Inside Story

Surfing with Singer

Philosopher Peter Singer puts a disturbingly simple case for altruism. Too simple, perhaps?

Peter Mares 31 May 2017 5865 words

Value for money: Peter Singer speaking at Fronteiras do Pensamento in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2012. Fronteiras do Pensamento

I ran into Peter Singer recently ­– or at least we smiled at each other as our paths crossed in a beachside car park. Although we have friends in common, I didn’t stop to introduce myself. I was caught up in a conversation, but I also momentarily feared I might have mistaken him for somebody else: in a wetsuit, everyone looks a little bit different and a little bit the same.

I know he surfs at that spot, though, so it almost certainly was Australia’s most famous philosopher checking the swell. My friend and I were returning from taking a look and had concluded that the waves were too small and messy. Perhaps we should have shared that information, but then we might have denied him a certain pleasure; a few minutes spent gazing at the ocean can never be counted as wasted time.

Seeing Peter Singer at the beach reminded me of an event at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre a couple of years ago. His presentation that day, and particularly his answer to a question from a woman named Rachel, has nagged at me ever since.

It was April 2015, and Singer was there to fire a Midday Shot at a capacity crowd. The topic was effective altruism, or “The Most Good You Can Do,” which is the subject (and title) of his most recent book. He paced slowly around the stage, intoning in a slightly gravelly voice, his flat Australian accent tinged with an American inflection after seventeen years at Princeton. There was nothing slick or showy about his presentation: with its clunky PowerPoint slides, it was less a philosophical excursion than a workmanlike attempt to convince and convert.

Singer wants us to help make the world a better place. This is the great intergenerational, utilitarian project that he compared in a previous book, The Life You Can Save (2009),to a climb towards the summit of an immense mountain. He believes we have already broken through the clouds and are in sight of the peak. “There are sections of the route that will challenge our abilities to the utmost,” he writes, “but we can see that the ascent is feasible.” In this belief he echoes the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote in Utilitarianism (1863) that “no one whose opinion deserves a moment’s consideration can doubt that most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits.”

There is data to support this optimism. In his keynote address to the 2013 Tasmanian Writers Festival, Singer quoted UNICEF’s calculation that 6.9 million children died in 2011 before the age of five, generally from one of six poverty-related diseases, including diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia. It’s a shocking figure – thirteen children dying every minute – yet it is also relatively good news. In 1990, the annual number of under-five deaths was twelve million. By 2015, according to UNICEF, the number had fallen further, to 5.9 million worldwide (or eleven children per minute). In the space of fifteen years, infant deaths halved, even as the planet became home to an extra two billion people.

Utilitarianism is often seen as a commitment to maximising happiness, or creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but Singer generally formulates it the other way around, as minimising misery. He believes that we do the most good, and make the world a better place, by reducing the avoidable suffering and premature deaths of humans and animals.

At the Wheeler Centre, he used Toby Ord, the Australian founder of the organisation Giving What We Can, as an exemplar. When he was a philosophy student at Oxford University, Ord survived comfortably on an annual scholarship of £14,000 (about A$22,000); having completed his PhD, he saw no reason to live more extravagantly, even though he would soon enjoy a higher income. Using a standard academic salary as his guide, he estimated that if he donated two-thirds of his lifetime earnings to carefully chosen charities, then he could, in effect, save the lives of 1000 children. It seemed a small sacrifice to secure such a significant good, so Ord committed himself to living on no more than £18,000 per year (about A$28,000) and to giving away everything he earned above this amount.

Ord was nudged towards effective altruism by reading “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” an essay Singer wrote, aged twenty-five, in 1971 (recently republished with a new foreword by Bill and Melinda Gates). There, with the refugee crisis accompanying the bloody birth of Bangladesh as a backdrop, Singer argued that deaths in East Bengal from a lack of food, shelter and medical care were entirely preventable if we – human beings – only made the necessary decisions. He pointed out that the financial support Australia provided to millions of Bengali refugees at the time amounted “to less than one-twelfth of the cost of Sydney’s new opera house.” Today, Singer might mention that Australia’s annual contribution to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (around $72 million in 2016) is less than a quarter of the amount we spent preparing athletes for the Rio Olympics ($340 million).

