to a fish market and they can prosper in all kinds of ways.' And I think that challenge of how to give people access to that market, the ability to cooperate with others through exchange, that we would call an economy, is the hard problem. We haven't mastered that at all.
I think we can relieve suffering. But relieving suffering isn't the only thing I care about. I also care about what I would call flourishing--that people should have the chance to use their skills in ways that are exhilarating and meaningful and they provide dignity.
And some of the challenges I think we face as rich Westerners is that we don't know very much about those things. We don't even know how to sustain the markets that sustain our standard of living to imply that we can solve that problem in different cultures and settings seems to be a bit of hubris.
Peter Singer: Yeah, just on the fish saying, and there's another variation on that as well--you gave the economic one about the fish market. The more political one is: Enable them to keep the foreign trawlers from fishing out of the areas off the coast where they're living, and then they might still be able to fish.
Russ Roberts: That's awesome. Or dumping their cheap cotton from their subsidized American cotton market and preventing them from making a living as cotton farmers. Yeah.
Peter Singer: Exactly, as the United States does subsidize cotton. Yeah.
So, there are these complicated problems. I totally agree. It's not simple. In that sense, you're right. It's more complicated than the pharmaceutical testing allows. People have pointed out even that may be more complicated because if you test pharmaceuticals on white males, for example, as, say, used to be done, you might get different results: some females or people of a different genetic background.
So, I still think you know that these are things that we can learn more about. The deworming example, by the way, is still an ongoing controversy. There is certainly some doubt being cast about the initial claims, but that debate is by no means over. And I guess that one day, at one time, there will be sufficient studies done to provide some consensus on whether deworming does produce the great results, very low cost that the early studies showed or that it doesn't.
But I think that we need to keep going down this path of finding out what saves lives, what enables people to learn better, what enables them to essentially enjoy their lives and have rich fulfilling lives.
And that goes to your other point about, you said, you're interested not just in relieving suffering, but in people having flourishing lives. And I quite agree with that. But I do think that where people are suffering or for example, where their children are stunted by malnutrition, then it's very hard for them to actually have flourishing lives.
So we need to get over that sort of baseline, and then maybe we can start thinking more about what makes people happy.
And again, there is research going on, on that. Richard Layard, Lord Layard, an economist, has been writing about that and has an organization. I think it's called Action for Happiness, if I remember rightly, that's trying to develop a better knowledge base about what makes people happy and flourishing. So, I think that we can work in that direction, too. And we'll learn more in coming decades about that as well.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I disagree with that. But that's--I'd rather go down that direct--I'll just mention that I just don't think these things are all amenable to scientific technique. Or to analytical technique, or to measurement. In fact, I think they give an illusion that we understand them when in fact, we don't.
Peter Singer: That seems a little strange to me that you're really saying there's areas of knowledge that we're never going to get to? That scientific approach will never succeed in increasing our knowledge of what it is that enables people to flourish?
Russ Roberts: I'm saying something even worse than that, actually.
Peter Singer: What is it?
Russ Roberts: I'm saying that the attempt to squeeze those ambiguous, human, unquantifiable areas into the little box of analysis--the economists' toolbox, for example, and I am an economist--but I think cramming those into the economists' toolbox actually leads to a misunderstanding, often. of what leads to flourishing.
I've talked recently on the program about parenting and whether one should have children or not. And I wrote on Twitter that surveying parents of whether they're happy or not, is not a very good way of figuring out whether one should have children if you don't have them already. And that you might be better off reading, say, Jane Austen or Dickens or a recent essay, for example, by Paul Graham about what he has experienced when he went from not having children to having children.
But the idea that we could survey people and find that 83.7% of people who have children are glad they had them is an illusion about whether there's some scientific knowledge we have about what creates well being in science and happiness.
So yeah, I strongly feel that there are areas of the human experience that are not amenable to quantification; and you're better off reading poetry.
Peter Singer: Okay. Well, I don't know quite what you get that actually. If you read Jane Austen, I guess it depends whether Elizabeth Bennet is your daughter or one of the--who is the one who ran off with--who is the one who ran off with [inaudible 00:41:44]? I don't know.
