EconTalk |
Peter Singer on The Life You Can Save
Feb 17 2020

The-Life-You-Can-Save-188x300.jpg Philosopher and author Peter Singer of Princeton University talks about his book, The Life You Can Save with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Singer argues that those of us in the developed world with a high standard of living can and should give/forgo some luxuries and donate instead to reduce poverty and suffering in poor countries. This is a wide-ranging conversation on the potential we have to make the world a better place and the practical challenges of having an impact.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Feb 17 2020 at 11:26am

You may be interested to read this piece by two researchers involved in the effective altruism community:

Growth and the case against randomista development by Hauke Hillebrandt and John Halstead

They present the case that focussing on good economic policy is more impactful than scaling up the delivery of evidenced backed health and social services. While this isn’t obviously true, it’s also quite plausible.

So I don’t think the idea that supporting EconTalk could be a good target for donations is as much as joke as you thought!

Feb 17 2020 at 12:02pm

Russ Roberts: Why should I [rescue that child]? I agree with you that you should, but I’m curious why you think one should save that child.

Peter Singer: …The answer that I give is because the death of a child is a bad thing. …

It is effectively tautological to say that one should not do “a bad thing”, which makes Singer’s answer empty and leads to circularity.  We shouldn’t do a bad thing.  That would be wrong.  What makes it wrong?  It “is a bad thing.”

Peter Singer: … 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.

On the contrary, that doesn’t automatically follow at all.  Suppose the abandoned child in Pinker’s pond is a girl.  In ancient Rome before Christianity, it was considered completely ordinary and acceptable for parents to choose to intentionally abandon a female infant in the wild to be eaten by animals.  That seems terrible to us now, but only because of the spread of the influence of Christianity, which includes the Jewish Scriptures and the same recognition Russ shared.

Russ Roberts: … I believe in God; I think people are made in the image of the Divine.

Even atheist philosophers recognize the dramatic change that resulted from Christianity spreading this very different understanding that every human bears the image of God, not just my tribe, not just males, not just the citizens, not just those who are healthy.

Later in the episode Singer lauds reason and utilitarianism.  Yet no list of “is” statements of bare scientific facts plus reason can logically produce a single “ought” statement.  Utilitarianism must smuggle in any “oughts” it needs on grounds that cannot be provided by utilitarianism itself, such as how “utility” “ought” to be measured.

For example, long before Darwin and his ideas about “the Preservation of Favoured Races” etc., the Romans thought it not only good but an actual duty to end the life of children who had physical defects.  Suppose Pinker’s “pond” is filled with amniotic fluid.  Is it utilitarian to exterminate all children with Down syndrome, even if that means “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”?

Of course, that all depends on the utilitarian’s decision on how or even whether he “ought” to count the future life of those who are to be exterminated in order to make life better for those who remain.  Utilitarianism itself cannot give the answer because the reasoning must beg the question of the moral judgement that must be made to even decide which definition of utilitarianism to use.

This is why former EconTalk guest John Gray correctly noted that atheists have been historically all over the map in terms of what moral judgments their reason has defended.  His episode is revealing.

Michael M
Feb 17 2020 at 4:09pm

Eric – you have proven yourself to have a better understanding of the shortcomings of certain philosophies than a Bioethics professor at one of the U.S.’s top universities. Ask any soldier or aid worker who has spent time among tribesmen in Afghanistan or one of the many other third world countries out there and they could attest that far fewer than “almost everyone” would agree that the death of a child is a bad thing.  Has reason “evolved” only for a certain segment of the population?


Feb 18 2020 at 2:30pm

I hear this explanation a lot, and I kind of want it to make sense as I’m Christian, but I also lived in Japan for a while, a country where Christianity made little impact, and it’s pretty civilized! Murder is wrong in Japan, especially when they’re your children. The murder rate is lower than the US even. I know there’s many reasons behind this, I know but its a fact that matters. A non-christian country- less than 5% of the population I believe?- is one of the most non-violent in the world.

Basically, what about China, Japan and the rest of Asia? How did they develop their morals?

Feb 18 2020 at 9:45pm

I think you would greatly appreciate the very short book The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis since it speaks directly to your comments, including moral awareness in other cultures.

