I have been teaching Peter Singer’s 1999 New York Times Magazine essay, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” in my community college English classes for years, and without fail, many students react, well, badly to it. When I first started teaching it, I offered them no context, no preparation. I just gave them the essay and told them to take it home and read it. They came to the next class meeting with frowns on their faces. They accused Singer of “trying to make people feel guilty” and many said things like, “Poor people just need to work harder,” or “Giving them money will make them more lazy.” Ironically, my college is made up of mostly low-income students, but under these circumstances, they have no tolerance for “handouts” and feel like hardworking people “deserve” to treat themselves to luxuries.
As we share this philosophy of effective altruism with others, we must remember that, for most, the concept is new and unfamiliar. We may encounter resistance or misinterpretations, but that is just reason to keep sharing.
When I collected the students’ essays, I discovered that there were a number of them for whom Singer’s point about the value of a human life did resonate, but those students were less vocal in our class discussions. These students’ silence reminded me of how vital sharing effective altruism with others is. It is certainly not the conventional, popular way to think about spending our money, so some may be reluctant to support it publicly.
I am teaching Singer’s essay again this semester. To help students understand his points, I now show them this interview in which Singer explicitly says that his goal is not for people to feel guilty.
I also have Singer’s TED Talk, “The Why and How of Effective Altruism,” to give my students additional context. I will practice supporting the students who immediately see the value in Singer’s reasons for being more vocal. I know my students will question and explore his points together, and my commitment is that they will all leave my class with a full understanding of his ideas, perhaps discovering something new about themselves.
I invite you to share Singer’s message too, and when you encounter confusion or frowning faces, know that there are likely quiet allies who will eventually emerge to back you up. We must transform the tenets of effective altruism into something mainstream and familiar in order to make a difference in ending world poverty.