Russ Roberts: I don't remember, but yeah.
Well, I just think that the economists' examples of trying to--Richard Layard is a good example, and others in the happiness area.
Sure, economists have found some data, they'll do some statistical analysis; and on a scale of one to five will go from a 3.4 as a nation to a 3.6. I think that's absurd. I think that's the worst kind of science. I think its bad science. I'm all for data, numbers, when they're relevant. But trying to measure, say, flourishing, is--it's just an enormously multidimensional thing to squeeze it into an index--it's what we do. That's our job, as economists; it's a natural, it comes easily to us, and we're really good at it. But I don't think it's informative. In fact, I think it's uninformative.
Peter Singer: Okay, I think we're going to disagree there.
Russ Roberts: Right. That's fine.
Peter Singer: I agree that it's not complete. It doesn't provide us with everything we know. But I think it adds something to our knowledge. I think it's better than not having that information.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's it. That's what's interesting; that's why I said it's worse. I think actually having the information gives us a feeling of certainty that's not justified--that we've somehow captured something by putting it into, say, numerical form.
Russ Roberts: But I want to reference the recent episode with Dan Klein where he talked about the use of honest income and the phrase of Adam Smith's, which I love, 'the becoming use of one's own.' And what your book is about, really, is the becoming use of one's own: that many of us are blessed to have, are lucky--many mostly lucky to have enormous sums of money relative to the human past and also to many people in the human current present. And it would be, if I may use an old word, it behooves us to use that wisely.
I want to try to get it, another piece of Smith that I think you disagree with, which is this idea that we care more about the people close to us. Is there anything good about that? Smith is right:I think we do obviously have a sort of concentric circles of social interaction.
Peter Singer: Oh, obviously. I certainly agree it's a fact that that's the way we are.
Russ Roberts: That's the way we are. But are there good things about that?
Peter Singer: Yes, there are good things about that. Because, I think there's good psychological evidence, if you admit this kind of evidence, that children are likely to grow up happier and more psychologically sound if they grow up in a loving family. The attempts to provide institutions, sort of utopian attempts to provide group care for children, don't seem to work that well. So, part of growing up in a loving family is that you have parents who you feel care for you and therefore should truly care for you. And we don't have an alternative to that at the moment.
So, I think we should accept that to a degree. I think we take that too far in that parents feel not only that they need to love their children and care for them and meet their basic needs and provide them with educational opportunities, but also that come Christmas time, they need to lavish expensive gifts on them, make sure that they have all the latest electronic toys, whatever it might be.
And instead, I think that it would be better if they brought them up to realize that we live in a world in which many children don't get enough to eat or aren't protected from diseases that our children are protected from. And something needs to be done about it. And that that's the reason why you're not going to buy your children every expensive toy that they want. But, teach your children to feel that it's good that we're doing something for people in the world who are less fortunate than we are.
Russ Roberts: What are your feelings on immigration? Because, I feel that much of the barriers to immigration, particularly to the United States are--of course, you're an immigrant. I don't know how much of a legal--I have no idea what your citizenship status is. I know you were born in Australia, and you've been in the United States. I'm glad you're here, if you wish to be. So, I'm a big fan of much more immigration than we currently have. What are your thoughts on that, given that it seems to be a very powerful way to help people get out of poverty?
Peter Singer: Immigration is a powerful way to get people out of poverty. But, here, I'm going to go back to the human nature points that you've been insisting on in other areas.
Regrettably, I think there is a xenophobic element to our nature, as well. And again, this comes from the fact that we have, for all of these eons existing, lived in small societies where we could immediately know who was a member our society. It was a face to face group; we recognized everyone who was a member of our society. And, just across the mountain range or over the river there were other people who were not part of our group and we wanted to keep them out of our territory, because our survival depended on maintaining our territory for hunting and gathering that they would have been a threat to. And that streak I think, still exists. We haven't got over it. Again, I say regrettably: I don't draw moral conclusions from this.
