This essay reviews three books: Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help (Penguin Press 2015); Jennifer Rubenstein, Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs (Oxford University Press 2015); and Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (Yale University Press 2015). The essay traces some similarities and differences between various modes of altruism and humanitarianism, arguing that the shared moral vision that animates much altruistic and humanitarian action tends to neglect the need for politics.


effective altruism, extreme altruism, famine, humanitarianism, humanitarian space, morality, philanthropy, political ethics

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
Larissa MacFarquhar
Penguin Press, 2015. 320 pp.
Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs
Jennifer Rubenstein
Oxford University Press, 2015. xiii + 272 pp.
The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically
Peter Singer
Yale University Press, 2015. xiii + 211 pp.

Anybody who tries to do good could be called a do-gooder. But we typically use the term pejoratively, to refer to efforts that are somehow misguided—naïve, meddling, ineffective, or perhaps just plain annoying. We probably also reserve the label for those who display an unwavering devotion to doing good. People with this single-mindedness are the focus of Larissa MacFarquhar’s wonderful book Strangers Drowning. She refers to her subjects as do-gooders, but not to disparage them; she goes to great lengths to portray them sympathetically. But she does aim to capture the deep ambivalence other people often feel about those whose commitment to doing good is so zealous: “I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy” (3). MacFarquhar provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a variety of such “extreme altruists.” These are people who not only go to greater lengths than most people do to help others—some donate kidneys to strangers—but also have a hard time avoiding the thought that they could be doing even more. The do-gooders she profiles “lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though [End Page 299] not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility” (298–99). What separates MacFarquhar’s subjects from others is the extent to which they cannot help but weigh their devotion to what ordinary people value—friends and family, personal aims and projects—against the needs of strangers (299).

The book opens with two philosophers, defenders of “effective altruism,” debating whether one should save one’s own mother or two strangers drowning, if forced to choose. One of the philosophers is a graduate student and the other a professor, Jeff McMahan. MacFarquhar also writes about the most famous of the effective altruists, the philosopher Peter Singer. His own recent book, The Most Good You Can Do, aims to get everyone on board with the movement, which calls for getting people to do as much good as they possibly can—particularly by taking a hard-headed look at the most effective ways of doing so. In an interesting overlap Singer’s brief portraits of effective altruists include some of MacFarquhar’s subjects. Between the two books, there is quite a bit of material for getting to know the kind of people who commit themselves to modes of altruism that go above and beyond ordinary moral expectations. Not all of MacFarquhar’s do-gooders are adherents of effective altruism, and not all effective altruists are utilitarians like Singer. In fact, Singer wants effective altruism to have a broad appeal and so portrays a variety of adherents who are pulled in different directions on key points.

A third group of do-gooders appears, if only briefly, in MacFarquhar’s book: professional humanitarians. She touches on the complicated reality of contemporary foreign-aid work, relying mainly on the reflections of disaffected aid workers published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She begins with Tony Vaux’s dismay, as recorded in The Selfish Altruist, over the many dubious motives he witnessed in his fellow aid workers during twenty-seven years at Oxfam—people too focused on adventure or their own heroism to see those they helped as anything more than hungry or wounded bodies.1 Shifting from motives to effects, MacFarquhar turns to Michael Marin’s The Road to Hell and Alex de Waal’s Famine Crimes to reveal the shortcomings of food aid—how it often benefits farmers from donor countries while undercutting local markets in recipient countries, or how it can undermine the accountability of local governments to their own citizens.2 Both stress how unaccountable humanitarian NGOs are and both note that they often display a lack of concern about actually measuring their own effectiveness (a concern shared by effective altruists about all would-be do-gooders). MacFarquhar concludes this discussion with David Rieff’s A Bed for the Night, which she uses to suggest that—despite the fact that humanitarianism often takes the form of a new mode of controlling targeted populations, and although they are often condescending hypocrites—humanitarians are still “the best of us” (166–68).3 This is a rather unsatisfying conclusion to this section of MacFarquhar’s otherwise brilliant book.