I was addressing Pinker’s unwarranted confidence in “reason” and “utilitarianism”.  Lewis is excellent on the insufficiency of reason in the absence of true moral axioms.  The episode with atheist John Gray also reveals the moral pliability of reason for atheists across time.  See also the comment discussion.

Brent Orrell
Feb 21 2020 at 10:18am

As others have noted here, the most troubling aspect of Singer’s ethics is its selective borrowing from Judeo-Christian ideas relating to the dignity of the human person made in the image of God. He refuses to acknowledge that there’s no foundation for his oughts and shoulds and goods and bads which means that he’s left with a purely personal ethical framework. This would be concerning enough except that he applies these borrowed concepts in a completely idiosyncratic way: we should save certain vulnerable human beings because it would be “bad” not to do so – in this case children – and then actively dispose of others – the elderly and handicapped – on purely  utilitarian grounds. This resolute unwillingness to acknowledge the lack of foundation for his ethical claims combined with a certainty about who does and doesn’t qualify for the protection afforded by solidarity is maddening, and I think he knows it is. He’s Richard Dawkins without the social media presence.

Ajit Kirpekar
Feb 17 2020 at 4:37pm

Eric’s response was spot on. I expected the guest to have a better answer than “because it’s a bad thing.” That may seem like a sufficient answer on the surface but it’s still based upon his own(and mostly shared) perspective at this moment in time. In a different era of human history, it might have been a murkier decision.


His anecdote is also incomplete. Suppose we change the cost benefit equation in both directions. Instead of dying, the child loses a hand but you lose your vision and your clothes, is it still a worthy tradeoff? I suspect the amount of hands in the air becomes more divided. That I think is where we arrive at the uncomfortable conclusion…that depictions of right and wrong are entirely dependent on the person being asked and thus we must be careful foisting our own subjective perspectives onto others in the name of “doing the obvious right thing”.

Marilyne Tolle
Feb 17 2020 at 7:29pm

Around the 7′ mark, Peter Singer says:

“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.(…) And if we hadn’t, then our genes would have got eliminated from the gene pool.(…) 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. (…) That capacity also emerged because it helped us to survive in various ways.”

“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 [my emphasis]. 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.”

I was expecting a push-back from Russ on the preeminence of reason, to make space for the role of Hayek’s “evolved morality”.

In The Fatal Conceit, Hayek uses as his starting point David Hume’s insight that “the rules of morality… are not conclusions of our reason.”

Hayek argues that moral rules “are not a creation of man’s reason but a distinct second endowment conferred on him by cultural evolution.”

As such, “custom and tradition” (whether to let a baby girl die to use Eric’s ancient Rome example, or be a generous host to a complete stranger, however ragged he looks, as depicted in Homer’s Odyssey) “stand between instinct and reason.”

Here is the full quote:

“Just as instinct is older than custom and tradition, so then are the latter older than reason: custom and tradition stand between instinct and reason – logically, psychologically, temporally. They are due neither to what is sometimes called the unconscious, nor to intuition, nor to rational understanding. Though in a sense based on human experience in that they were shaped in the course of cultural evolution, they were not formed by drawing reasoned conclusions from certain facts or from an awareness that things behaved in a particular way. Though governed in our conduct by what we have learnt, we often do not know why we do what we do.”

The last point is key – the moral glue that makes it all stick together cannot be justified through reasoning. Cultural patterns (rules and norms) emerge that are “selected” through the success of those who adopt them.

Hayek did not fall for the “naturalistic fallacy” – the claim that the traditions that evolved “naturally” were necessarily “good”. His point was that those traditions allowed the individuals that adopted them to survive, reproduce and spread, as such “selecting” those traditions against competing ones, and allowing them to spread further to other groups (cultural evolution).

He argued that the use of reason itself was a product of evolution: “Like other traditions, the tradition of reason is learnt, not innate. It too lies between instinct and reason (…).”

One last summary quote from the author of The Pretence of Knowledge (from The Fatal Conceit):

“There is the question of how our knowledge really does arise. Most knowledge – and I confess it took me some time to recognise this – is obtained not from immediate experience or observation, but in the continuous process of sifting a learnt tradition, which requires individual recognition and following of moral traditions that are not justifiable in terms of the canons of traditional theories of rationality.”

