Today I’d like to recommend a site I think my readers will find compelling. It’s called Everyday Utilitarian, and while it’s about as low-budget as this blog, much of the content is likely to be thought-provoking to those interested in applied ethics and social justice. (Note well that its author, Peter Hurford, is not above treading the controversial waters of religion and politics at times in his writings, but on the whole his approach is exceptionally gracious and level-headed, and he isn’t self-righteous about the topics he covers.)
Besides some logs of his personal endeavors in applied utilitarianism — basically, making a conscious effort to inform one’s decision-making with considerations of scientific probabilities and valid reasoning, rather than letting this process be a crapshoot of the conscience — Hurford shares some enticing thoughts on the application of reliable data to improving the world. He calls this effective altruism, suggesting that as a society, we tend to either oversimplify philanthropy into just throwing money at the problem, or worse, assume that making a difference is impossible in a world this complex (and thus we do nothing about the problem at all).
This blog’s essays are often chock-full of references to sociological studies worth looking into. Even when such sources don’t quite answer his own questions, as in this post, he does a fine job of revealing questions I didn’t even know I should be asking in the first place. At first glance, it seems obvious that humans would jump at any self-interested motive to help others (given how rare this combination seems to be, although I’d say it’s less so than we assume; I’ll probably address this in a coming post). Yet, as Hurford wisely notes, our psychology doesn’t work so simply, often throwing in the catalysts for paradoxes like those detailed in his article.
At the end of the latter post, Hurford proposes that the reader do his/her own investigation into this phenomenon. Of course, “data” is not the plural of “anecdote,” but if the aspiring philanthropist finds that it works to remind people of the happiness they can expect from giving to a certain degree, more power to that person’s cause. If I’m feeling ambitious in the next few weeks, I just might take Hurford’s challenge. Regardless, I appreciate his rigor and cautiousness in thinking about subjects that are, in some ways, quite literally matters of life or death. Check out the Everyday Utilitarian. You might be surprised.