Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 23, 2015

The Most Good You Can Do (2015), by Peter Singer

The Most Good You can DoI love reading Peter Singer’s books; he inspires me to be a better person.

The Most Good You Can Do is about the concept of ‘effective altruism’; basically it’s about interrogating your own philanthropic choices to ascertain whether it’s money, time or other forms of altruism well spent.

All of us are influenced to some extent by emotion when we give.  There’s some rather dismaying research that shows that we are more likely to give to one child with a photo and a name than we are to photos of more than one child in need even when we know that we could save more lives for the same amount of money. We respond to cute and lovable, or tragic and sad, and we respond to personal appeals from someone we know.  Too many of us give small amounts to lots of charities even though the cost of administering these small amounts often outweighs the donation.  This is why charities pursue us for regular monthly deductions from our credit cards, because it’s the most cost-effective way of collecting the money and it’s money they can count on.

From this book I learned that there are organisations such as Charity Navigator in the US and Give Well that exist to evaluate the effectiveness of the charity dollars we donate.  But it’s not as simple as it looks: a charity with lower administrative costs may not be using some of its money to monitor due diligence or the effectiveness of what it does.  There must be effective checks to ensure that the money is being spent properly, but research into effectiveness needs to take into account that some programs are long-term and others are short-term.  Provision of clean water to schools (my favourite Oxfam Christmas gift) has an immediate impact on health outcomes (and school attendance) but adult literacy programs may take longer to take achieve results and the effects on community health or the local economy may be indirect and harder to trace. Some programs are inherently difficult to evaluate, such as a program to reduce the incidence of rape…

Then there’s the issue of ‘charity begins at home’.  Those of us who live in privileged countries often like to donate to worthy causes at home… some of my own pet causes involve (as you’d expect from a retired teacher) education for disadvantaged students; foundations for public institutions like the State Library; and medical research.  But Singer is firm about this: there is no moral equivalence between saving the life of a child who needs a mosquito net in a malaria prone area, and contributing to buying an historic document or providing support for kids who are receiving free education anyway in a country like Australia.  Tough as it may be for disadvantaged people in the wealthy West, he  says, it’s not a matter of life and death as it is in poor countries where the charity dollar goes much further.  Where it literally saves lives.

Charity Navigator apparently assesses thousands of charities that operate in countries rich and poor in a superficial way while Give Well rigorously evaluates only those that help poor countries on the grounds that

interventions aimed at assisting poor people in developing countries were likely to be much more cost-effective than interventions aimed at assisting the poor in more affluent countries.  (p. 152)

But Give Well does its evaluations so rigorously that it only recommends a very few charities, not because the others are not cost-effective but because there isn’t sufficient evidence.  They don’t recommend major aid organisations that we all trust like Oxfam, Care, the Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children, Doctors without Borders or World Vision: they say this is because it’s too difficult to evaluate the ‘good done by a dollar’ when these organisations divide it amongst different activities. Research into the effectiveness of aid organisations is a complex business indeed.

There are forms of altruism that I had not considered before, such as ‘earning to give’.  If, for example, you have signed up as I have to The Life You Can Save, then you have committed to donating a percentage of your income to a charity that works to reduce world poverty, such as Oxfam.  One of the examples given in Singer’s book is of a young man who deliberately chose to work in a high-income field and live simply so that donating 10% of his income could save many more lives, more quickly than if he worked for a more lowly-paid charity himself.  Another form of altruism is more confronting: most people will donate a kidney to a loved one who needs it, but donating one to anyone who needs it is rather different, yet it is a very effective form of giving: it saves a life.  Many people are willing to donate blood or maybe bone marrow, but a kidney seems a different thing altogether.

You can see from these examples that The Most Good You Can Do is a challenge to all of us to think more carefully about what we do when we give.  I am not sure what I am going to do next time Melbourne University asks me for a donation!

PS The cover design is by the inimitable W.H. Chong.

Author: Peter Singer
Title: The Most Good You Can Do
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182692
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


(All author royalties from the sale of this book will be donated to effective charities listed at The Life You Can Save)

Fishpond: The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically
Or direct from Text Publishing


  1. Wow, your review raises many issues that I haven’t properly thought through. Very worthwhile thoughts, thanks.


    • Peter Singer always does this for me, reading him is like being part of a conversation with people who think in interesting ways:)


  2. Hello Celeste This is interesting in view of your giving to MSF. Most of the top charities are not the popular ones we embrace. Plus, my wish to give to Smith Family in Australia for kids who have little is brought under some ciritical light by this author who says that giving to poor kids in a wealthy country is less effective than saving lives of kids in poor countries.



    • Hello Elise, um, I’m a little confused by your comment, but I think I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been a regular donor to the Smith Family too, and yes, it is a bit confronting to see that a wish to help the needy right under our noses is something he thinks we should re-evaluate.
      I should say, however, that Singer is not prescriptive, he’s not telling anyone what they should do. What he’s doing is providing information that we may not have, and providing a framework for thinking about why we do what we do. That is, I think, a good thing to do, because sometimes we donate without thinking too much about it, and maybe – in some cases – we might decide that the money could be better used for something else.


  3. I like Singer too, he is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking. This sounds like a great book. Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are two of my favorite charities to give to but I have also found some other great charities that provide bikes for kids in Africa to ride to school or that provide clean drinking water or are focused on education for girls in Afghanistan. It’s good to know about the smaller donations, I had no idea. Instead of giving a little here and a little there, perhaps I’ll just start giver one larger amount to one or two organizations a year. Lots to think about!


    • The Spouse is a keen donor of Doctors without Borders too and both of us use the Red Cross when there is an appeal for emergency relief. They’re very good organisations, I think.
      I would like to know what counts as a ‘small’ donation. My regular one to Oxfam just comes out of my account so I know there are no admin costs of that one, but I wonder whether $100 to the Red Cross counts as ‘small’? Would $50 be ‘small’? Is $25 worth doing at all? Does it make a difference if you go to the bank and donate it in cash there, so that the bank covers the admin cost? I am thinking of when I was rather hard up in my younger days and didn’t have much spare cash when the bills came in, but I still wanted to give what I could manage. I think I know where Singer is coming from – but I wouldn’t want this book to discourage the generosity of people who don’t have much but want to help out…


      • You’re right, it would be good to know what constitutes small because what seems small to me might seem really big to someone else. And I would think any organization would be happy to have whatever anyone is able or willing to give. It would be a shame if people were put off just because they thought they couldn’t give enough to matter.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. […] need to think about clearly.  I’ve reviewed a couple of his books about philanthropy (The Most Good You Can Do, and The Life You Can Save) but this latest title Ethics in the Real World  is different because […]


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