Surviving comfortably: Toby Ord discussing effective giving at a forum in London in 2013 sponsored by Intelligence Squared and Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management. Deutsche Bank

Singer is never difficult to read. As he says in the introduction to a new collection of short essays (Ethics in the Real World: 86 Brief Essays on Things That Matter), he holds to the view that if something cannot be said clearly enough to be understood by people who have not studied philosophy then it is “probably not being thought clearly either.” He constructs arguments much like a brickie builds a wall, establishing a firm footing and then laying down a series of straightforward propositions that lock together to form a solid conclusion.

The foundation stone of that famous essay ­– and indeed of much of his subsequent writing – is the unarguable but easily neglected belief that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.” The next layer seems equally straightforward: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” Accepting premise A – that avoidable suffering and death are bad – makes it hard to dispute premise B – that we should help to alleviate the suffering of others, at least when we can do so at minimal personal cost. Yet we might already be uneasily aware that Singer is leading us into ethical territory that we would rather avoid.

In the famine essay, Singer brings these implications home with the analogy of a drowning child that has become his trademark. “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out,” he writes. “This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.” We will surely agree, unless we are nihilists and hold that the death of a child is of no importance, in which case we are also rejecting Singer’s primary claim that avoidable suffering and premature death are bad. Perhaps there could be an individual so self-absorbed as to prefer spotless clothes to saving a drowning child, but such a person would be universally condemned for failing in a most basic and shocking way at the task of being human.

In his example, importantly, Singer makes it easy for us to act: the pond is shallow and we don’t need to risk life or limb to save the child. Only relatively trivial possessions – an expensive pair of shoes, for example – could possibly be damaged. To fail to save a child in such circumstances would constitute a moral transgression of the highest order.

But Singer is leading us towards a much less comfortable version of premise B, which points to the larger truth that there is always a real child drowning somewhere in a metaphorical shallow pond. Granted, we don’t see the child in a literal sense; she is not drowning in a suburban park as we walk past. But we know that she exists, that she is in trouble and that we are in a position to help her. In fact, thanks to UNICEF’s figures, we know that eleven such children “drown” every minute. Many of us know, too, that we could save at least one of those children with minimal personal discomfort, if only we shifted our priorities. If we fail to do so, it is because we are willing, more often than not, to rank her life as less important than something else, like a new pair of shoes. In shifting our attention, we evade our moral responsibility. We fail to live as human beings should rightly live.

Perhaps you don’t accept Singer’s implicit suggestion that postponing or cancelling construction of the Sydney Opera House would have been an “insignificant” price to pay for helping more refugees in East Bengal in 1971. You might also reject my implication that we are funding Olympic athletes at the expense of the UNHCR. Respectable arguments can be made about the wider benefits of beautiful architecture and success at international sporting events. Yet it’s hard to disagree with the proposition that affluent citizens of a country like Australia could do a great deal more to reduce the suffering of unseen-but-known refugees around the world.

Spread across those of us on comfortable incomes, the cost of doubling, tripling or quadrupling Australia’s contribution to the world’s chronically underfunded refugee agency would be modest. If the top fifth of Australia’s roughly nine million households gave $200 each, this would raise $360 million, or five times Australia’s current annual contribution. It is worth noting that households in this top quintile receive more than 40 per cent of Australian income and own more than 60 per cent of the nation’s wealth. The sacrifice required to achieve a fivefold increase in Australia’s contribution to the UNHCR can be compared to the wealthiest Australian households postponing the purchase of one pair of new shoes for a season or two.

Peter Singer is not the first to weigh the difference between our immediate, mundane concerns and the life-and-death interests of distant others. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith asked readers to contemplate “a humane man in Europe” who learns that “the great and populous empire of China was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake.” The man might be momentarily saddened by the event, but would then “go about his business or his pleasure… with the same ease and tranquillity as if no such accident had happened.” China’s catastrophe would not disturb our cultivated European’s nightly slumber in the slightest, whereas the gentleman would surely not sleep a wink if he went to his rest in the certain knowledge that his little finger were to be chopped off first thing in the morning. As Smith observes, “the destruction of that immense multitude seems clearly to be of less concern to him than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Impartial spectator: the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790). Detail from a portrait by an unknown artist. Scottish National Gallery/Wikimedia

Smith then outlines a scenario in which our cultivated European is offered the option of avoiding the loss of his pinkie by sacrificing the lives of one hundred million fellow human beings in China. “Human nature jumps back with horror at the thought,” he comments. Our “sordid” and “selfish” feelings are overcome, Smith concludes, when “reason, principle, conscience” remind us that “we are only one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other.” Self-love is trumped by a more powerful affection, “the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.”

