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Why Peter Singer is wrong about 'effective altruism'

By Richard Meredith - posted Wednesday, 15 July 2015

On 30 April 2015 philosopher, Peter Singer, gave a talk titled 'Effective Altruism'at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (Australia). Singer commands a huge audience of people who are interested in social justice and who want to do good.

Peter Singer contends that the charitable sector would be better off if a person of certain talents decided not to work in the sector and instead joined a finance company where he earned a big salary, part of which he gave to charity. This, he says, is 'effective altruism'.

Singer argues that this talented person is unlikely to offer the social justice sector anything special because, it is inferred, the sector doesn't demand really talented people and therefore an equally suitable worker will be found next in the job queue. While the logic may be sound attractive, there are several problems.


Firstly, good leaders in the charity sector are NOT easy to find. As societies across the globe become increasingly unequal, it is charities, not governments (governments always side with the wealthy) that will be needed – more and better ones – to mend the holes in the social fabric. To engineer the transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor requires both passion and genius – an emotional commitment, an ability to advocate convincingly and, because our society is lubricated by money, strong financial knowledge and skills. There are of course a range of other skills required but these three provide a sufficient argument against Singer's contention that the talented should go and earn money elsewhere because there is little need for great talent in the social impact sector.

Singer glibly underestimates the importance of getting the best people

Singer glibly underestimates the importance of getting the best people into the sector while acknowledging the enormity of the global social justice challenge. There's something of a contradiction there.

Furthermore, it is a disturbingly dismal idea to suggest that a talented person with a passion for social justice and a willingness to earn less than he would in a finance company should forego his passion and deny his true spirit.

In 2014 I worked with seven not for profit organisations or projects. They might all be described as under resourced, struggling, and lacking organisational capacity and management capability. Not all of them would qualify for every one of those epithets. The key point is that each of them needed leadership and management skills and expertise of the highest order in order to grow and to become viable. Given the unique nature of working in the not for profit sector, it is not necessarily the 40 year business executive nor the senior government bureaucrat who make the ideal social impact leader. Empathic leaders with great knowledge and skill are rare.

Think of the millions Singer's 'talented person' might extract


Just think of the millions Singer's 'talented person' might extract from the truly wealthy if he combined his talents and passion and put them to work in a social justice organisation.

Social Ventures Australia has underlined the challenges the sector faces: "In our work we see three factors that influence how well organisations can adapt to competitive pressures and improve their impact: lack of relevant management skills, scarcity of resources (people, funds and data), and conflict between organisational objectives and market orientation." (SVA quarterly, March 2015)

Of the seven organisations I worked with, to date only one has received adequate funding. Two have good leaders, although in one case all the executive work is currently being done pro bono. The other project used part of its funding to employ a very talented project manager, the kind of person who, if she had taken Singer's advice, may well have ended up becoming an 'effective altruist' employed in a finance company. Fortunately, she followed her passion, accepting that to do so would mean receiving a lower community sector wage.

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About the Author

Richard Meredith is principal at Creative Practice.

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