It would be better if we were different. But given that we not different, I think any democracy that attempts to open its borders to immigrants on a large scale is going to get a backlash from the electorate.
So, although politically, I'm very much on the side of those parties that are critical of having highly restrictive borders, I'm also aware of the fact that a lot of the elections that I think have gone disastrously in recent years--Trump's 2016 election in the United States, the Brexit vote, which looks like it's now about to be implemented and Britain will leave the European Union, the election of right wing governments in Hungary, Poland, a number of other countries, and the development of right-wing movements in other European countries--I think all of these are very bad things. And they're not very bad things only because they bad for would-be immigrants: they're terrible for the climate, which I think is a huge, huge issue that none of these governments are willing to grapple with. And they're very bad on a whole range of other issues including economic policies, trade policies, and social policies.
So, reluctantly, therefore, I don't join those who are calling for open borders, because I just think that's a recipe for continuation of these far-right governments whose policies I think are disastrous.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm having my own mixed feelings about--not on the same grounds. I think your observations are relevant.
Russ Roberts: But I recently saw the musical Come from Away. Have you seen that musical by chance?
Peter Singer: No, I haven't seen it.
Russ Roberts: So it's an incredible story. It's the story on 9/11/2001 when the terrorist attacks hit New York and Washington, numerous airplanes had to be diverted because U.S. airspace was closed. And 38 planes landed in Gander, Newfoundland, a town of 9000 people; and suddenly they had 7000 unexpected guests. And the musical--it's quite beautiful really and funny and inspiring--the musical is about how these people banded together to help these strangers.
And I was struck by a number of things. But one of things I was struck by is that the tribalism that we often decry, which you and I both concede are part of our nature--that xenophobia and that identity that we feel from belonging to our own tribe, our own group--also played a role in saving those people and helping those 7000 strangers.
And, a lot of that musical is about what it means to "be a Newfoundlander"--meaning, a peculiar mix of clothing and accent, but also helping others even though they have this strong tribal identity. And I think often--we've come as moderns and so-called enlightened moderns to underestimate the good part of tribalism and the good part of national identity, to create, sometimes, the sacrifices that make the world a better place.
Peter Singer: Yes, possibly. It's difficult to derive a balance sheet of tribalism, I think, because depending on what you include as tribalism, you can also include all the racist ideologies and what they led to in the 1930s and during the War. So, it's not easy. I'd rather we were less tribalistic. But, I agree. I think people get a sense of identity from their roots and their background and that's a positive thing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it would be inconsistent with my previous statements to argue that we should make a balance sheet of tribalism. It's a mixed bag, for sure. I'm only pointing out that there's a positive side that I think we've underestimated as, sometimes in the educated classes, in our desire to look down on them and focusing only on the negative.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the recommendations you make at the end of the book, which I found quite interesting. Again, as a religious Jew, I tithe. I tithe out of my after-tax income. Interesting question, because a lot of my taxes go to fight poverty--not enough in my view, or at least not enough that are effectively spent relative to the rest of it. I wish government were smaller and did more effective things with the money it did spend. But I don't count the money that goes toward food stamps or disability insurance or other things, or research at the NIH [National Institutes of Health]--I don't count those as part of my charity. I count that as something separate--whether I should or not--I'd love for your reaction to. But I don't. And then I try to give 10% of what's left.
You argue for at least to start with a 5% goal. And you are honest about the fact that that's not the ideal.
So, comment on both those things, if you would: whether I should include my tax spending as part of my contribution to the world, and also what the level should be and why you settled on the 5% number.
Peter Singer: Well, you can include your tax spending and at the same time, regard as a 10th the gross amount that you're giving, on which you're then going to get a tax deduction, because the net cost to of the gift is obviously the amount you give minus the tax saving that you get on it, assuming that you're giving to a tax deductible charity, as I understood.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--I meant--I should have pointed out that, well, sometimes I do sometimes I don't. But yeah, that's a good point. And you should take that into account for sure.
Peter Singer: Tight. Then, you know, if you could really want to calculate how much of your taxes go on these good things that are reasonably, well, both directed towards making the world a better place and reasonably effectively directed, I guess you could.
