Looking at how evolution may have contributed to senses and actions of altruism, Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, quotes Frans de Waal, a social scientist, “Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside.” Singer uses this quote to show that we tend to be very generous to those who we perceive as having a level of sameness with ourselves while we separate ourselves from those who do not seem to be like us. In our small group where we actually live and interact with others who are like us, we can be generous and see the payoff from going out of our way to help those around us. Singer explains that this does not happen as easily with people outside our group and he quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson who have studied altruism, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.”
The perspective that Singer is building helps us understand the base of the movement he has coined as Effective Altruism, a notion where individuals make an effort to do the most good they can do throughout their lifetime by focusing on ways they can impact and improve the world by aiding those who are the most impoverished or those who face the most suffering on a day to day basis. Those who travel to other countries building wells, administering healthcare, and those who advocate for education and social improvement for groups in the developing world can be effective altruists under Singer’s definition, but the group he focuses on that can have the greatest impact is the group of individuals who shape their life so that the fruits of their labor, the money they earn, can be directed back towards themselves in a small amount so that the bulk of their financial wellbeing, or at least a significant chunk, can be applied toward making the world a better place. Those who volunteer with charities to travel and provide humanitarian aid are using supplies that were purchased through donation, finding connections that were established through financial assistance, and sometimes only investing their time and effort because the monetary needs of a program were met through donation. Singer believes that effective altruists change their life in an attempt to reduce their needs so that the financial benefits of their work can be applied toward charities that have the greatest impact on the planet. They may still make the trips and spend the time and effort on the ground, but they see that their skills and abilities give them a chance to earn money in the richest countries that can then be re-directed toward the poorest of the poor in other countries, where their money goes further to assist and save lives.
Singer’s quotes from de Waal, Sober, and Wilson show how the altruistic impulses of effective altruists may have developed in our ancestors before being passed along to us. We value the act of aiding others because it helps our group or tribe progress. Our small group will be greatly hindered if one person is falling behind, but if those who are successful can help pull that individual along and provide for them so that they can begin to make returns for the group, then everyone rises together. Effective altruists are able to see this benefit, but they have managed to expand their idea of the group to which they identify to the whole world. They are part of a global group of humans, not just a national, regional, or local group. They defy the ideas of Sober and Wilson by showing that there does not need to be another group against which we should be competing. For Singer, the effective altruists have capitalized on an evolutionary trait, and pragmatically applied it to areas of our life where it can benefit the world the most.