Mark Z
Feb 17 2020 at 8:11pm

One thing I wish someone would ask Singer is: Why focus on rich people who selfishly keep their earnings, but not on people who choose to be less productive (and less wealthy) than they could be. If someone becomes a surgeon, produces $2 million a year worth of utility, and earns $1 million, but donates nothing to charity, why is this more morally unacceptable than if, instead of becoming a surgeon, this person becomes a guitarist for a modestly successful alt-rock band, makes $50,000, and donates a significant fraction to charity? From a utilitarian standpoint, the latter decision is far worse – and far more selfish – than the former, as it renders far more people worse off. But the latter person gets little to no criticism. He selfishly chooses to follow his passion at the expense of humanity.

An implication of this inconsistency, imo, is that promoting utilitarianism – in its ‘act consequentialist’ form at least – may be harmful, inasmuch as it convinces people that enjoying the material fruits of their labor is immoral, by inducing them to instead pick professions based on how much they enjoy them rather than how much they pay (which I’m treating approximately as reflective of how productive they are), or to work less overall and enjoy more free time. But these kinds of selfishness may be more harmful – because they lead to underutilized human capital – than people selfishly enjoying the wealth they earn.

Basically, I wonder if, by imposing even a moral imperative to be more generous with what we earn, the reduction in social surplus from people choosing to earn less might outweigh the fruits of said generosity.

Mark Brady
Feb 18 2020 at 4:16pm

Kinda reminds me of the SUV saga when so much shade was being thrown at their low gas mileage. I had an SUV and I lived 5 miles from my job. Other folks had small, efficient cars and lived 100 miles from work. Why was the choice of automobile the only one castigated and the choice of commute completely unexamined? Sure, probably because I can just look at the car/truck but can’t really deduce the commute. Which is even a greater indictment and in your argument’s same vein that you’re only judging folks on the choice to give or not give to charity and not on their choice to “follow their passion” to become a musician and squander their ability to become a stock broker or CEO or neurosurgeon.

David Schatsky
Feb 20 2020 at 1:33pm

Easier to change what you drive than where you live.

Steve Hardy
Feb 17 2020 at 8:27pm

I am surprised that Russ didn’t mention the opportunity cost when wealthy people donate to charities. A relatively small amount of a wealthy persons money is spent on consumption whereas most is invested. Invested primarily in companies that are providing valuable products or services. In many cases startups that need the capital. Who is to say that donating to charities is more beneficial to society than providing capital to entrepreneurs.

Shayne Cook
Feb 18 2020 at 6:54am

Well said, Steve Hardy!

Indeed, “Who <i>IS</i> to say that donating to charities is more beneficial to society than providing capital to entrepreneurs?”

And where’s the proof – or, for that matter, even a valid comparison and/or discussion?

I’m always amused when someone refers to non-profit organizations as if the very term “non-profit” inherently, solely and exclusively defines “benevolence”. “Non-profit” is just an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Tax designation – more specifically, a Tax-<i>Exempt</i> designation.

Which brings to mind another valid question: “Does NOT paying taxes make one inherently ‘Benevolent'”?

I’m reminded of last week’s podcast with Marty Makary, where he explained about the “Non-Profit” hospitals suing their patients. That does not impress me as being particularly benevolent. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Feb 18 2020 at 10:32am

Actually, I think this brings up a much broader issue.  Getting into the end of the talk and the discussion of making a lot of money to give much of it away to charity, I am forced to ask generally what is charity?

Is it charity to give money to an organization which teaches impoverished communities a skill (let’s say sewing clothes)?  The answer would clearly seem to be yes, but if it is, is it not also charity to buy clothes made by those that have been so taught leaving others to make the first donation?  This would also seem to be a clear yes as this provides them income above the base necessity of making ones own clothing (allowing them to purchase food from the proverbial “fish market” for example).  But if that is the case, how does this differ from buying an expensive Italian suit from a brand name designer?  I have allowed the same “others” to train the workers in making clothing and I am supplying those same trained individuals with income above the base necessity of their making their own clothing.  In effect, I have caused exactly the same outcome, but people look at this and say it is commerce, not charity like the other two.  Is that distinction valid at all?  Is not all action of spending (including paying taxes) an action of charity?

