Peter Singer on the ethics of giving

Peter Singer

Moral philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer chats with host Daniel Petre about what it means to live an ethical life, the emergence of a new norm of generosity and the pleasure of giving, especially when it’s done effectively.

You can also watch this episode as a vodcast.

Antonia: This podcast was recorded on the land of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. StartGiving acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the hundreds of First Nations across this richly diverse continent. We pay our respects to their Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including to those listening.

Theme music starts

Daniel: Hello and welcome to the StartGiving podcast. I’m Daniel Petre, the chairman and founder of StartGiving. My guest today is Peter Singer, the Melbourne-born and world-renowned philosopher and bioethicist.

Theme music ends

Daniel: Peter’s writings have been foundational to both the effective altruism and the modern animal rights movements. In 2013, Peter founded the not-for-profit organisation The Life You Can Save to help spread his ideas about effective giving and generating more support for effective charities. The Life You Can Save aims to make smart giving simple by recommending charities that save lives and improve well-being, where each dollar goes the furthest. By doing the research already, they make it easy for donors to support charities that are proven to be highly impactful. Peter also generously sits on the StartGiving Advisory Board. Currently teaching at Princeton University, Peter has authored and edited more than 50 books, including the seminal works The Life You Can Save; How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty and Animal Liberation. His new book, Animal Liberation Now, was published in June of this year.


Daniel: Peter, can you explain to our audience of tech founders and execs what it means to live an ethical life, and why it’s important to live one?

Peter: I believe that the core of living an ethical life is trying to leave the world a better place than it would have been if you hadn’t been there. And not just a slightly better place, but if it’s in your power to leave it a much better place, then you should be doing that as well. So that’s why for me, ethics is about looking at the consequences of both your actions, and also often neglected, the consequences of your decisions not to do certain things. So when it comes to giving, for example, we might think, well, I’m not harming anybody by not giving, but you’re also not benefiting people as you could by giving. And I think that it’s really important in ethics that we take responsibility for the decisions we make, whether they’re to act or the decisions not to act.

Daniel: That leads actually quite well, thank you, to my second question which is: we’ve noticed at StartGiving with founders we’ve been speaking to, we find them to be as a group much more socially progressive than high net worth individuals in the traditional business world. And they’re also very keen to be part of a solution, part of making the world a better place. But we find that to be quite different to the attitudes we see with older business people who are very successful. Do you have any sense why we’re seeing this difference between, if you will, the younger tech founders who are seeing wealth come to them versus the older business leaders?

Peter: My guess is that with the younger tech founders who’ve made often very substantial amounts of money in a relatively short time, they realise that they’ve been extremely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. And of course, you know, with the skills that they have, whereas the older wealthy people felt that they had had to work for many years, perhaps they didn’t become seriously wealthy until they were in their fifties or sixties, or maybe they were building on a foundation of family wealth that they feel their, you know, father or whoever it might have been, grandfather, established a long time ago and that they have a role to conserve that and pass that on to later generations. I think the younger, more tech-related founders don’t have that sense either of having had to work hard for many decades to acquire their wealth, or of needing to conserve and pass on a family fortune that they’ve inherited.

Daniel: I think it’s reasonable and please correct me if you think I’m wrong, it seems reasonable to say that people should have the freedom to spend their wealth how they see fit. But it also seems reasonable to suggest that wealth in excess of whatever you need to live the life you want to live, that excess wealth should be put to good use to helping alleviate suffering. So, really a two part question. Is it morally corrupt to retain wealth beyond your needs, whatever your needs are? And part B, is there an easy way to think about how much of your wealth you should be allocating to alleviating suffering or creating opportunity?

