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
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How to think about exercise – WORD Christchurch

Cover of How to think about exerciseAt all the festivals I attend, I like to do a pin stab. That’s where I open the fold-out programme, close my eyes and make a jab at the page. Then I go to that event. No matter what. This year, my jab landed on Body and Mind – How to Think About Exercise which is the title of Damon Young’s latest book.

Well, let’s be frank here, I don’t usually have any problems thinking about exercise. But I had a sinking feeling this festival event would end up making me feel bad about not actually doing it. Still, a pact is a pact.

The audience was reassuringly normal looking. I had feared being sandwiched between gym jocks. Damon himself  looked suspiciously toned, but co-host Marcus Elliott had a suitably disarming presence. But thirty minutes into this one hour event Elliott was still introducing Damon and we were still nudging around the topic of Philosophy:

Philosophy has to make sense in the context of my life and there is a moral dimension to this. Debate about current moral issues is vital, but debate is not just talking about your prejudices.

So far so good, the word exercise hasn’t even been mentioned yet. Whew. But here it comes:

For too long we have broadly defined people as “bookish and ethereal”or “physical and dumb” This is plain bunkum in Damon’s opinion.This notion of dualism is in fact what stops us from flourishing. His book teases out the benefits of removing this duality and breaking down the insidious capture of the notion of fitness by the young and the beautiful (philosophically speaking, whatever beauty may be. But let’s not go there right now).

Put quite simply Damon encourages us to disentangle how we look from who we think we are – our character, in other words. Just find a form of exercise you like. And do it. Think about what you are doing and take pride in this enhancement of your sense of self.

At the end, I elbowed my way out of the room and to the front of the book selling queue. Down the steps and I was second in line at the book signing table. When I handed my little book across, I said to Damon: “I can’t believe I am buying a book on exercise and one with such an ugly cover as well!” He laughed and took the book and signed inside:

To Roberta,

May you not judge this book by its cover!



WORD Christchurch:

From the meaningful to the delightful: Cool new stuff from our selectors

In the field of philosophy, psychology and religion there are interesting titles coming along soon.

Cover of David and Goliath

Gary Quinn’s The Yes frequency deals with the much vaunted idea of mindfulness and encourages the reader to break habits that lock them into self-defeating behaviours.

Eldon Taylor’s Choices and illusions mixes science and spirituality while Douglas T. Kenrick’s Rational animal looks at our decision-making processes and finds that many are entirely irrational and proposes a new alternative based on evolutionary science.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the bestsellers Blink and The tipping point,  has a new book, likely to be a big seller, named David and Goliath,  which sets out to challenge how we deal with obstacles, disadvantages and disabilities.

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot- the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has had a lot of advance publicity and its attempt to balance the Jesus of the Gospels with the historical records of the time should give food for thought.

Moving into the area of children’s books,  Judith Kerr, famous for The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the iconic Mog books, has written Judith Kerr’s creatures  It is a lavishly illustrated retrospective. Our selector loved seeing the very early drawings Kerr did as a child. She tells the story of her life from war torn Europe up until the celebration of her 90th birthday.
Cover of Judith Kerr's creaturesCover of Maurice Sendak

Another great big fabulous tome to drool over is Maurice Sendak:  A Celebration of the Artist and His Work. Described in the book as the pre-eminent Children’s book artist of the twentieth century, we certainly have no argument with that!  Celebrate his 60 year career with this full colour catalogue of more than two hundred images exhibited at the Society of Illustrators in New York in June and August 2013.

Denis Dutton

Professor Denis Dutton – philosopher, academic, skeptic and creator of intelligence on the web ( Arts and Letters Daily) has died in Christchurch.

Denis made an enormous contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of Christchurch and internationally. He had a critical success with his 2009 book The art instinct: beauty, pleasure and human evolution . He was also involved in founding Climate Debate Daily.

My personal experience of Arts and Letters Daily when it first began was overwhelming. I found such online riches that I had to give up reading it because I would never get anything else done. When there is so much dross on the internet and other media it was refreshing to find the best written, most intelligent news and reviews laid out from around the world.

Go to Arts and Letters Daily now and you will see the most tanatalising array of story teasers – “Martin Peretz is a born belligerent.”, “Fat Kat had a knack for guns, drugs, and gangs; also, it turned out, for being a prison librarian” , “Happy birthday to the suit, now 150 years old. The uniform of capitalism was born out of revolution, warfare and pestilence.” and so on.