Mill says something similar in Utilitarianism: human dignity finds expression in a noble character that gives no greater weight to one’s happiness than to the happiness of others. For Mill, the “ideal perfection of utilitarian morality” is the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Singer reaches the same conclusion. In How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest (1993), he writes that the golden rule “is as close to an objective basis for ethics as can be found.” Singer makes no recourse to religion. Nor does he draw on notions like virtue, dignity and nobility of character. Reason enables us to discover the golden rule, he says, because it tells us that “our own sufferings and pleasures are very like the sufferings and pleasures of others” and therefore “there is no reason to give less consideration to the suffering of others, just because they are ‘other’.” With this understanding, we transcend subjectivism and adopt “the point of view of the universe” (a phrase Singer borrows from another nineteenth-century utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick). Smith and Mill express a similar idea when they talk about adopting the perspective of an “impartial spectator.”

It is hard to fault Singer on these arguments. Not everyone will accept his expansion of our circle of concern to the suffering of animals, but if we sidestep that issue by confining our thinking to human affairs, then the logic appears sound. I know it is painful and debilitating to go without food for a significant period; reason tells me that other people experience an equally unpleasant sensation and equally damaging physiological effects when they are starved of nutrition. Since I have no grounds to think that my hunger matters more to me than their hunger matters to them, reason tells me that I should do what I can to alleviate the hunger of others, at least to the point at which my efforts to help would cause significant loss to myself or my loved ones.

Our tendency to put self-interest and personal wants ahead of the needs of others may have sound evolutionary roots. But, as Singer writes, reason takes us beyond the evolutionary need to “survive and reproduce” and leads us to conclusions that can be at odds with “our more basic desires.” We see this in the mundane example of what we put in our mouths: evolutionary biology encourages us to want things that were once scarce in the human diet but are now abundant, like sugar, salt and fat; reason tells us that we must control such appetites or suffer the long-term consequences.

The logic is deceptively, disturbingly simple. If we are to live by the ethic of the golden rule, then we must help refugees to the extent that we can afford to do so. We can choose to follow what Smith terms our sordid and selfish feelings – as most of us do, most of the time – but in refusing to go where reason leads, we can no longer claim that our behaviour is rational or that we are living ethical lives.

These steps in Singer’s argument establish the basis for altruism, for doing what we can to reduce the suffering of others. But his reasoning also requires that our altruism must be effective – or, as he put it on ABC TV’s Q&A shortly after I saw him in action at the Wheeler Centre, that we get “value for money” from our donations. When we buy a dishwasher, says Singer, we generally research its effectiveness compared to other models. He finds it strange that we rarely evaluate charitable gifts in the same manner. On Q&A, Singer said that if we made donations in this way then we would not give money to “train guide dogs to help the blind” in wealthy countries like Australia, which costs “tens of thousands of dollars,” when giving something like $100 to the Fred Hollows Foundation can avert a case of blindness caused by trachoma in the developing world. (Fellow panellist Amanda Vanstone, chair of Vision 2020 Australia, did not think the matter was so clear-cut.)

Sometimes such a calculation does appear straightforward. I wouldn’t find it hard to choose between helping the National Gallery of Victoria to acquire a new frock for its fashion collection and supporting the work of the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia. Does that mean that we shouldn’t spend any money on fashion museums until we have eradicated reproductive health problems around the globe? I can be dismissive of fashion, but a designer once stopped me in my tracks by reminding me that bodily adornment has been a characteristic human behaviour ever since humans came on the scene. So the study of fashion can tell us something important about ourselves as a species.