A more comprehensive treatment of the ethics—and politics—of humanitarian aid work can be found in Jennifer Rubenstein’s excellent book Between Samaritans and States. It has taken a while for moral and political theorists to notice and systematically engage with the actual practice of humanitarian assistance.4 Rubenstein is a [End Page 300] political theorist who immersed herself in the practice, doing fieldwork with various NGOs and bringing concepts and methods of political theory to bear on the practice.5

MacFarquhar, Singer, and Rubenstein’s quite different books cover a range of ways human beings struggle with an imperative to “do good.” Both altruists and humanitarians tend toward ameliorative rather than transformative change, leaving them always open to the objection that they treat symptoms rather than underlying causes of suffering. Of course, many do-gooders are painfully aware of their own shortcomings—humanitarian practitioner-turned-theorist Hugo Slim refers to “ethics creep” as the inescapable pull to go beyond saving individuals toward promoting deeper change.6 But of the three books, only Rubenstein gives this problem the full attention it deserves, as a challenge to translate the “crushing responsibility” (MacFarquhar, 299) many of us ought to feel into two kinds of action: direct action to help suffering individuals and collective action aimed at systemic change. The latter, a task for politics, is too often absent from the otherwise powerful moral vision that animates much altruistic and humanitarian action.

Altruists and Humanitarians

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx famously classified all sorts of do-gooders— “philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind”—as the “part of the bourgeoisie” that wants to address “social grievances” only to “secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.”7 MacFarquhar echoes this point when referring to nineteenth-century developments, noting “many people quickly realized that organized politics was a more effective vehicle for human progress than the full hearts of the leisured bourgeois” (108). This is one of the few times she explicitly comments on the tension between charity and politics, raising it in the context of discussing the origins of the term “altruism.” Auguste Comte gets credit for coining the term as a secular humanist alternative to theistic accounts of human goodness. First used in print in 1852, it became quite popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century after Herbert Spencer adopted it. It was the “term of choice,” writes MacFarquhar, “for those disturbed by poverty but frightened by radical solutions” and it “was adopted by those who wished philanthropy to become more pragmatic and rational, less hostage to sentiment,” not unlike the effective altruists of today (108).

By contrast, one of the founding texts of humanitarianism, Henry Dunant’s A Memory for Solferino (1862), which appeared not long after Comte coined the term “altruism,” was heavily steeped in moral sentiment, a mode of writing made possible by the eighteenth-century transformation in moral sensibilities and culture often referred to as the rise of the humanitarian sentiment. The text became a springboard for the founding of the Red Cross and for a campaign to make war more humane. Dunant’s goal, like altruism more generally, was criticized for not being radical enough. Making war more humane only makes it more palatable and leads to more war, Florence Nightingale famously objected; the proper aim is to abolish war.

In light of these nineteenth-century debates, it is tempting to distinguish three camps and trace their lineages up to the present: the passionate heirs of Dunant, the [End Page 301] pragmatic heirs of Comte, and the radical heirs of Marx. This way of carving up the terrain echoes perennial debates over whether reason or sentiment should be—or actually is—the primary motive for ethical action, or whether focusing on individual actions and motives neglects the importance of social structures and their history. But the three camps are not so easily distinguished in practice. Many non-governmental organizations today, though not heirs to Marx, embrace the aim of delivering emergency aid while also focusing on changing larger structures.8 And when it comes to reason versus passion, the heirs of Dunant—at least the professional humanitarians—were long ago influenced by pragmatic rationalism. As in other fields, with professionalization comes rationalization, with its focus on calculation, measurement, and efficiency.9

If the effective altruists of today are the heirs of Comte, they do not simply pit reason against the passions. MacFarquhar says of the graduate student debating whether to save his own mother or two strangers that, although he at first seems entirely rationalistic, “if he is questioned about his views on suffering, this word will recall to his mind facts he has encountered in books about terrible things endured by nameless human beings hundreds of years ago, or by prey animals in the wild, and the horror of this remote information will overcome him to the point where he starts to cry” (1–2). For his part, Singer distinguishes “emotional empathy”—which includes feelings of compassion and the experience of personal distress in reaction to the pain of others—from “cognitive empathy”—which includes the ability to take the perspective of others and imaginatively attempt to inhabit their experiences. “We can have cognitive empathy,” he argues, “with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people we cannot even identify as individuals” (78). Effective altruism, he maintains, does not require a strong emotional response; indeed, in most people such responses may distract from the kind of calculation required to keep the proper aim—doing the most good—in view. But Singer also draws on the nineteenth-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick, who “does not say that people who recognize the importance of acting for the good of the whole lack emotional motivation; on the contrary, he thinks their recognition of the importance of acting for the good of the whole brings about an emotional response within them” (83).

