Peter Singer’s followers occupy Wall Street, and not in a good way

If practical ethics is supposed to be a guide to conduct in the social and political world, then those who would teach it as an academic subject should be careful to work with an appropriate degree of understanding of social and political realities.

Peter Singer is one of the most influential teachers of practical ethics in the world, who actively strives to extend his influence beyond his immediate classrooms at Princeton University in order to make the world a better place. His words get heard. This has just come through from Reuters:

‘A high earner in the corporate world who is giving away large sums can create more social gain than if they did charity work, said Peter Singer, who teaches at Princeton University.’

I was flabbergasted at this piece of arch academic abstruseness, and just had to read on. This is the story of one of his brightest students:

‘Matt Wage came top of his class at Princeton, where he was taught by Singer. There, he and his friends looked at research which said it costs “around $3,340” to save a life, and Wage looked at how best he could set about helping.

Charity 80,000 Hours, named for the time a typical person spends at work during their life, helps people pursue ethical careers. “Some people have skills that are better suited to earning money than doing good directly,” its website says.

Wage decided this applied to him. He accepted a job, with a fat salary attached, in an arbitrage trading firm on Wall Street, with the explicit purpose of doing what 80,000 Hours calls “earning to give”.

Rather than selling out his ideals on Wall Street, Wage is living up to them, giving around half his pretax salary to charities which, according to his research, are most efficient. “I find it very fulfilling,” said Wage, who is now based in Hong Kong.’

This is a real life reductio ad absurdum of the radically individualistic approach to ethics that takes leave of any sense of social and political theory. It ignores how these Wall Street firms and their grotesquely overpaid functionaries “earn” massive amounts of money by actually producing nothing and simply repackaging various complicated arrangements of others’ indebtedness with the result of inflicting untold human suffering amongst those on the unfortunate side of global inequality.

It merely adds insult to injury to suggest that organisations which engage in actual charitable service of some real kind are less worthy of benefiting from the skills of smart young people whose background offers them a path to Wall Street.

Even within the academic world there is considerable current debate about whether philanthropy does more harm than good, addressing such questions as “Can Charitable Compensation Diminish Complicity?”

Meanwhile, the likes of Matt Wage can “earn” 50% of a Wall Street salary, plus whatever pecuniary perks, in addition to the personal satisfaction of doing the maximum amount of good of which they are capable. This with the apparent blessing of Peter Singer.

I presently calculate that I can do most good as a teacher of ethics by directing students’ attention, instead, to the recent encyclical of Pope Francis. Laudato Si is in touch with socio-economic truth as well as the springs of individual human action. I look forward to publishing blogs on this more edifying text.

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2 Responses to Peter Singer’s followers occupy Wall Street, and not in a good way

  1. Dominic R says:

    I deeply disagree with Singer’s outlook on ethics. Still, I view Matt Wage’s “Earning to Give” more much more positively than you. Why?

    (1) Let’s assume — for argument’s sake — that by working in Wall Street I violate the rights of my fellow humans (by deceiving them, exploiting them, etc.). Matt Wage violates the rights of his fellow humans in order to ensure that the rights (to life and to subsistence) of innumerable other people not go unfulfilled anymore. If we believe that we should minimize rights violations, then Matt Wage does a great thing: He violates a couple of rights in order to make many, many more rights go fulfilled.

    (2) I guess I personally find it difficult to view Wall Street financial firms as evil as you portray them. But even if they are that evil, I find it difficult to argue that the moral wrong happening on Wall Street is fundamentally different or an order of magnitude larger than in any of the other myriad firms that operate in our capitalist market economy. If Wall Street is very evil, then the rest of our capitalist market economy is at least evil.
    But we all participate in that capitalist market economy. Given that we all participate in that system, isn’t the main difference between Matt Wage and us that he at least “games the system”? He participates in the capitalist system just as much as we do (OK, maybe in slightly more evil firms) but in contrast to us, he channels this system’s benefits from the undeservedly rich to those whose basic rights currently go unfulfilled. In contrast to me, he redirects money to the right place.

    (3) Let’s assume — for argument’s sake — that the evil lies not in the individual Wall Street firms but rather in the capitalist system as a whole. Wouldn’t the best of all options then be to politically work to change the capitalist system while *at the same time* milking the system for the benefit of the poor in the vein of Matt Wage?

    (4) I guess we agree that if Matt Wage wouldn’t work in his Wall Street firm, someone else would (and the same holds for the charity in which Matt Wage might counterfactually work: Since he doesn’t work there, someone else will). So the main moral problem with Matt Wage’s approach is his complicity.
    This isn’t a worked out argument: but I just have a hard time imagining myself standing in front of the people who receive (through Matt Wage) the resources that allow them to lead a decent or flourishing life rather than dying or suffering, looking into the eyes of these people and then criticizing Matt Wage in front of them for his dirty hands and encouraging him to stop working at Wall Street.

  2. timhayward says:

    A more detailed account and critique of ‘effective altruism’ is provided by Amia Srinivasan in the latest London Review of Books:

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