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by Joel Rich

Effective Altruism – Peter Singer

Peter Singer is pretty controversial (just google Peter Singer cross currents!), but I really am trying to understand ethics/psychology and the like. (i.e. if we’re not commanded, why be altruistic – is it hard wiring, etc.?) At the end it seemed to me that the logically consistent result for a non-believer is that we may be hard wired (by evolution?) for certain actions, but there’s no reason to feel bound by them other than your own emotional reason fulfilment. Here is my post to a comments thread – I’ll let you know of responses-Assuming for the moment that one does not see ethics as a divine command, then, unless you believe in Kant’s ethic by pure reason (which dr. singer gave a few reasons not to buy into), you are left with subjective feelings, perhaps the result of evolution. Perhaps this is a separate thread, but once one is self aware of this position, wdo what’s best for him and treat any altruistic thoughts as a vestigial organ?

My general take is that he is a good masbir (explainer) and tries to be logically consistent.

I wish that Coursera hadn’t broken this up into all these short bites – but maybe that’s what the Sesame Street generation needs.

Week 1 and 2

Welcome to Effective Altruism

Defining effective altruism – ethics is more than just thou shalt not. Purpose of this course is to clarify issues and challenge your thinking!

Reasoning in Ethics

Is reason instrumental in applying our emotional priorities (Hume) or does it define moral law (Kant)?

If reason controls, why do we have multiple ethical systems? Perhaps we just haven’t finished all the reasoning to the logical conclusion.


Is there real truth out there? Else why do we argue about this stuff so much?

Cultural Relativism

Maybe ethics is related to culture. Maybe there is some biological explanation. But maybe there are universal truths or else do we have to accept all “local” morality (e.g. honor killings) – [obviously feels this can’t be].


Kant’s categorical imperative and the challenge of defining a universal law. Is there such a thing as universability?

Religion and Ethics

Platonic objection to religious ethics – is it good because God said so or did God say so because it’s good? Anyway (he really said this) with the possible exception of ultra- Orthodox Jews (obviously he subscribes to the Torah only hashkafa J) we all pick and choose anyway!

In any event, can’t prove who is right and we need some way to live/speak together (maintain public discourse).

Introduction to Consequentialism

Being a subjectivist doesn’t mean there are no rules (me – sounded like that this position comes from gut – if there is no command and no universal reason, why should anyone else buy into my theory). Then onto utilitarianism/consequentialism (judge by results).

Objections to Utilitarianism and Possible Utilitarian Responses

How do you measure quantity/quality of results? Some possible approaches. Is it too demanding? Too wacky results? (torture a child so others are happy?)


Some rules can’t be broken. Uses Kant as an example – still some challenging results.

Exceptionless Moral Rules

Are there any rules you can apply without exception? Seems hard to buy.

Natural Law Ethics

Law derived from human nature – but is there only one nature and is it good?

Absolute Rights or Prima Facie Duties

Maybe there are no absolute rights just prima facie duties that must be weighed against each other (e.g. Doctrine of Double Effect). [Me – and how do we evaluate weights? This IMHO is a challenge in halachic system as well.]

Week 3

Global Poverty and the Pond Story

Must be some version of lo T’aamod (me – everyone’s gut feeling, not logically defended). Then defines affluent vs. extreme poverty.

The Affluent, the Poor and the Rule of Easy Rescue

So those with more than minimum resources could highly leverage them and save many lives.

Objections to the Pond Analogy

We don’t see this being done enough – why not? Most reasons don’t seem particularly logical.

The Effectiveness of Aid

Just because governments are corrupt and thus aid is ineffective is no reason to not look for non-government methodologies.

What is Poverty?

Oxfam discussion concerning how to get public goods to all the population. (That’s real poverty.)

Helping People Solve Their Own Problems

Changing family law in Mozambique example of working at grass roots level. Working with failed States.

Evaluating Oxfam’s Work

Givewell doesn’t rate them at top. Accountability is now a focus. Some areas very hard to measure. How Oxfam allocates resources now and in the future.

Week 4

Thomas Pogge’s Argument About Global Poverty

Positive vs. negative human rights. Are we responsible for poverty not only for acts of commission (e.g. taking natural resources) but also omission (e.g. not helping when there is drought). Yes – individual and institutional blame.

Institutional Human Rights Violations

Have our institutions increased poverty for some (e.g. does the WTO increase some poverty by encouraging trade) and if so, do “we” (the affluent) have the duty to change those institutions or pay compensation.

Why ‘Does Aid Work?’ is the Wrong Question to Ask

An economist discusses the need to look at whether aid works on an individual ROI basis.

What Works?

Examples of actual studies to look at comparative ROI on various forms of aid (cash is usually not the best!).

Heart Plus Mind

You need an underlying theory to figure out what to test. How about clean water? Need to look for innovation in addressing market failures. Need good heart but mind has to analyze investments.

Week 5

The Story and Work of GiveWell

The history and approach of “Givewell” to recommending effective charities.

GiveWell’s Recommended Charities

Understanding what Givewell reviews and recommends (and doesn’t).

On Advocacy, Different Causes and GiveWell’s Impact

How would Givewell evaluate (or not) advocacy groups for poor (whose outcomes are longer term and more subjective). How should Givewell be evaluated?

Week 6

Reasons for Giving

Stories of high % giver and kidney donator – why do they do it?

How Much Should You Give?

How much do you need? Living on a budget (Me – logical result would be you give anything you don’t need but this wasn’t discussed.)

Questions and Answers, Part 1

Q&A to givers

Questions and Answers, Part 2

More – e.g. giving towards political giving, deferring giving so can give more.

Week 7

Will MacAskill: An Ethical Career, Part 1

Following your passion doesn’t always work! Look for three things: 1) an effective cause; 2) how much leverage do you have; 3) something that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

Will MacAskill: An Ethical Career, Part 2

Comparing careers in charitable vs. private sector. It may be better to make more money so you can give more. (Me – how many frum Jews say this? Does it hold for us?)

Matt Wage: Earning to Give in Practice

Example of Princeton student who makes a lot of money and gives it away (and some possible issues).

Questions and Answers, Part 1

Careers require very individualized decision-making. How to relate to animal suffering and political venues.

Questions and Answers, Part 2

Spread the good news! Do you work less hard if you’re giving away 50% of it? What if everyone went into finance.

Week 8

Giving Game: Introduction

Introduction into “game” where you analyze four charities and decide which one to give to. Remember individual donations do matter – most people don’t do any research on the charities they donate towards.

Giving Game: The Four Charities

Information on the four charities you can evaluate and fund.

Week 9

Ethics and Rationality

This was the main topic which I was interested in. Some say you can’t ask why act ethically since asking questions presupposes you should but could ask is it rational for overriding (non-ethical) reasons. Isn’t it natural and a universable (word not in dictionary) law to act in one’s own self-interest? Maybe selfishness is natural but not right (i.e. we need to be more rational).

Ethics and Self-Interest

Maybe social science shows it is in our interest to be ethical as it leads to a better life evaluation.

Ethics and Moral Saints

Should we be moral saints? Maybe yes because definition doesn’t have to be that extreme.

I really wish he would have expanded last discussion concerning the meaning of life if you’re not a believer – sounded pretty much to me like roll your own (e.g. happiness, better world….).

About Joel Rich

Joel Rich is a frequent wannabee cyberspace lecturer on various Torah topics. A Yerushalmi formerly temporarily living in West Orange, NJ, his former employer and the Social Security administration support his Torah listening habits. He is a recovering consulting actuary.

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