Appropriately Denis Dutton lives on via the internet – you can view his talk at the famous TED conference in February 2010.

A comic about mathematics and Bertrand Russell?

Oh yes. Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H Papadimitriou is an utter gem of a graphic novel – anyone who disses comics as lacking in intellectual rigour needs this thrust into their hands at once.

I’ve learned about arcane works like Russell’s Principia Mathematica (co-written with Alfred North Whitehead), logicians, philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Georg Cantor, set theory, David Hilbert, and the Incompleteness Theoreom. These are not people or ideas I’ve encountered before, and I thought this would be all too high falutingly intellectual and frightening.

But this graphic novel cleverly draws you into this world of unbounded thought. It tells the story of Bertrand Russell’s life as a thirsty quest for knowledge and truth, and it also explores the link between logic and madness. The writers Doxiadis and Papadimitriou and the husband and wife team of artists Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna inhabit the world of Logicomix too as a kind of chorus (in cartoon form).

It’s a profound book and shows the life of the mind as far more dangerous and challenging than any physical adventure. Read it, weep.

Imagine a week at the airport?

I’m not a great fan of flying, but being an avid people watcher I find nothing better than sitting at arrivals and departures and finding myself being pulled briefly into other people’s lives.   Surely then one of the best writing jobs would be the writer in residence at Heathrow Airport?

Alain de Botton, billed on the Heathrow Airport website as one of the world’s most respected philosophical authors , and author of  The pleasures and sorrows of work and The architecture of happiness, was given this opportunity by BAA, a British airport company that owns the likes of Heathrow and Gatwick. An obvious promotional tool, De Botton was however given a free rein as to what he wrote, and passengers could see what he was writing on large screens placed behind him.  Out of this experience came A week at the airport : A Heathrow diary.

The Guardian weekly was rather lukewarm in its response to the book.

De Botton’s run-ins with priests, shoe-shiners and pilots provide a nice glimpse behind the scenes of a familiar facade, but don’t turn to the book for industry analysis, journalistic dirt-digging or flashy first-person writing: it’s as chipper and soothing as an air stewardess.

Nothing wrong with a bit of chipper I say, and I have this book on my list of soothing books to read.

The Book of Dead Philosophers

Philosophy is, in  my opinion, a fascinating and essential subject. However, it is often presented in a stuffy and far from lucid form.  This puts people off, and philosophy as an academic subject is perceived by many as a pretentious exercise in over-complication, while at the same time relegating centuries of lives and thoughts into some kind of -ism. Philosophy deals with issues relevant to every living person, and should then, it seems, be accessible to all. Luckily there have been plenty of irreverent philosophers, from the ‘first’ –  Socrates, with his ‘I’d rather drink hemlock and kill myself than pay respect to your idiocy’ to the more recent, such as the ‘randy and handsome’ Camus and his brilliant essays on ‘philosophical suicide’. Such characters have rejected the stodginess and pedantry of the philosophical norm, and often brought about considerable change in Western ideas as part of the process.

Given that irreverence is ‘in’ (or so you would assume at least from reading this blog), it seems timely to revisit the history of philosophy with this in mind.

This is exactly what Simon Critchley has done, with a twinkle in his eye, with his latest  The Book of Dead Philosophers. Critchley runs through 190 or so famous and infamous philosophers, discussing their deaths and what philosophical relevance that may have.  For each philosopher he discusses briefly how they died and how that might relate to the philosophy that they extolled. Some entries are just a line, some a paragraph, some a small essay. This format is very readable and allows you to dip in and dip out, something that is normally impossible when reading philosophy.

While this could be a morbid exercise, the writing is very witty, and there are some brilliantly ironic entries and plenty of pythagorean bean humour.  Pythagoras and his followers famously denounced beans, and while being pursued by malicious soldiers, Pythagoras was caught and killed because he refused to run across a field of growing beans. A noble death indeed. Other such ridiculous examples are the death of Francis Bacon in London in the winter of 1626, from a cold reportedly contracted while out in the street trying to stuff a live chicken with snow to investigate the possibilities of refrigeration.

This work is very readable, but it is also informative. Its genius being that while ostensibly poking fun at the lives of very serious philosophers, it also uncovers the very unserious lives of others, all the while illuminating their humanity and never shying away from the ‘big’ questions these thinkers were prepared to offer answers to. By studying the deaths of these philosophers Critchley hopes to uncover some answers about life, how we might live it well and learn to accept the shadow of death that always hangs above us. A worthy read for the philosophically inclined, and in a non-academic and very approachable format.