Like Singer, we may find it obscene that Jeff Koons’s work “Jim Beam – J.B. Turner Train”– a stainless steel train filled with bourbon – sold for US$33.8 million at Christie’s, but that doesn’t negate the fact that artistic creation is a distinctly human activity that enriches our lives. Are art and culture always less important than physical health and wellbeing? Would the world be a better place if Bach had devoted himself to curing leprosy instead of composing partitas? According to Singer’s logic, I should discourage my pianist son’s ambition to a professional life in music, since it is unlikely to be lucrative; instead, I should coax him towards a high-income financial career, so that, like Singer’s former student, Wall Street trader Matt Wage, he can give away a big share of his super-sized salary to reduce poverty.

By expressing the utilitarian standard in the negative – as reducing avoidable suffering rather than increasing possible happiness – Singer largely sidesteps these complications. If promoting happiness is not our concern, then we do not need to ask whether some ways of pursuing happiness are of greater value than others. Liberal societies like Australia tend to assume that there are as many valid ways of pursuing and achieving happiness as there are different individuals. We tend to make no distinction between the happiness that comes from riding a jet ski, the happiness that comes from contemplating a Joy Hester painting, or the happiness achieved by helping a fellow human being overcome adversity through a generous act. Hence, GDP per capita becomes the proxy for human wellbeing, because money enables each of us to pursue our happiness in our own way. Yet the question of what constitutes human happiness (or flourishing) is a central concern of moral philosophy that raises complicated questions about whether reducing suffering is always more worthwhile than facilitating greater individual agency, increasing joy, pursuing knowledge, enhancing intellectual stimulation or providing aesthetic pleasure.

For Singer, we just have to do the maths. If we do, then we will always donate to save lives before supporting the arts. We will give a donation that has a high probability of saving one life ahead of a donation that has a low probability of saving ten; but if the chance of saving ten lives is 20 per cent, then that will be the better investment. Evaluating ethical choices by numbers is confronting, but it also raises more complexities than Singer seems to acknowledge.

Which brings me back to Rachel’s question at the Wheeler Centre in April 2015. She began by gently chiding Singer for suggesting that preventable blindness from trachoma was a problem confined to the developing world; it is a sad truth that trachoma is endemic in Australia too, primarily among Indigenous communities. As a midwife who had worked in Central Australia as well as in Asia and Africa, she then asked Singer to reflect on what she called “the numbers game” – the fact that $100 spent on eye health in remote Aboriginal communities would do far less to reduce suffering in quantitative terms than $100 spent improving sight in a populous village in Tanzania.

In response, Singer argued that as citizens of a wealthy nation we should pressure our government to eradicate trachoma among Indigenous Australians, but that, because he is “strongly influenced by numbers,” he generally puts his charitable money where it could “help the largest number of people.” In other words, he would give to the Fred Hollows Foundation to cure blindness in poor countries in Africa before committing funds to Central Australia.

The specifics of this argument invite an obvious reply. Fred Hollows began his work in Australia: witnessing appalling eye health and pervasive trachoma disease in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory inspired his life-long and ultimately global crusade against curable blindness. The Fred Hollows Foundation continues that work in remote Indigenous communities today, and its advocacy was instrumental in securing funding for a government program to eradicate trachoma there by 2020. So donating to a pioneering charity that apparently helps only a small number of people at high cost may well be the catalyst for something larger, with important practical and political effects far beyond its immediate remedial impact. No mathematical calculation can tell us that in advance.

But there is a deeper issue at play here. As Australians whose wealth was secured in large part by the colonial expropriation of Indigenous lands, do we not owe a particular responsibility to those people whose lives are blighted by the enduring consequences of that act of dispossession? This question raises issues of affiliation, obligation and historical justice that Singer’s utilitarianism seems ill-equipped to address.

We can see similar concerns arising in relation to refugees. In September 2015, when the number of displaced people reaching the borders of the European Union had passed 100,000 per month, Singer outlined his views on the appropriate ethical response to asylum seekers in an opinion piece with the confident title “Escaping the Refugee Crisis.” He argued that it is time to reconsider the 1951 Refugee Convention, because it has given rise to the “new, often unscrupulous, and sometimes lethal industry of people smuggling.” It seems odd that an ethicist concerned with reducing unnecessary suffering should blame people smuggling on an international humanitarian treaty rather than on the equally modern phenomenon of militarised border controls that hinder safe passage, especially given that the business of people smuggling pre-dates the signing of the Convention.