This example is very readily extended into any act of commerce or any proposed method of income redistribution.  A rich individual hiring (for a living wage) a full time nanny, housekeeper, pool boy, or any other position effectively is the same as them providing a jobless person the same living wage through an organization that provides them the same items they would buy if they were employed (except the latter is actually less efficient and the former provides them with the intangible benefits of being employed)?  Making it a capital example, is this also not the same as providing a startup founder the same “living wage” as an investment in their company?

In the end, is effective charity simply the effective operation of a free market?  Does every act of spending, no matter on what, for what purpose, or for what value not improve the lives of those who receive the money spent? To put it another way, is charity actually nothing other than a natural byproduct of the multiplier effect?

Shayne Cook
Feb 19 2020 at 4:59am


Excellent observations AND questions!

Toward the end of the discussion, Peter Singer relates the story of his former student, Matt Wage[sp] – who took a high-paying commodities broker job, so he could donate half his income to charity. Marvelous story that, and ostensibly the epitome of benevolence. Or is it?

Russ may remember this (he and I are very close to the same age). There was a TV series back in the 1960’s called “The Millionaire”.*

Each weekly episode entailed the main character, a “Gentleman’s Gentleman” type of individual (on behalf of a very wealthy benefactor), hunting down and finding a named, known-deserving individual or family, and presenting them with a check for One Million Dollars. This was not a “reality” show, by today’s standards – it was very much a Hollywood contrivance, where the “story” that was told in each weekly episode was first, Why the recipient was deemed “deserving”, and second, How the Million Dollars impacted the recipient – both positively AND negatively. I seem to even remember an episode (or two) where the designated “deserving” individual refused to even accept the Million Dollars.

But the common thread throughout the series was that every recipient asked first from whence and whom the money had come, and throughout the series, the actual “wealthy benefactor” remained Anonymous.

So, in concert with the questions you asked Kirk, I have to ask the following questions ….

How is Matt’s broadcasting his “charitable giving” propensities far and wide, via social media and his professor’s book any LESS Self-Aggrandizing than if he’d used his money to purchase, say, the biggest yacht in the marina, or the most exotic car in the parking lot, or the biggest mansion in his neighborhood, or as Steve Hardy asked, a few hundred shares of a new IPO in order to capitalize an entrepreneur?

Far be it from me to criticize how anyone spends the money they rightly earn.** But the sort of Self-Aggrandizement of Matt (and to some degree, Mr. Singer) as to how they spend their hard-earned Federal Reserve Coupons strikes me as being somewhat less than truly benevolent or charitable. It may not completely rise to the level of “hypocrisy”, that Matt challenges us to accuse him of. But it’s really, really close.

* Note to Hollywood (or Netflix or whatever): You may want to research and resurrect the “The Millionaire” series. It was very good. And I’ve grown weary of the seemingly perpetual “zombie apocalypse and zombie hacking”  stories.

** For my part, I confess I’m a devout, unrepentant and irredeemable Capitalist. I don’t have a charitable bone in my body. (And even if I did, no one, including the IRS, would even find out about it.)

Fasih Z
Feb 19 2020 at 6:07pm

Once you get something in return, the act ceases to be “charity” and becomes spending. Something tangible, that is. For it can be argued that you get pleasure–something intangible–in return for donating money.

Scott Campbell
Feb 17 2020 at 9:47pm

Russ, I think your opinion about the valueless effort to calculate the science of the economic aspects of saving a life other social issues is too myopic.  It may not appeal to you or other experts but it may provide some insight to the casual observer causing a heightened attention and enable more critical evaluations by people like me who listen’s but doesn’t know how to qualify or quantify the information. Perhaps the danger of misinforming us is greater than the importance of informing us but how do we know and is the lack of questionable information better?

John P.
Feb 18 2020 at 9:46am

This interview was intellectual high drama — amazingly adventurous and candid.  (The exchange around 39:39 needs to be heard to be appreciated.)

