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Effective Altruism, Pluralism, and Singer’s Pond Example

Image of Larry S. Temkin
Monday, November 6, 2017 -
4:30pm to 6:30pm
Oxford Martin School, 34 Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BD
Lecture Theatre


This lecture on 'Obligations to the Needy: Effective Altruism, Pluralism, and Singer’s Pond Example' is the first of three lectures given by Professor Larry S. Temkin (Rutgers University).

The world is filled with people who are badly off. Each day, many die from hunger or disease, much of which seems easily preventable. Yet the world is also filled with many who are well off, some extraordinarily so. This vast inequality, between the world’s well off and the world’s worst off, gives rise to an age-old question. What, if anything, ought those who are well off to do on behalf of those who are badly off? In these Uehiro Lectures, I aim to explore the nature and basis of our obligations, if any, to the needy, and some problems that may arise when the better-off attempt to ameliorate the plight of the worse-off. In doing this, I will explore a wide-range of empirical and philosophical issues.

In this first Lecture, I introduce a version of Effective Altruism, which holds, roughly, that insofar as the well-off give to charity, they should identify and contribute to the most effective international relief and development organizations. I then present an alternative, pluralistic approach, arguing that in addition to the sort of consequentialist-based reasons for aiding the needy favored by Effective Altruism, there are virtue-based and deontological-based reasons for doing so. I then present Peter Singer’s famous Pond Example, which has had a profound effect on many people’s thinking about the needy. I note that Singer’s example is compatible with both Effective Altruism and my pluralistic approach. I then offer variations of the Pond Example, together with other considerations, in support of my approach.

My discussion shows that despite its far-reaching impact, Singer’s Pond Example doesn’t actually take us very far in answering the question of what we should do, all things considered, to aid the world’s needy. Unfortunately, my discussion isn’t much better in that regard, except that it reveals that there are a wide-range of morally relevant factors that have a bearing on the issue, and that we must be fully responsive to all of them in considering what we ought to do in aiding the needy. The “act so as to do the most good” approach of Effective Altruism reflects one very important factor that needs to be considered, but it is not, I argue, the only one.

This event is organised by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

Booking: All are welcome to attend these public lectures. Please book for each lecture separately here.


Contact name: 
Rachel Gaminiratne
Open to all