Peter: Corrupt is a strong word, and I don’t really want to say that people retaining wealth are morally corrupt. But I do want to say that they show an indifference to the well-being of others where they could make a significant difference. And I do think that that is wrong. I think that where we have had opportunities to do a great deal of good and instead we choose to do something that is much more narrowly focussed and therefore does less good on the whole, that we’re making a moral mistake. We’re failing to show concern for others. We may be being selfish, we may be being parochial rather than selfish in that we’re giving to our own small group or location. And I think these are all errors. Morally, I think that we’re failing to look at the larger picture. We’re failing to put ourselves in the position of the others who we could be helping. We may be putting ourselves in the position of some others, but not of others in general. And I think, you know, that’s a test of what we’re doing. Would you accept this way of living if you’re on the receiving end? So how would you look at the world if you were somebody who, through no fault of your own, was in extreme poverty and other people were living extremely affluent lives and they had the ability to assist you, they knew that they can assist you. There are organisations that they could work with to assist you, and yet they don’t show sufficient concern for your well-being, your life, your escape from misery, you know, a miserable level of poverty to actually do something about it. I do think that’s a moral failing.

Daniel: And when we come to this scaling of your giving, you know I was suggesting that people should be approaching it maybe from a stepping up like you decide how much you think you need to live your life, and then anything in excess of that really should be thought of as being the resources to give back in, whatever form you want to give back, to create a better world and better society. It seems some people think the other way round. They sort of think trying to trim from the top a little bit and give that away. You’ve had a lot more experience working in the space of trying to think about philanthropic giving. How do you think people should approach the question of how much should I give?

Peter: I think we should start by thinking, what are my needs? And I don’t simply mean physical needs. I don’t think it’s just a matter of how will you get enough to eat, how will you get shelter. But, you know, I think we can reasonably take into account, social needs, family needs and things that are really important to you, things that really will make a significant difference to the quality of your life, which may include things like being able to travel or take some vacations. But once we get beyond that, then I think the question we have to ask ourselves is, well, why am I keeping this degree of wealth? Is it simply luxury? It’s not really going to make any significant difference to how my life goes to what’s really important to me. So I would say that that’s where there comes a point where once we’ve provided for ourselves and our family and for a reasonable provision for the future obviously, beyond that, I think we can say this is an opportunity for me to do good in the world. And even if we feel, well, you know, maybe then there’s going to be some luxuries that I will not do or some things that I will not spend money on. We have to take into account the fact that it is going to enhance your life to actually know that you are living to good purpose, that you are living to make a difference in the world. And I think a lot of people don’t take that into account the additional value that they can put into their lives and sense of fulfilment and purpose by knowing that they’re using their wealth effectively to help others. So, when we take that into account, I think we can find a reasonable balance between your needs and your needs broadly construed, as I’ve said, and how much you’re going to benefit others as well as benefitting yourself.

Daniel: My wife and I came to philanthropy initially more from a sense of it was the right thing to do, it was the moral thing to do. And this is sort of 30 years ago when we set up our Petre Foundation. But my surprise, to your point just then, was the guilty pleasure of giving, that the enormous sense of fulfilment and quite simply, joy that we have got out of helping a variety of groups over the years, including more recently, The Life You Can Save. That was sort of the benefit in terms of joy and sense of purpose that I didn’t really see coming into trying to use some of our excess resources. In the book, The Life You Can Save, which hopefully many, many people have read. I’ve given away hundreds of copies and I continue to. There’s a wonderful story, of course, that everyone knows, which is the story of the girl in the pond, and have been moved by that to think about their inaction and therefore leading to action. What other things have you seen work that help someone who’s not giving to give more, or someone who is giving to give more than they had been giving?

Peter: I think one thing that certainly does help is knowing that your gift will be used effectively and that really is the main point of The Life You Can Save, because when I started talking about giving and helping people in extreme poverty, the typical response was, how do I know that my money is really going to do good? And people were rather sceptical. You know, they would think that the money would all be swallowed up in administration and further fundraising of the organisation they were giving to, or they would worry that somehow, even if the organisation was not doing that, it wouldn’t get to the people who needed it. But in fact there are good organisations. The problem is that it takes a bit of research to find them, to sift out the really good ones from the ones that are okay. And I’m not talking about the frauds. There’s a very small number of frauds, but there are quite a lot of organisations that are okay, but you could just do much more good with your money than giving to them. So we set up The Life You Can Save to try and find a small number of the best organisations helping people in extreme poverty, and I think that’s something that does motivate people to give more.