I expected more “philosophy” from Prof. Singer, and I’m therefore glad that Russ probed that area early on.  As the interview proceeded, it became clear that Prof. Singer’s book is not really an exercise in philosophy, but instead an exercise in rhetoric (in its technical sense), in an effort to persuade more people to donate more money for the purposes he advocates.  Some philosophy and logic enter in as aids to the persuasive goal, as do storytelling and appeal to emotion and to moral intuitions (and probably other techniques that I’m missing but a rhetorician could identify).

Hence, my sense is that the “what if everybody did this” question (an excellent question) doesn’t matter to Prof. Singer because he knows everybody won’t do it — rather, the “we’d solve poverty if everybody did this” claim (like his ultimately arbitrary table of income percentages that should be donated) is intended to advance his more realistic goal of reaching the individual audience member and moving him or her to donate (or donate more).

I don’t mean this to be disparaging.  Prof. Singer takes a time-honored route to bringing about what he justifiably believes to be positive changes in the conduct of his listeners.

Michael Joukowsky
Feb 18 2020 at 11:28am

Mr. Singer has no skin in the game.  If he wants to affect change, then be a person of action.  The greatest virtue is the fight against collectivism and advice of Mr. Singer.  Virtue is individualism, innovation, human exceptionalism.  If I choose to give, that is up to me.  And when I do give it is not a gift.  It is an investment and innovation.  My investment, my innovation.  The person on the other side wants a better product to be all that they can be.  The elitism lecture of Mr. Singer does not work for me as he talks about how absurd it is that we would not want to save a child, but he believes in abortion.  Again, no skin in the game of his ideas.

David A Schatsky
Feb 19 2020 at 4:52pm

People effect change in a variety of ways, including inspiring others to act.

Marilyne Tolle
Feb 18 2020 at 12:51pm

On the failure of scaling small-scale interventions, the latest Freakonomics podcast on “implementation science” is worth a listen:

John List and Dana Suskind’s paper “The Science of Using Science: Towards an Understanding of the Threats to Scaling Experiments” (2019, co-authored with Omar Al-Ubaydli) sounds like a great topic for an EconTalk podcast.

Scott G
Feb 18 2020 at 2:01pm

I found this episode quite interesting.  I had forgotten who Peter Singer is, confusing him with the musician Pete Seeger for a moment, but once into the podcast, I remembered James Otteson’s critique of his work in the wonderful and highly recommended book *Actual Ethics,* which convinced me that the drowning child analogy does not adequately encompass the informational and incentive problems of helping the poor in foreign countries or domestically.  Otteson’s work here is concise and powerful.  I believe Chris Coyne’s books about war and foreign aid provide further evidence that Singer’s analogy is oversimplified, though I’m not sure that Coyne refers to Singer’s work.


My favorite part of this episode was Singer’s response to the idea of helping the poor by allowing more freedom of immigration to the USA or other countries.  I think the right answer is to do the right thing, and allow more freedom across borders, but I suppose if one is thinking politically Singer’s answer makes a lot of sense and I like how he tied it into human nature.


Thank both of you for such a wonderful episode.

Mark Brady
Feb 18 2020 at 4:04pm

What if the child in danger of dying wasn’t in pond water but in amniotic fluid? I wonder if Mr. Singer would be so quick to say we are obligated use our money to help save that child by giving to organizations which help prevent those deaths.

Feb 18 2020 at 5:00pm

The business suit-shoes versus child example gets used a lot as a litmus test of…something…even one’s “humanity”.  Fine, but is it possible to be rationale and humane at the same time.  What if my answer were: “I would quickly take off my shoes and (depending how far the child is from the edge of the pond) my suit pants, and then make up the three seconds lost in the trade-off by swimming/wading in faster than I ever have.”  It seems to me like I would be virtually certain to deliver the same result, at a lower cost to me.  My only loss would have been that I would have signaled less virtue.  In my world, virtue signalling is a loss we should be more willing to take.

Dave Peterson
Feb 19 2020 at 7:52am

The ‘child drowning in the pond’ scenario has several interesting and relevant attributes:

Immediacy: Action is required right now. 30 seconds later is too late. There is no time to change into old jeans and sneakers.
Locality: The problem is right in front of you. You immediately see the results of your action or the consequences of your inaction.
Exclusivity: You are the only person around, or close enough to make a difference. There is nobody else who can help in time.

