Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Peter Singer: The why and how of effective altruism


Choosing Compassionate Actions

Choosing the most compassionate action can be tricky

First it is tricky because there are so many unknowns. Things about the situation we just don't know. For example, I could give a street person some chocolate, not knowing he is diabetic. Second, most of what we do know is probabilistic. For example, I could give a street person outside McDonalds some money for a hamburger and that's probably what they would spend it on, but there is also a chance they will spend it on crack. Time scale is also tricky, appeasement in the short term reduces immediate suffering but can create longer term suffering. However, using the ends to justify the means is often been used to justify cruel actions. Additionally, there is the problem of none actions. If I choose not to donate to famine relief is that the same as deliberately starving a child? Finally, there is the issue of being compassionate towards yourself. For example, if I give away all of my money to the poor then I will be poor and in need of money

The wisdom to make choices that are more likely to help is known as skillful means in Buddhism. Buddhists also have the opposite concept of idiot compassion. This occurs when a person acts on compassion in an ineffective way. For example, giving a child junk food because they are taking a fit. However, ultimately no one can predict the future. You might save a starving child only for them to grow up and lead a genocide. 


  1. You cannot know the long term consequences of your choices. There is no way to tell if a specific action will ultimately lead to less suffering
  2. Small things matter, maybe more than big things
  3. If you have time you should use contemplation for important decisions. Take three days to abide with the issue and after you act take three days to observe and react to the outcomes (good advice from the I Ching) 
  4. Do not regret, there is no point in this, it will not make things better (also see point 1). Understand and accept your limitations. Sometimes we have to choose quickly. Hopefully your practice will help you to make good spontaneous choices. If you believe you have made a bad choice then humbly acknowledge your limitations, try to learn, and keep going
  5. Worry is not useful but thinking over a problem carefully is itself a compassionate act (i.e., you are using your time in service of compassion)
  6. If you achieve a level where you can feel peace while something bad is happening, do not feel guilty, it's all good as long as you are focused on helping. In fact, the peace can help to create a better internal space for problem solving and you can set an example by not panicking or acting badly

Unknown Boddhisatvas and Saints

Some monks torture themselves. Buddhists are not as big on this because the Buddha tortured himself and later eschewed it. The same goes for saint Francis. But actually, self inflicted torture is very mild compared to tortures that can be inflicted by life. People are mercilessly tortured everyday, both physically and mentally. Others are tortured by being powerless to stop the torture of those they love. These types of torture are much worse because it is not by choice. Not much is written about the unsung saints who endure this sort of torture without reacting, without acting out in violence towards others. These people act as karmic sinks, suffering goes in but it does not get amplified, instead it is destroyed or reduced. When we think about saints or bodhisattvas they are often people who achieved big things. This is good, but the unknown saints and bodhisattvas are greater still. When the moment of choice occurs, anyone can be a saint or a bodhisattva. The critical issue is, will your reaction make things better or worse? You can't always know but the key is to act on what you believe will lower suffering. Then, in that moment you are a Saint or Boddhisatva.

Suffering, Compassion, and Happiness

Boddhisatvas and saints are happy, they experience great joy and peace. But they also have a constant awareness of suffering. The condition of life involves existing in a constant flux of suffering. When suffering temporarily dips lower we call that happiness and when it temporarily goes up we call that suffering. In Buddhist terms, this is the product of the attachment system. In terms of the Desert Fathers we could call this the product of demons. However, there is a source of true happiness and peace that everyone has access to. It is always there but it is obscured by our constant focus on the ups and downs of suffering. In Buddhist terms, this is Buddha nature. Christians might refer to this as a connection to God. To experience it we need to clear our minds of the goals and conditions that drive the attachment system. When we fail to do this we experience a different type of suffering, one characterized by the absence of Buddha nature or God's presence. However, people who have had little experience with this experience do not miss it as much because they are unaware of what they are missing.


Bodhisattvas and saints are constantly immersing themselves in suffering. In particular, compassion causes them to focus on the suffering of others and desire to alleviate it. And yet they are happy, joyful, and peaceful. This is because they understand the true nature of suffering and do not get caught up in trying to escape it. By doing so they use their attachment system only sparingly, allowing them to experience nirvana or grace.