The other thing I want to pick up on your phrase, when you said that you and your wife started giving, one of the things that surprised you was the guilty pleasure that you felt in giving. I want to say that is not a guilty pleasure. That is an extremely praiseworthy pleasure. We want more people who will get pleasure from giving, because in that way, giving will become a normal thing to do. It won’t be seen as something weird or self-denying. It will be seen as a great way of adding meaning to your life. So that’s another thing that I think we need to talk about more. And I think it’s great that people like you are being open in talking about the pleasure that you’re getting from giving. Because I think more people need to know that and they will also find it really satisfying way of living.

Daniel: It’s a funny conversation, when I’ve had this with people who have wealth but haven’t started giving it. I talk about the pleasure of giving and the sense of fulfilment and joy, and I find it’s a bit like talking to people who haven’t had children about having children. It’s sort of, it’s hard to explain in ways that they get it, how wonderful this could be. But there is a step that you feel, if only you could just take this one step, and do a bit of giving to something you care about. Then you will, you’ll get the drug, you’ll get the hit, you’ll be on that train. I think to go back to your point about The Life You Can Save, and we at StartGiving do direct a lot of people who aren’t sure where they want to give to The Life You Can Save because it does have this curated set of a lot of areas of alleviating suffering that have been, if you will, verified and cross-checked. And that does resonate with tech founders. You know, tech founders, you would imagine, believe they can change the world by creating new products and have always had to look at metrics for the success of their products. They haven’t been able to sort of just lie around and hope things will go well. So the idea of having charities that are measuring their success on a relative and absolute and competitive basis is important. And I think having tools like The Life You Can Save out there is a very important giving tool for people who do want to make sure every dollar they have goes somewhere.

In your 1975 book, which I think hundreds of people, if not millions, have read, Animal Liberation, which has been described as a landmark book in the whole world view on how to treat animals. And you’ve now rewritten it and come out with Animal Liberation Now. The question I had is more from the tech background.

We’re now seeing in the tech space, the emergence of both a plant-based meat products which tastes and has the the feel of meat and lab-based meat products and dairy products now which are actually real meat and real dairy. They just happened to be grown in a lab. Do you see that that take up could be one of the vectors that helps alleviate suffering of animals that we see continues en masse around the world?

Peter: Yes, absolutely. I’m enthusiastic about these products because, after all, it is 50 years since I first wrote something about Animal Liberation. And that was an ethical argument, of course. And that ethical argument has got out there. It’s been publicised not only by me but by a number of other writers in the field, some of them quite well-known. And yet we have to admit that we’re not really winning this battle with the ethical argument. Maybe if you look at supermarket shelves in Australia or the UK or Europe, you might say, Oh, there’s a lot more plant-based products on the shelves now. So, so you are winning. But it’s really still a niche. That’s the problem. We may be growing the size of the niche, but in terms of getting into the mainstream, we’re not there. And so I think we can use the new products if in fact they can become cheaper and competitive economically with the meat that’s out there, which at the moment generally they’re not. Then I think we may make it easier for people to do the right thing, so when they can get meat or something that tastes like meat, chews like meat, cooks like meat, that they like as much as meat, and it’s not more expensive than meat. Perhaps it has some health benefits, in some cases avoiding problems like salmonella, for example. Then I think we could make much faster progress.

So I welcome the existing plant-based meat-like products. I look forward to the development of the cultivated meat, as it’s sometimes called, or cultured meat grown at the cellular level. In fact, in a week I’m getting on a plane really heading for Princeton, where I’ll be teaching in the fall semester. But on my way I’m giving a couple of lectures in Singapore where cellular chicken is now on sale from a restaurant. Singapore was the first country to approve cultured meat products, and I made a booking to taste it. So I’m looking forward to that. But of course, it’s being sold at a restaurant because if you saw it in a supermarket and you saw the price next to the chicken from an animal, you probably wouldn’t buy it. But in a restaurant you can disguise that cost a little bit. Yeah, but I think it’s important. And of course, there are parallels here with tech helping in other ways.