The problem with the premiss ‘If you are willing to ruin your expensive suit to save a drowning child then you should donate the cost of a suit to elsewhere in the world’ is that such a donation lacks all of the above three attributes.

This relates to Ethics of Emergencies: you act differently in an emergency situation than you would in normal circumstances, in an emergency everyone’s goal is to end the emergency as soon as possible, the consequences on normal activity will be sorted out later.

With respect to immigration / open borders, the problem is when the government (via taxes on taxpaying citizens) subsidizes some group of services, rendering them essentially free to all. Whether healthcare, education, or other assistance, the cost to the fixed number of taxpayers (and as a consequence taxes) goes up as the number of recipients goes up.

This is related to why large new housing developments are opposed in small communities: the new development will require new infrastructure like schools, a fire station, wider roads, and the like. These additional costs aren’t borne entirely by fees on the new development, but are spread over the entire town in the form of higher property tax assessments to either pay for the improvements directly, or to pay off bonds taken out to fund their construction.

If you come to our country with the aim of making a better life for yourself and your family through productive work, then you are welcome here. However, it you come seeking handouts, or worse, your aim is to turn our country into the same authoritarian nightmare that you are fleeing from, then stay out.

Ajit Kirpekar
Feb 19 2020 at 11:51am

This is one of the things leftists( or so called progressives) forget about Nordic socialists countries. They have generous welfare states and as such are notoriously hostile to immigration.


Perhaps the left thinks they can have it both ways in the US.

I personally regard it as a tragedy that our immigration policy is not more welcoming to immigrants. If abuse of social services offends you, that’s more of an issue of social services, not immigration.

Todd D Mora
Feb 19 2020 at 12:05pm

I was surprised that Dr. Roberts did not reference the book Idealist about Jeffery Sachs quest to end poverty. Ms. Nina Munk does an excellent job in detailing the challenges and pitfalls of “doing good.”

One of the stories that stuck with me was how the efforts of the charity caused people to stop being nomadic and thus caused them to develop socially pathological behaviors (sedentary life, pollution, etc.) versus the naturally evolving nomadic life they had previously. Additionally, more and more supports were needed as more people stopped the previous practice of herding and began farming. The charity supplied diesel powered wells, however, when the well broke they couldn’t fix it. When the charity convinced the nomads to grow corn, there was no market for the crop, also there were no roads to get it to market.

I truly believe Dr. Signer has the best of intentions, however, I also think he has a hubris that clouds his judgement as to the challenges in helping the most needy.

As always a great podcast, great guest and great host! Thank you.

Feb 20 2020 at 1:45pm

Not very impressed with Singer.  He seems to believe he knows best what to do and that organizations are even smarter than people in knowing what is best.   He excludes the concept of organizations operating in their self-interest and that if we throw more money at “solving the poverty” problem we won’t get attract more self-interested parasites.


He talked about using data to determine what works like our new Nobel prize winners have shown.   Having listened to the podcast by one of the winners, I noted that she said that some monetary help worked only when “mentoring” was in the package. Just giving someone a cow just resulted in no long term benefit.  This means that the things that work won’t scale.   No one knows how to “mentor” on a mass scale and many people are un-mentorable as shown by much of our bottom decile in our society.


His implication of individual self-interest resulting in unethical outcomes clearly didn’t make the distinction between short term self-interest and long-term self-interest.  The latter being a lifetime viewpoint where you note that if you are not motivated by “greed”, your long-term self-interest is best served by the people you deal with also doing well and prospering.   The good life is a non-zero sum game and short term zero-sum optimization results in long term suboptimal outcomes.


If you want to help the food situation with 3 billion people on the way, shift to seafood (aquaculture) that used about 1/3 the amount of resources to produce a kg of meat that the factory farms.  Aquatic animals don’t waste energy standing up or keeping warm.  Also not that aquaculture (with a 9% annual increase) provides more seafood than wild fisheries  (with zero increase per year).  That way you can have your meat and help the poor at the same time without decreasing the human population the hard way.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

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 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 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, 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.

Peter Singer: Exactly.

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.

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