Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been described as “a man of principles and towering intellect”. Both qualities are at centre stage in his latest book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.

Although he is better known as the leading theorist of animal liberation and for his controversial ideas about bioethics, philanthropy is one of Singer’s passions. As early as 1972 he had already formulated most of the arguments which he showcases in this book and in a 2010 book, The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty.

Doing the most good you can do with limited resources is an ethical challenge which utilitarianism is almost designed to handle. Input your resources, a community’s needs and your personal preferences, press a button and the “felicific calculus” cranks out an ethical response. An interactive game on the book’s website even displays a “charity impact calculator” which estimates how much your donation will buy when you give to a particular foundation.

Singer’s idea is that we are ethically bound to be effectively altruistic. It is immoral to allow waste, to splurge on ourselves, or to support projects like museums which do nothing to lessen the world’s misery.

This is great PR for utilitarianism, which has suffered from the perception that its adherents are crabby gentlemen with green eye-shades who are always doing cost-benefit analyses. The Most Good That You Can Do shows that utilitarians are not baked in the mould of Mr Gradgrind, Dickens’ parody of utilitarianism in Hard Times. Like Christians, and even more than Christians, they take the wretched of the earth seriously. As a utilitarian, you can be altruistic without airy-fairy ideals. Even more, you can live with all the austerity of a Franciscan without believing in God, but with the satisfaction of witnessing that your generosity has bettered the lives of others.

His approach has stellar supporters. “An optimistic and compelling look at the positive impact that giving can have on the world,” say Bill and Melinda Gates. “Singer’s argument is powerful, provocative and, I think, basically right,” says New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

But does this prove that utilitarianism is a sound moral guide through life’s trackless wilderness? There is more to ethics than altruism. Does Singer handle other moral dilemmas convincingly?

Perhaps not.

There is a very, very peculiar passage in the book which Bill and Melinda appear not to have read. If they had, they would have thought twice about adopting Singer as the intellectual patron of their philanthropic foundation. If you had unearthed a letter of Martin Luther King Jr expressing his admiration for Mein Kampf, or an interview with Mother Teresa criticizing the poor for being dirty and stupid, you could not be more surprised.

What is an ethical career, Singer asks. This is a more difficult question than it seems at first blush. Working for Oxfam gets a tick. But how about for Goldman Sachs (or Microsoft)? That also gets a tick. Why? Because you can distribute your high (or even obscenely high) salary according to the principles of effective altruism.

So far so good.

But when Singer asks whether someone can work for Goldman Sachs even if it supports an abomination like, say, tobacco companies, he comes up with an astonishing conclusion:

For someone who judges actions by their consequences, to be complicit in wrongful harm requires that one make a difference to the likelihood of the harm occurring. As we saw earlier, if you do not take the position offered by the investment bank, someone else will, and from the bank’s perspective that person will probably be nearly as good as you would have been. …. you may have a better chance of altering the bank’s actions-or, through the bank, the actions of the corporation for which it is raising money-if you are on the inside than if you are protesting from outside.

This sounds very much like selling out to the system. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would have,” was an excuse often heard from Nazis after the War. And, astonishingly for a man with three grandparents who perished in the Holocaust, Singer pursues the logic of his position until he ends up defending the guards at Auschwitz.

The consequentialist notion of complicity does have implications that many people will reject. It implies, for instance, that the guards at Auschwitz were not acting wrongly if their refusal to serve in that role would have led only to their replacement by someone else, perhaps someone who would have been even more brutal toward those who were about to be murdered there.

Given that serving as a concentration camp guard was often an alternative to being sent to the Russian front, this hypothetical was probably sometimes true.

Strictly utilitarian effective altruists … would have to accept the implication that, on a plausible reading of the relevant facts, at least some of the guards at Auschwitz were not acting wrongly.

Hang on. This violates all the moral intuitions of the average man. How many aged prison guards have been dragged before German courts in recent years and found guilty of complicity in Nazi atrocities, even if they did almost nothing?

“No man is an island” and somehow we are all complicit – perhaps to a very small degree – in the injustices which are part of our life stories. Otherwise, why should the US Senate have apologised for 200 years of slavery? Why should Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have apologised for his nation’s treatment of Aborigines? Why should John Paul II have apologised for the Crusades?

In fact, at this very moment an Auschwitz guard is on trial in Germany for complicity in the deaths of 300,000 Jews. He is a perfect fit for Singer’s criteria for not acting wrongly.

Oskar Gröning, now 93, was the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” from 1942 to 1944. He collected and counted the cash of people who had been exterminated. That’s all. Somebody else would have done the job if he refused. Yet this excuse gave him little consolation. For the rest of his life he felt deep remorse

“Down the years I have heard the cries of the dead in my dreams and in every waking moment. I will never be free of them. I have never been back there [to Auschwitz] because of my shame. This guilt will never leave me. I can only plead for forgiveness and pray for atonement.”

And when he faced a judge earlier in the year, Gröning did not say that he was innocent because he was just a small cog in a gigantic machine. On the contrary, he openly admitted his guilt.

“It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility.”

What would Singer have told him? Lighten up, man. Your net contribution to the death camp was zero. Get a life. Why does this clash with our intuitions of moral responsibility? Why is it so repugnant? Because it is completely individualistic. He treats every human being simply as an faceless lump of humanity, not as a person linked to others by “the mystic chords of memory”, kinship and shared experience. As a result, Singer’s “effective altruism” has very little to do with what the rest of us understand by altruism. A superior term would be “effective bookkeeping”.

The ultimate aim of Singer’s book is to replace the most attractive feature of the Christian culture – its thousands of years of effective charity – with a different kind of do-good-ism. But it won’t ever succeed because utilitarianism is about numbers. Christianity is about people.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet