Peter Singer: Find meaning by abandoning the ‘hedonic treadmill’ and embracing altruism

By Eric W. Dolan
Monday, May 20, 2013 17:55 EDT
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At a TEDtalk published Monday, Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer explained how to become an “effective altruist” by rejecting the endless pursuit of consumer goods.

Singer, one of the most prominent modern advocates of utilitarian ethics, began his speech by recalling a horrific story from 2011. A toddler in China had been struck by a van and lay wounded on the ground. Several people walked by without stopping to help the dying child.

“UNICEF reports that in 2011, 6.9 million children under five died from preventable poverty related diseases,” he remarked. “UNICEF thinks that that is good news, because the figure has been steadily coming down from 12 million in 1990. And that is good. But still, 6.9 million is 19,000 children dying every day. Does it really matter that we’re not walking past them in the street? Does it really matter that they’re far away? I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference.”

Singer said that many — if not all — of these children could be saved if people in wealthy countries donated some of their money rather than purchasing goods they didn’t need.

He explained how a movement dubbed “effective altruism” sought to “combine the heart and the head” to help those in need. In an utilitarian fashion, effective altruists had calculated the most effective ways to help the poor and disabled.

Singer said being an effective altruist allowed people to overcome the Sisyphean struggle to obtain happiness and contentedness.

“You work hard to get money, you spend that money on consumer goods, which you hope you will enjoy using, but then the money is gone and you have to work hard to get more, spend more, and maintain the same level of happiness — it is kind of a hedonic treadmill, you never get off and you never really feel satisfied,” he explained. “Becoming an effective altruist gives you that meaning and fulfillment, it enables you have a solid basis for self-esteem in which you can feel your life was really worth living.”

Watch video, uploaded to YouTube by TEDtalksDirector, below:

Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan has served as an editor for Raw Story since August 2010, and is based out of Sacramento, California. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received a Bachelor of Science from Bradley University. Eric is also the publisher and editor of PsyPost. You can follow him on Twitter @ewdolan.
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