Peter Singer. Credit: Tony Phillips
In this occasional series of interviews with The City's (and sometimes the world's) leading philanthropists we aim to bring guidance and inspiration to others. Australian moral thinker Peter Singer's latest book The Most Good You Can Do expounds his ideas on 'Effective Altruism' - a giving movement that is exciting a new generation of givers. Here the Professor of Bioethics, at Princeton University, and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne shares his thoughts on philanthropy and giving.
What does philanthropy mean to you?
Philanthropy means trying to make the world a better place – not only for humans, as the etymology of the word implies, but for all sentient beings.
How would you describe your philanthropy and what is your goal?
My philanthropy is directed towards reducing suffering, both of humans and animals. The part of it that is focused on reducing human suffering seeks to help those in extreme poverty in developing countries. To reduce animal suffering, I support organizations campaigning against factory farming, and encouraging people to become vegan (becoming vegan helps to reduce the number of animals suffering in factory farms, and also helps humans by contributing less to climate change).
What was your first experience of philanthropy?
I don’t remember my first experience, but it was probably something trivial, like putting coins in the tin of a collector. I only got serious about it in my twenties, when my wife and I decided to donate a minimum of 10% of our income to helping people in extreme poverty. We were living in Oxford at the time, and after visiting Oxfam’s headquarters there, we started giving to them.
Do you feel you are making a difference? If so how?
I’m sure I’m making a difference. The donations my wife and I have made have paid for thousands of bednets to protect children from malaria, and for tens of thousands of treatments to get rid of intestinal parasites that weaken children and make them less likely to complete school. The organizations to which we donate have been rigorously scrutinized by GiveWell, who are the toughest charity evaluators there are. In addition, we’ve supported campaigns to help widows in Mozambique inherit the land that they farmed with their husbands, and supported savings schemes for impoverished villagers – again, women - in Mali.
I am also confident that my donations have contributed to the reduction in meat consumption that we are seeing in the US today.
That’s just my donations. I know that my writings have made an even bigger difference, both in sparking the modern animal rights movement, and playing a role in the new emerging movement known as effective altruism.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to date?
The biggest challenge is always trying to persuade more people to think about something beyond themselves, and to think beyond the narrowly self-interested mindset promoted by so much advertising.
Has your philanthropy had an impact on your personal or professional life?
It has enriched my life in many ways. Without it, my life would be diminished, and would lack much of the meaning and fulfilment that philanthropy has given it. To be part of a long line of people who have done their best for others is a wonderful thing.
Of what are you most proud?
I am most proud of the books that have contributed to both the animal rights movement, and to the effective altruism movement: Animal Liberation, The Life You Can Save, and most recently, The Most Good You Can Do.
Why is philanthropy important today?
The world has many problems. Governments have to play a role in solving them, but governments will not succeed by themselves, without a strong philanthropic movement to spur them to think beyond their national boundaries.
What advice would you give to people starting out on their own journey?