I must say I don't try to do that. I simply go by the gross amount rather than the after-tax income when I'm looking at the percentages that I give. So, that was my answer to your first question. And now, sorry, but I--
Russ Roberts: The second one is: You pick 5%. You concede that that it's not necessarily the ideal. And you have this, to my surprise, a pragmatic justification for that in a book that's mostly about ideals.
Peter Singer: Yes. But on the other hand, you shouldn't be surprised that I'm pragmatic because I am a utilitarian. That is, I want my actions to have the best consequences.
And for that purpose, making a recommendation in a book or for that matter in a podcast, is an act. It's an act that has consequences. And, so I want to think about what would be the consequences of recommending that people give, let's say, 50% once they're over, let's say, if they're earning over $100,000 a year, that they get 50% of their income rather than that they give 5%.
And after thinking about this and talking to many people for many years, I've come to the conclusion that if you make the level too high, you turn most people off.
So you might end up, let's say, in terms of the book, I might end up with a thousand people deciding give 50%, if I'm lucky, from the readers. Whereas if I recommend 5%, and I'm lucky, maybe I'll get 100,000 people giving 5%. And obviously, that will yield a greater total than the smaller number giving 50%. So that's the thinking that leads me to be pragmatic about this rather than to stick to what one might, as an individual, think is the right level or the best level to give.
Russ Roberts: I think there's an interesting question. I don't see it talked about much, but maybe I don't read enough about it. I started off life as a--not started off life. When I was younger I liked Ayn Rand a lot. As I've gotten older, I don't like her at all, which annoys some of my listeners and stratifies others. One of her claims, though, that is interesting is that, if you give a lot to charity, let's go to an extreme. We're talking about 5%. I think that's a modest goal that I recommend. You can donate to EconTalk, or you can donate to the Hoover Institution, or to the economics department of your choice. I used to work at George Mason, I'd love that department. And I think it's okay to give to local things that you know a lot about if you think they would make the world a better place.
But I think it's an interesting question that, when you think about giving a lot more; and I think this an aspect of taxation that's also relevant. You're essentially working for others, in some sense. If I were giving let's say 50%--which you could certainly argue that if I gave 50% of my income, I'd still have a very nice standard of living and I can even still have a fancy coffee now and then--which you sometimes in the book decry, or a bottle of water if I wanted. But if I did that, if I really gave away 50%, and then I of course give away against my will--or at least, not against my will, well, it's[?] against my will--my taxation is another X percent; I'm out there working all day. And we could debate whether, one, people do respond to the effects of taxation or a charitable rule.
But after a while, maybe you could argue you should respond to it. I mean, it'd be weird thing to be working most of your life to devoting your labor to others that you don't know. And that would be a strange and interesting world. It's very different from the one we live in, but it would be very strange; and it would change things if the most productive people gave away, say, most of their income, or a healthy chunk of it. Do you agree?
Peter Singer: I don't think we're that far from knowing what this world would be like. It's true that it's certainly not the case that most people do this, but there are people doing it. There are famous people doing it, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett; and less well-known but through the effective altruism movement, there are people including my ex-Princeton students, who have deliberately gone into the finance sector, Wall Street, in order to earn more money in order to be able to give more money, rather than follow their interest in other areas like going to graduate school and studying more philosophy, which would have been interesting to them but maybe would not have had as big a positive effect on the world as they think they can have.
I'm still in touch with one of these graduates. I wrote about him in a book called The Most Good You Can Do. His name is Matt Wage[sp?], who is with a commodity trading firm, has been for seven or eight years now. Each year he gives away at least half of his income and finds that a satisfying and rewarding thing to do.
And I don't think that's so strange that people should do that. I mean, Matt uses this example. He says, 'Imagine that one day you were passing a house that was on fire. And there was somebody crying at a window for help. And you broke into the house at some risk to yourself and you pulled out, let's say, a mother and child or something like that; and you rescued them from the fire. Wouldn't you think that you done a fantastic thing? Wouldn't that make you feel proud of yourself, that you'd saved a couple of people from a fire who would have died without you? Well,' Matt says, 'I'm doing that each year. I'm saving more than a couple of people, given the amount that I'm earning and the amount that I'm donating. It's perfectly true that I don't see them. They're not in front of me.' In a way, that's the difference, again, with a child in the pond.
