On effective altruism – Peter Singer

Cover of The Most good you can doLast night, the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View at the Christchurch Arts Festival featured a discussion session with hugely influential author and thinker – Peter Singer. The discussion centered around a variety of topical ethical issues, but also those traversed in his most recent book The Most Good You Can Do – How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.

It was a stimulating and funny evening with the discussion lubricated cleverly by chair Eric Crampton (Head of Research at the New Zealand Initiative in Wellington), who also provided some interesting insights and witticisms. You can read Charlie Gates take in The Press: Top philosopher Peter Singer says take more Syrian refugees and help Lebanon.

Peter Singer is perhaps one of the most polarizing philosophers of our time. His radical views and ideas have provoked many with inflammatory pro-abortion remarks and animal rights activism. However, Professor Singer spends lots of time at Princeton University, where he works in the field of bioethics and “practical ethics”, which wrestle with the diverse ethical and moral implications of reproductive rights, animal rights, genetic engineering and other bio-medical advances. So he’s pretty brainy.

But being a utilitarian philosopher, he is generally guided by the classic utilitarian notion that “the morally right action is the action that produces the most good”. He acknowledges a perplexing problem –  how do us lowly citizens decide what produces the most good, in a world wracked with seemingly insurmountable problems?

That’s where Effective Altruism comes in. A movement Peter Singer promotes. Effective Altruism is an international social movement concerned with charitable works, and seeks to fuse “global empathy” with “critical thinking” so as to enable us citizens of the Earth to ascertain the most “effective ways to improve the world”, and therefore, enhance the way we give.

Mr Singer discussed the dilemmas we face as charitable givers, and how we are often emotionally compelled to favour certain charitable efforts over others (emotive advertising campaigns etc). This is despite the fact that some charities are arguably more deserving, or more productive than others. The questions of “how to give and who to give to” often stifles people who are prepared to help financially, for example, should we give to programmes abroad, or, does “charity start at home”? Is it better to directly help feed starving children in developing countries, or, do we give to biotech’ programmes which conduct research into crop enhancement, which could potentially feed and save millions?

Peter Singer - crowd

Peter Singer’s audience. Flickr 2015-09-07-IMG_9202

The discussion at the festival had a distinctly globalized feel, as most subjects traversed were generally pegged to a broader global context. This is reflected in his book, which tries to determine the areas of greatest need and deprivation in the world. Therefore, when we consider the world and all its problems in its entirety, it seems that as global citizens the greatest good we could do is probably in Africa and developing countries where things are the most dire. These notions of global giving are quite challenging in light of various domestic issues.

Interestingly, Singer concedes that the works of charitable organizations are tricky to measure because the services they provide might be preventative, therefore, it’s hard to prove a service prevented (or failed to prevent) something which “otherwise WOULD have happened”. It was also pointed out that determining the success (the greatest good) that non-governmental organisations achieve is almost impossible in certain environments where one would have to randomly visit, for example, 200 villages scattered across a region of continental Africa so as to gauge how well an NGO is doing on average. There are many cultural and political variables which determine outcome.

Ultimately, the guidance of Peter Singer, and the Effective Altruism movement is pretty awesome, as it’s easy to get emotionally coerced into supporting any old venture in our ever changing, needy world.
Peter Singer signs books
Peter Singer signs books, Flickr 2015-09-07-IMG_9208

Utilitarian links

Julia Markovits (Cornell University) gives an introduction to the moral theory of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the view that the right moral action is the one that maximizes happiness for all.

The History of Utilitarianism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
You can catch up with our posts & pics:

All the ways to share a bike

Library staff cycling through Christchurch town centre, At the intersection of High, Manchester and Lichfield Streets. 1980s
Library staff cycling through Christchurch town centre, At the intersection of High, Manchester and Lichfield Streets. 1980s, Flickr: Arch-52-PH-07-21

Christchurch and cycling have always gone well together. That winning combination of flat terrain and wide roads makes the Garden City a great place to cycle. With new cycleways rolling out around the city, it’s becoming more and more bike friendly.

Assuming that you have a bike, that is.

Luckily there are options for people who don’t have their own wheels to pootle about on.

Spark Bikes

Similar to the “Boris Bikes” of London, Spark Bikes offer those in Central Christchurch the opportunity to travel further than their feet can take them, but without the hassles of parking.

The bikes, which come complete with a lock and adjustable helmet, are available at 5 stations around the central city and can be used for 30 minutes, free of charge. Additional time is charged at $4 per hour, or a bike can be borrowed for a full day for $20.

Kind of like a library but with bikes instead of books!

Station locations, Spark Bikes

There is an initial $4 charge to register and “borrowing” is managed either via an app or the mobile website, so it’s also quite smartphone dependent. The project is currently in pilot so may extend to more bikes and more stations in the future.