Setting aside any strict dichotomy between rationalist altruists and sentimental humanitarians, effective altruists do pose tough-minded questions to the contemporary heirs of Dunant, at least when humanitarian action is narrowly defined as emergency aid: is donating to widely publicized emergencies really the most effective way to do the most good with one’s extra money?10 Should one become a humanitarian aid worker to save lives or a wealthy banker who can fund hundreds of humanitarian workers who then save far more lives?11 Doing a good thing here and now (even devoting one’s own life to a caring profession) is not necessarily the same thing as effectively bringing about the most good one possibly could.

In a highly critical review of Singer’s book, John Gray takes the comparison between effective altruism and Comte too far, claiming that “if history is our guide we can expect Singer’s movement for effective altruism to go the way of Comte’s church of positivism, which has passed into history as an example of the follies of [End Page 302] philosophy.”12 Whatever one thinks of effective altruism—which at its core is perhaps nothing more than a results-driven approach to philanthropy—it hardly makes sense to think of it as a mere folly of philosophy. Key parts of the “movement,” according to Singer, are the initiatives by economists at the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, founded to study which interventions against poverty are most effective, and GiveWell, founded in 2006 to evaluate the effectiveness of charities.13 The movement does include other philosophers like Toby Ord, but he is now best known for founding Giving What We Can, which encourages people to make an online pledge to donate 10 percent of all future income to “charities that will make the biggest impact.”14 They have attracted over three thousand members, most of whom appear not to be philosophers.15 However one evaluates these endeavors, effective altruism does seem to be a movement that goes well beyond philosophers. Viewing it as a mere “folly of philosophy” also runs the risk of letting the movement off the hook in an important way: like any movement, its politics—and the moral and political imaginaries it promotes—must be scrutinized.

A Shared Moral Vision

If there is a gap between effective altruists and professional humanitarians today, it was not there in one of the ur-texts of effective altruism: Singer’s 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”16 Written when he was twenty-five years old—with a freshly-minted PhD in hand—and in the midst of an urgent humanitarian crisis, the essay shows a number of striking parallels between the way it portrays saving distant strangers (and continues to sustain effective altruism) and the ideals and practice of humanitarianism.

Singer’s classic essay is one of the most widely read and discussed texts in applied ethics, possibly in all of philosophy. MacFarquhar refers to it as “one of the best-known arguments for the extreme morality of do-gooders” (62), noting its “profound effect on many people—particularly those who,” like one altruist she profiles, “had been searching for a moral direction, prompted by an uncomfortable sense that the suffering of the world demanded of them a personal and painful response” (63). The title image for Strangers Drowning is inspired by the famous analogy Singer introduces in that essay: if you happened upon a small child drowning in a shallow pond, your moral duty to wade in and save the child would surely override any considerations about ruining expensive clothes. It would be morally egregious not to save the child. Likewise, Singer argues, if there is a child dying very far away whom you could save at relatively little cost to yourself—with, say, a $200 donation to UNICEF or Oxfam—then you ought to do it. This simple conclusion re-iterates in a radical direction: if you can afford to make another donation to save another life, you ought to do it again, and then again, until giving further would cause more harm to you than the benefit it would bring to others.17

As a utilitarian, Singer’s essay was clearly rooted in the Comtean world of rational and calculated altruism. But it still had one foot in Dunant’s world, absent the pathos but nonetheless stressing the urgent needs of suffering individuals. Indeed, the opening lines of Singer’s essay appeal directly to a humanitarian crisis: “As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and [End Page 303] medical care.” That crisis, and the NGO response to it, was part of a transformation in the world of humanitarian aid that had only just begun with the response by the Western public and NGOs to the 1968 famine in the Biafra region of Nigeria.

