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Guest Post: The Millennium Development Goals and Peter Singer’s new book on Effective Altruism

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Written by William Isdale,

of The University of Queensland

 As many readers will be aware, this year will mark the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals. For some of these goals, expectations have been exceeded; for instance, the goal of halving global poverty (defined as living on less then US$1.25 a day) was achieved back in 2010.

There are good grounds for believing that extreme poverty can be almost entirely eradicated within our lifetimes. But, for now, a lot of work remains to be done; the average life expectancy among the ‘bottom billion’ remains a miserable fifty years, and the most recent UNICEF estimate of poverty-related deaths among children is 6.3 million each year.

What new development goals should guide us in the future? And how can we be sure we’re doing the most good with the money we currently give, as individuals or through our governments?

I won’t attempt to answer those questions here. But I do entirely endorse Professor Peter Singer’s new book, The Most Good You Can Do, as well worth the read for anyone interested in such questions.

The Most Good You Can Do demonstrates how the ‘effective altruism’ movement is changing how people think about our moral obligations to the least well-off, and how we can best assist them. Effective altruism is about applying a rational framework to deciding how we should spend our money, and what we should do with our time. Effective altruists take issue, for instance, with giving only to the causes we ‘connect’ with (say, cancer charities in developed countries), rather than those that demonstrably save the most lives, or ease the greatest suffering (like de-worming efforts in African countries).

Professor Singer’s book is largely directed to a popular audience, but the philosophically minded will find enlightening discussion on head-scratching questions like:  ‘are effective altruists justified in having children?’; ‘would human extinction be morally bad?’; ‘what sort of career should I pursue to do the most good?’; and ‘are moral values just matters of personal opinion?’.

If I’ve piqued your interest, then you may enjoy listening to a recent (short) interview I did with Professor Singer about his new book. The audio can be found here, on The Conversation.

What do you think? How should the principles of Effective Altruism be applied in crafting new development goals (if at all)? Let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Just one thought about “eradicating” poverty: This is not like smallpox. This is preventing poor people from existing, either by making all existing people continually not poor (which would require infinite economic growth, which does not physically exist), or by making people not exist who would otherwise be poor.

    It is at least worth making explicit that eradication of poverty means the non-existence of poor people. Since economic growth is not infinitely large and cannot go on forever, at some point there will be a choice between making more people and keeping poverty eradicated – and we won’t be able to have both. This leads to the dilemma that you either have to commit to prevent people from reproducing – by force, if necessary, or to accept that poverty will exist as long as humanity exists.

    1. If we want to eradicate extreme poverty (as defined here, of $1.25 a day) then all we need to do is create at least $1.25 per person per day and have it distributed equally. World GDP per capita is already at least $10,000 per year, i.e at least $27 per per person per day, if wealth was distributed equally. So we have already created far more than enough wealth to eradicate extreme poverty given the current population.

      In fact, if current wealth was distributed equally, then given the above figures and definition we could have ~21x the current world population and still have no extreme poverty. Not that I’d recommend moving towards such a world.

      Anyway, I fail to see your dilemma, at least in terms of the practical consequences of trying to eradicate existing extreme poverty. Economic growth can’t go on forever (though it can plausibly go on for billions of more years, if humanity travels to other planets). But why does that mean people may have to be forced into not reproducing? Once we’ve created a sufficient amount of wealth along with a distribution that has eliminated extreme poverty, then even with *zero* economic growth, extreme poverty will remain eliminated as long as the birth rate doesn’t exceed the death rate. I don’t really see why that would require force; a simple change in economic incentives or even merely providing information explaining some benefits of delaying reproduction could well be sufficient at the level of the whole population. Even if births did exceed deaths with zero economic growth, that wouldn’t immediately mean a return of poverty, as long as people were already sufficiently above the threshold.

      1. Thanks for your response, Matt.

        Equal distribution is of course impossible because no one wants it and the growth would no longer exist in such a communism.

        By preventing people from reproducing, I indeed meant people who consistently want higher birth rates than death rates, in excess of what economic growth can sustain. And I think there will always be such people.

        To avoid misunderstandings, I am fine with the non-existence of poor people; I myself would rather not be born into poverty. But I predict this will be a matter of controversy even with a very large economy.

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