RAD Bikes

RAD stands for “Recycle A Dunger” and is a not-for-profit initiative that takes donated, unwanted bikes and parts and helps turn them into rideable bikes.

From their shed headquarters (shedquarters?) at 70 Kilmore Street, RAD Bikes provides all the tools, equipment, parts and expertise to help get your bike roadworthy. They also gift recycled bikes to charity organisations.


“Inner City East” Cycles runs bike maintenance workshops to help people get their rides ready for the road. They also accept donations of bicycles and bike parts.

Bikes for Madagascar

If you’re in the envious position of having too many bicycles then maybe you’d be interested in exercising a little bicycle altruism?

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world and access to education and healthcare is a real issue for people who live in remote areas.

a large number of people living in rural communities could not afford to get to a health facility when they needed it. They were totally reliant on volunteer community health workers (CHWs) to travel to them. Most of these CHWs have to walk to visit sick patients. But, if you give them a bike then suddenly they can cover three times the distance!

The plan is to collect 400 adult size mountain bikes and ship them to Northern Madagascar. The collection day is on Saturday 15 August: Bikes need to be dropped off at SB Global Logistics, 11 Syd Bradley Road, Dakota Business Park (next to the Christchurch Airport). If you can’t make it on the collection day: You can drop your bike at an alternative location by Friday 14 August at Limitless Supplements, 22 Stanley St, Sydenham.

If there are surplus bikes these will be donated to ICECycles for local use.

For more on bikes and cycling

Not my circus. Not my monkeys.

Cover of The Good LifeIf you indulge in the odd spot of social networking on Facebook, you may have seen the lashings of “likes” for a post with the cheeky Polish saying: Not my circus. Not my monkeys.

First I smiled. Then I panicked. What if my plumber, dentist, bank manager, underwear sales assistant, even (though this would never happen!) my library assistant, took this stance? Where would that leave me?

At a time (in Christchurch in particular) when we are daily urged to look out for one another, and random acts of kindness make living worthwhile, where does this proverb fit?

Here’s some great library resources for you to delve into on this very topic:Cover of Be Different

  • Give, but give until it hurts said Mother Teresa. Can’t say better than that now, can you.
  • In his 2014 book The Good Life, Graham Music takes us on a research trip to uncover what tips us towards selfish or altruistic behaviour. He strikes a near fatal blow at the Selfish Gene hypothesis. This is a very compelling read.
  • Recognising the importance of connection for those on the Autism spectrum, John Elder Robison has written Be Different, a book that stresses every individual’s ability to create strong loving bonds and that, Cover of The Selfish Geneessentially, we do this by caring for one another’s monkeys.
  • Readings that encourage selfishness for survival maintain that we are genetically hard-wired to look after number one first. Check out the Team Selfish readings here, headed by Richard Dawkins’ controversial The Selfish Gene.

Truth is, I’ve grown to love your circuses and your monkeys. This to the extent that I may (on occasion) have neglected some of my own show ponies. Head-messing thought here: Could it be that I am caring, but for selfish reasons? And where is the book on that?

Sharing the crafty love

A few days ago I wrote about craft markets and some of the new titles we have in the library which can help you turn your passion into a business.  But alongside marketing and selling is the other side of craft and that is all about sharing the love!

Christchurch has witnessed this first-hand over the past year with groups of people helping out via their craft.  Handmade for Christchurch asked for craft volunteers to create and sell their crafts to raise money for the Salvation Army and Women’s Refuge,  and Smash Palace  took our broken crockery and made it into beautiful pieces of jewellery.   There is also a group called Container Love who are knitting and crocheting squares to beautify one of the  containers in Sumner.

Cover of "Craft activism"If you are interested in the more altruistic side of craft, you might find these two books helpful.

Craft activism : people, ideas, and projects from the new community of Handmade and how you can join in by John Tapper

Learn to craft for your cause, connect with other crafters, think green, organize a fair, host an online exchange, create yarn graffiti, and more.

Craft hope : handmade crafts for a cause by Jade Sims

This book originates  from the Craft Hope blog that organises crafters to make handmade items for specific charities.

Have you come across any other books that marry craft and altruism? Or do you know of any other craft projects supporting Christchurch?

R.A.K. somebody today!

CoverWe all know that today is the first day of spring (and yay, so far it’s looking pretty good!) , but did you know that today is also Random Acts of Kindness Day?

New Zealand is apparently the only nation to celebrate a country-wide RAK Day, so let’s help make it a success!

Here are some links to inspire you:

And, if you do indulge in a spot of randomness or kindness, please post it here – we would love to hear about it!