If you’ve ever read the 19th-century novel Black Beauty, which is about the terrible plight of horses in 19th century Britain, used to pull heavy loads and whipped when they didn’t do it properly and half-starved and then eventually sent to the knackers. Well we’ve solved that problem, not so much by the ethical argument, but because we’ve developed the internal combustion engine, which of course has its own problems as we’re now realising, and maybe we’re going to move to electric vehicles, but we solve that problem because of new technology more than because of ethical arguments.

Daniel: I’m quite bullish on the scale argument, particularly in lab-grown meat, in the cellular reconstructed meat forms and dairy forms and the things that we’ve been seeing in the venture space fill me with hope that we can get there. And you’d want people to get there from the ethical argument that we shouldn’t be making animals suffer, but it’s nice to think we will have this other answer which can bring the mass of people through in the not too distant future. Just switching back to philanthropy, one of the things we’ve noticed with the tech founders is that those who are starting to engage in philanthropy do want to talk to more founders about their giving patterns. And that, I think, becomes sort of a peer discussion of others wanting to do more. Have you seen that sort of, I don’t want to say peer pressure because it’s not pressure as much as it is influence, that peer influence working to help bring people into the philanthropy space so they see their friends doing it or they see their colleagues doing and they want to then participate?

Peter: Yes, absolutely. I think what’s happening is that we’re getting a new ethical norm, and that is that if you do come into a lot of money relatively quickly, you want to think about how best to give it away. And that’s a very valuable counter to what was sometimes called, especially in American society, the norm of selfishness, where it was a little bit the opposite. You know, if you earnt a lot of money, the expectation was that you would use it to build a huge house, that you would buy one of these yachts, as they call it, you know, huge boats that cost many millions both to build and still even cost millions to operate. And I think that norm is changing. And instead of this ostentatious display of your wealth, I think the idea that you show your wealth if you like, but you show it by setting up a foundation and doing good things with that foundation, I think it’s really important that that norm be spread and reinforced throughout the boardrooms and places where wealthy people meet.

Daniel: It would be nice to think that dinner parties in Sydney or in Melbourne were less about house prices and more about how much good people have done with their, with their excess wealth. So we can live in hope. As a closing out question, if I can, Peter. What advice would you give to a tech founder who is maybe seeing they’re coming into money in the very near future or they’ve got paper wealth which is still real, even with the tech corrections there, they can see this wealth appearing. What advice would you give them in terms of the next steps they take?

Peter: I would advise them to talk to people who are doing good things already, and of course I would advise them to talk to people at The Life You Can Save, which I think we have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience now about how to use your money effectively in the area of helping people in extreme poverty in low-income countries. But more broadly, you know, you may have other concerns. We’ve talked about reducing animal suffering and, you know, it’s reasonable that some people should want to do other good things with their money. So talk to people in general who are advisors in philanthropy and look at the effective altruism movement, which has got a strong online presence. Talk to people in that field and look at what Open Philanthropy is doing and the research that they’re doing, which again, comes from a foundation set up by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna. So I think they’re a good example of what you can do and how you can find out what to do if you have a lot of money. So look at these examples and think how you can contribute along similar lines.

Daniel: I think one of the things we’ve tried to get people thinking about is to start maybe because in the title of our firm, but StartGiving is that the earlier you start, the sooner you can alleviate some suffering because not surprisingly, suffering doesn’t wait until you’re ready to give. It’s occurring every day. And so even if you can start with an MVP of giving early, you can start to have an impact. Also, learn about the things that you care about.

Peter, look it’s been wonderful to have you. Thank you so much for giving up your time, but thank you moreover for the life you’ve led and the ethical framework you’ve established for all of us to try and aspire to. It’s a great pleasure to have you on the podcast. It’s a great pleasure and honour to have you on our advisory board as well. Thank you so much.

Peter: Thank you, Daniel. Thanks for everything you’re doing with StartGiving. And personally, I really appreciate it and it’s been my pleasure to talk to you today.

Theme music starts

Daniel: This podcast was written by Catherine Feeney and Daniel Petre, and produced by Audiocraft. Thank you to our guest today, Peter Singer. Visit for today’s episode’s show notes and learn more about what we do. You can subscribe to the StartGiving podcast wherever you get your podcasts, or watch this conversation as a vodcast on YouTube.

Theme music ends