Why Superman could learn a thing or two from Peter Singer

Superman is a bit of a let down as it goes, as are all superheroes really. They all have magnificent abilities and gifts that give them the potential to achieve unprecedented things for mankind, yet they often squander them in favour of flying around in spandex saving people a dozen at a time.

Yes, this brings them accolades and adoration from the public, and it does some amount of good, but many more lives could be saved if someone like Superman behaved more rationally. Instead of working as a journalist from nine to five and then spending a few hours saving people from burning buildings in the evening, he could use his strength to power a turbine for 12 hours a day, providing free energy to those in need and revolutionising the living standards of millions.

Similarly, he could use his strength and speed to make a dozen wells a day for impoverished communities that do not have access to clean water, saving many thousands of people a year from disease, suffering, and premature death. Even if Superman became a professional athlete and donated 50 per cent of his annual salary to the Against Malaria Foundation, he almost certainly would have saved more lives on the whole than he did while fighting crime.

In short, if you are more concerned with helping people than making yourself look good, dedicating yourself to a life of fighting crime as a superhero is an almost complete waste of time.

Although this may seem like a frivolous point to argue – given the obvious fact that superheroes like Superman never actually existed – effective altruists like Peter Singer think that this idea illustrates something critical for real-world considerations when deciding how to allocate scarce resources. They believe it shows why rational, evidence-based approaches to allocating resources will always lead to superior outcomes compared to approaches based on intuition and the “feel-good” outcome for the benefactor.

It is important to also bear in mind that Singer’s effective altruism is grounded in three fundamental philosophical tenets: utilitarianism, moral egalitarianism, and rationalism.

As a utilitarian, Singer believes that our key moral concern should be to maximise the greatest good for the greatest number of people – with “good” being defined broadly as a person’s overall quality of life (health, wealth, happiness, etc). As a moral egalitarian, Singer also believes that everybody’s life matters equally – no one person’s quality of life is more or less important than anybody else’s, so everybody has an equal right to receive help when in need. Finally, Singer is also a rationalist, maintaining that the best way of solving problems is by being objective, empirical, and scientific.

By putting these three things together, effective altruism makes the case for resources to be allocated in a way that helps alleviate the suffering of the greatest number of people, regardless of who they are, in the most objective and rational way possible.

To illustrate the nuance of this idea with a more realistic example, let us imagine that you are someone who wants to make a positive impact on the suffering of blind people. Let us also imagine that you have $40,000 in the bank that you are willing to spend in favour of the cause.

How should you spend it?

You may think that the best approach is to give the money to Guide Dogs – a charity in the UK that helps breed, train, and co-train guide dogs for the benefit of blind Britons. You find out that it costs around $40,000 to train a guide dog for use by a blind person, and the thought of helping somebody in your community to gain more independence gives you a strong sense of fulfilment.

The choice to donate here will clearly lead to some considerable good, intuitively it seems like the right thing to do, and it also maximises the feeling of fulfilment you get from making a positive impact, as guide dog charities are very popular in your community.

But here you would be falling into the same trap as Superman.

If you were to do some research, crunch some numbers, and approach the issue more rationally, you would see that this is the wrong decision. If you decided instead to donate your $40,000 to the Fred Hollows Foundation – a charity that claims it can cure instances of preventable blindness for around $30 per operation – you could be giving as many as 1,333 people their sight back. Even when using a more conservative cost-effectiveness estimate – the one provided by GiveWell – of $100 per operation, you would still be changing the lives of 400 people instead of one.

If your primary concern with the donation is to make a positive impact on the suffering caused by blindness, then it is clear which option is more favourable here. However, this rational approach to helping others is not reflected in reality; guide dog charities remain consistently some of the most popular and well-funded types of charity in the UK. Meanwhile, charities that specialise in treating eye diseases like trachoma, cataract, and diabetic retinopathy make nowhere near as much and have far less visibility.

This, in effect, leads to a massively inefficient allocation of resources, meaning hundreds of thousands of people in poverty are snubbed treatment every year in favour of helping a few thousand people in relative affluence. If we approach this from the premise of moral egalitarianism – the idea that everybody is valued equally – we must conclude that this situation is morally impermissible.

Although the individual who would benefit from a guide dog is just as deserving of help as the 1,300-odd people who are living in poverty, because we must take everybody’s life as having the same value, it is the morally correct decision here to preference the 400-1300 people over the one.

While the funding discrepancies between efficient, effective charities and inefficient ones are best explained by an interrelated mix of socialisation, ignorance, and virtue signalling, I believe Singer puts forward a compelling case for why empathy is best served by championing objective, rational decision-making.

Because it seems that with all the best intentions in the world, without rationality and science, you will always commit an injustice to the people you wish to help.

If everyone tried to be a bit more like Peter Singer and a little bit less like Superman, we might just be able to tackle some of the big problems of our time. And nobody would have to wear spandex.

Written by Charlie Richards

Charlie Richards studied Politics and International Relations at the University of Warwick, and is currently an Associate at PwC in London.