Singer also asserted that “it has become difficult for tribunals and courts to determine who is a refugee, as defined by the Convention, and who is a well-coached migrant seeking a better life in a more affluent country.” While it contains some truth, this statement oversimplifies a complex reality. It suits governments to suggest that there is a neat distinction between economic migrants and “legitimate” refugees, but the world is messier than that. Consider the case of people displaced by climate change, a group likely to grow rapidly in coming decades. If its farm is inundated by seawater or taken over by desert, a family will be unable to sustain itself if it stays put. Yet if family members pass through the rich man’s gate without an invitation they will be labelled as economic migrants “seeking a better life in a more affluent country.” (The 1951 Convention, of course, makes no provision for environmental refugees.)

In keeping with his search for effective forms of altruism, Singer argued that it makes economic sense to hold refugees in already overwhelmed countries of first asylum like Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, rather than allow them to make their way to the West. Why? Because (doing the maths again) it costs four times as much to support a refugee in a rich country than a poor one. While this might be accurate – and while there is obviously a strong case for increasing funding for the work of the UNHCR in countries of first asylum – Singer overreaches when he claims that “people smuggling – and deaths in transit – would be eliminated” if displaced people “were sent to a refugee camp, safe from persecution, and supported financially by aid from affluent countries.”

Anyone who has read Ben Rawlence’s magisterial City of Thorns (2016), a book chronicling the lives of nine people in the world’s largest refugee camp, at Dadaab in Kenya, will understand, as Singer surely must, that food, shelter and safety from persecution are not sufficient for a fulfilled human life. They don’t compensate for the loss of a sense of purpose, personal agency and future possibility. Even if people are well-fed, protected from the elements and safe from violence, they may still prefer a risky onward journey to the futility of indefinite waiting. Hope is more likely to be found in individual initiative and action than in putting your trust in governments, bureaucracies and aid agencies, even when they are well-intentioned.

The final step in Singer’s argument about refugees is that we must engage in the “emotionally difficult” task of turning away people who cross our frontier in order to send them to the “safe haven” of a well-supplied camp. This is no longer to adopt “the perspective of the universe,” in which we recognise that the suffering of another is very much like our own; rather it is to see other people as pieces on a chessboard, devoid of agency and aspiration, who can be contained geographically at our convenience, with the happy side effect of protecting our own advantageous position in the world.

Certainly Singer argues that if his conditions were met, then affluent countries should also “fulfil their responsibility to accept more refugees from the camps.” This would be a welcome development: around sixty-five million are currently displaced around the world, and fewer than 100,000 are accepted annually for resettlement in the West. But a dramatic increase in resettlement places is not much more likely than the push for open borders that Singer summarily dismisses on the basis of “our species’ lamentable xenophobic tendencies.”

We can compare refugees arriving at Western borders with the homeless people who had the temerity to spoil the atmosphere of the 2017 Australian Open in Melbourne in January by camping outside Flinders Street station. Would they have received more help and attention if they had stayed out of sight until the tournament was over? I think not. Similarly, if refugees could be quietly contained in the “safe haven” of refugee camps, it seems likely that the rich world would happily leave them there forever. As William Maley writes in his recent book What Is a Refugee?(2016), people smugglers hold the rich world to account “by presenting them at their borders with refugees whose needs they have recognised in principle, but whom they would prefer not to have to help.”

Among the organisations to which I have given modest donations is Refugee Legal, a not-for-profit community legal service in Melbourne that provides free advice to asylum seekers living in Australia, advocates for alternative policies and pursues landmark legal cases. I have also provided financial and practical assistance to a refugee family I have come to know in Melbourne. According to Singer’s reasoning, I have lost perspective. I am giving to the cause that most tugs at my heartstrings rather than to the organisation that can do the most good with my money. I am being led around by my empathy rather than my reason. The truly effective altruist rises above such subjectivism. If, like Singer, I was “strongly influenced by numbers,” I would do more good – reduce more suffering among more people – by directing my money to the UNHCR to provide direct relief to refugees in countries of first asylum.