But , I can feel really satisfied. And it's not that he hates his work: He finds his work sort of intellectually interesting to try to work out where the commodity prices are going to rise or fall and write algorithms that might do that. And he likes some of the people he works with. But, he certainly doesn't need to work that hard in order to maintain his standard of living, but what he does do and what he gets satisfaction from doing is knowing that he's helping people.
Russ Roberts: In the episode with Dan Klein, we talked about how Gauss , the mathematician, at the end of his life was interested in surveying, which just seems like a waste of one of the greatest minds in human history. Do you think a person should be--I don't agree, but you could feel that way--do you think a person should maximize their income and give away a large chunk of it as a goal of life?
Peter Singer: Well, not everyone should do this. I think, you know, it does depend on what your talents are, what your temperament and character are.
But I think more people should think about this as an ethical career. It's interesting that when people think about what would be an ethical career for me, they immediately think about going to work for some good nonprofit or perhaps I think I should go to medical school and then go to a low income country and provide better medical care for people there.
And very few people think of going to Wall Street or into the finance sector, wherever you might be, as an ethical thing to do. And that's because people have all sorts of associations with that, which may sometimes be valid, but very often are not.
And what they don't think about is that it gives you the opportunity to actually fund positions at nonprofits, so that rather than just taking the job yourself and doing a slightly better job with it, let's say, than the second-best applicant for that job would have done, you can give enough money to the nonprofit organization to employ an entirely new person who they wouldn't have been able to employ before. Or, if you're reasonably successful in your career as Matt has been, you could probably give enough money for them to fund five new positions.
So, I think it's worth thinking about that as an option, while also thinking about: should you go into an area of research where you could greatly benefit people? Should you go into medicine and develop new treatments for diseases that affect people in neglected areas of disease, tropical areas, for example? Or should you try to go into politics and improve the system so that we have better policies to run countries? And for that matter, should you go into the public service and try and develop better foreign aid policies so that the aid that we were talking about is used more effectively than it has been?
There are a lot of different opportunities. And I don't want to suggest everybody should go into the idea of earning more to give more. But it is one possibility that may suit some people.
Russ Roberts: I have to say that one of my sons was very interested in finance when he was in high school. And, I discouraged him. I think he would have made a lot more money if he'd stayed in that path. I know he would have. But, I think there's some danger there. I salute Matt, for staying close to his ideals and his principles. But I think the currencies in those worlds are different; and what people honor and people reward socially are different than in other areas. I have no problem with finance as a general career, but I just think you have to be careful about how you spend your time and who you hang out with. And I think it would be challenging for some people to maintain principles in a world of certain types of rewards and punishments.
So, it's an interesting question, a really interesting question, about how you should balance those or trade off against them. And for my people listening in finance, again: I don't think it's inherently wrong. I don't think there's anything wrong with finance. But I think you have to be careful where you work there and what you do when you're in that field, because there are some things that are not so good for your soul, for your principles.
Peter Singer: Not so ethical. Yeah, I totally agree. And that's why I said that you need to have a certain kind of character, and you need to have the character that can resist the temptations that you get in that area. And Matt, in fact, was very public about his decision to go into finance and why he was doing it and he put on his social media, 'I'm doing this not to live a luxurious high spending lifestyle but to earn a lot and give away a lot. And if you see me starting to slip in that direction I want you to call me out and tell me I'm a hypocrite.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's awesome.
Peter Singer: Holding yourself up to public scrutiny is a good idea in these circumstances.
Russ Roberts: A way to help bind yourself to the mast.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Peter Singer. His book is The Life You Can Save. Peter, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Peter Singer: Terrific, Russ. It's been really stimulating to me, too, to talk to you; and thanks for the opportunity to talk to your listeners as well.