But this isn’t the end of the matter. Asylum seekers assisted by Refugee Legal, and the particular family that I have helped, suffer in specific ways under policies of the Australian government: a government to which I pay taxes, a government that represents me and acts on my behalf. I can’t ignore the suffering around me, to which I am connected and for which I feel in some immediate way responsible as a member of this political community, even if the number of people involved, measured against the scale of the global refugee crisis, is small. To refuse to help on the basis that I could do more good in other ways would be like walking past the child that I can see drowning in the pond because my time is better spent providing life-saving medicine to rescue five other children “drowning” in a refugee camp in Turkey. Proximity and affiliation matter: we act not only because we reason in abstract and calculating ways, but also because we feel in immediate and tangible ones.

We also live in political and social communities that require our involvement if they are to thrive. I fear that Singer’s “strongly influenced by numbers” approach risks devaluing the ordinary ways in which donations of time and money for immediate and very local purposes contribute to a society that is worth living in, one where bonds of mutuality and cooperation can tip the balance against self-love, indifference and greed. A decision to volunteer in a school canteen, bake a cake to raise money for a kindergarten or donate to support a neighbourhood soup kitchen may be parochial and subjective, and is almost certainly based on proximity and affiliation. It is unlikely to save the life of a child suffering a poverty-related illness. Yet it is from this kind of engagement that the fabric of community is woven; our lives unfold in particular places and our everyday interactions and affiliations imbue them with shape and meaning.

Giving our labour or money to local causes may not do as much to reduce the global quantum of suffering as donating a large proportion of our salary to an international development agency, but it helps to craft a society based on an ethic of solidarity and reciprocity, and perhaps contributes, over time, to a political environment in which increasing foreign aid is seen as more important than winning Olympic medals.

Sometimes, too, giving money is the easier option: we can feel good about being generous without getting emotionally entangled or coming face to face with another person’s distress. A financial contribution can buy the excuse that we’ve done our bit.

We could say also, as Singer might, that art doesn’t save lives. On this basis he would discourage cultural philanthropy, at least until we have attained the peak on the long climb up his utilitarian mountain. But we need spiritual nourishment to sustain us on that journey. Literature, visual art, film, music and other forms of creative expression invite us to pause, reflect, contemplate and feel. They encourage us to find worth in goods beyond the material and the consumable, invite us to see the world in new ways and embolden us to take the imaginative leap into other lives. The arts help us to develop empathy and compassion; these may be unreliable emotions on which to base all our actions, but their cultivation is essential if we are going to care at all. Reason alone is unlikely to get us there.

Whatever my disagreements with Singer, though, when I apply his criteria to my own life I come up short. Arguing about where we can do the most good, or about the value of art, or about whether animals matter as much as humans can easily become an excuse for doing little or nothing. As Singer says, “What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously?” He doesn’t expect us all to live on less than the minimum wage like Toby Ord, or to donate one of our two healthy kidneys to the next person on the organ waiting list like Missouri student Chris Croy (another effective altruist inspired by Singer’s famine essay and profiled in The Most Good You Can Do). Singer knows that kidney donation is a relatively low-risk procedure, and that most donors live a healthy life with only one kidney, yet he is not willing to donate one of his own. He acknowledges that he “only” gives away a third of his professorial income, not two-thirds like Toby Ord. He uses examples like Ord and Croy to provoke people like me – affluent citizens of a rich country – to ask ourselves searching questions about what more we can do.

I have made a monthly donation to Oxfam since getting my first secure full-time job in my early twenties. Reading Singer, listening to him speak, and writing this essay caused me to triple that regular contribution, and to agree with my partner that we will aim to donate at least 5 per cent of our annual household income to charitable causes. This is the percentage that Singer suggests as a minimal starting point for those who lead secure and comfortable lives. The causes we choose, however, won’t necessarily match those that do “the most good” according to Singer’s utilitarian calculus.

The next time I run into Peter Singer at the surf, I will stop to introduce myself. We share more than friends in common; like him, I also took up surfing in my fifties – as he writes, “too old ever to become good at it, but young enough for surfing to give me a decade of fun and a sense of accomplishment.” Actually, I hope for a bit more than a decade of fun. And perhaps, one day, Peter Singer and I might even share a wave. •