Historians of humanitarianism have noted the many ways in which Biafra opened a new chapter in humanitarian action.18 Newspapers and magazine covers disseminated countless images of starving children in the summer of 1968. “A new icon of Third World misery was born,” as historian Lasse Heerten puts it: “ ‘Biafran babies.’ ”19 Television, for the first time, made such images even more vivid. Addressing a Hamburg rally in October 1968,Günter Grass spoke of the “genocide for all the world to see . . . after dinner we watch how people starve and die in Biafra.”20 The steady stream of images posed an urgent challenge to Western audiences: something must be done. Many people answered the call by founding Biafra action groups to collect donations and sponsor rallies to awaken public awareness in New York and numerous European cities.21

Beyond the imagery and public rallies, the concrete response by Western NGOs to the crisis in Biafra dramatically transformed their role and status. With UN and other official aid entirely absent, new NGOs sprung up and existing NGOs took on new roles in delivering massive amounts of aid in what became the largest airlift of food and medical supplies since World War II.22 Former aid worker Alex de Waal describes it as “an unsurpassed effort in terms of logistical achievement and sheer physical courage.”23 The ICRC took on an uncharacteristic role as the lead agency in the giant relief effort. Oxfam became operational in the field for only the second time in its history and became heavily involved in the public awareness campaign on behalf of Biafra.24

Singer’s essay was written within the context of—and clearly reflects—these changing circumstance. Vivid portrayals of distant suffering were appearing in people’s living rooms, and Western NGOs were often already on the ground trying to help. In Singer’s argument, such NGOs become the embodiment of a potent fusion of new technical capacities with a much older moral imperative to help one’s neighbor: “From the moral point of view, the development of the world into a ‘global village’ has made an important, though still unrecognized, difference to our moral situation. Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block.”25 Echoing humanitarian appeals that confront the viewer with a starving child, Singer’s pond analogy attempts to forge a moral link between two isolated individuals—one who needs saving and one in a position to save. NGOs are posited as a technical mechanism for extending that moral connection across great distance—like a very long arm reaching out to pull a drowning child from a pond on the other side of the world, they can fulfill a humanitarian gesture initiated by our donations. In essence, this is an argument about the capacity to carry out individual moral action at a distance.

This fusion of new technical capacities with a long-standing moral imperative was also evident when a group of French doctors met in Paris in December 1971—like Singer, the crisis in East Bengal was on their minds—to found Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF emerged, writes anthropologist Peter Redfield, “at a moment when [End Page 304] international air travel was becoming more readily available to Europe’s middle class, when emergency medicine had emerged from a military specialty into civilian life, and when relatively instantaneous transmission of images around the world was first possible thanks to satellite technology.”26 The idea was to create a kind of “medical strike force” that could quickly bring emergency medical care anywhere it was needed.27 Over time, this initial emphasis on technical proficiency has become one of the primary things MSF is known for as it has grown from a small group of volunteer doctors to become one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world.28

In short, Singer and the founders of MSF appear to have been similarly struck by the emerging horizon for humanitarian action that was empirically grounded in newly available technical capacities and morally grounded in the idea that inaction in the face of avoidable suffering is morally unacceptable.29 Another affinity was the stress on the potency of individual action, particularly evident in the stance of Bernard Kouchner, the most prominent of MSF’s founders. Drawing on Kouchner’s writings, the historian Bertrand Taithe captures the early ethos of the organization this way: “the individual can act and must act . . . individuals can change things by being there, by intervening in other people’s tragedies.”30 Michael Barnett aptly describes the “new style of politics” epitomized by Kouchner in terms of replacing the “old-style politics of protest” many had been involved with in the 1960s with “direct action on behalf of the victims of the world.”31 Redfield’s description of MSF’s ideals could apply, with slight modification, to Singer’s own aims: “such a group of doctors could engage with suffering wherever it might arise, bypassing political obstacles to stand with afflicted populations worldwide.”32 It echoes a central tenet of Singer’s entire corpus, from the early essay up to the present: “the presupposition that individual action can make a difference.”33

Singer, like Kouchner and other former members of the French revolutionary Left who joined MSF, was no stranger to the politics of protest. As an undergraduate in Australia in the late 1960s, he had been involved in movements opposing the war in Vietnam.34 In fact, Singer went on to Oxford in 1969 to write what was a rather unorthodox philosophy dissertation at the time, on civil disobedience.35 Nonetheless, his essay on famine was much more focused on the question of what an individual must do once they become aware of distant suffering, particularly in light of the failure of nation-states or other individuals to do what they ought to do. These moves by Kouchner and Singer away from protest-politics toward individual action aligns with a larger shift, toward moralized modes of action, captured by historians who trace the rise of the human rights movement as a form of anti-politics in the 1970s.36

A shared moral vision animates both the ethical stance promoted by Singer’s pond scenario and the actual work of many humanitarian organizations. If we distill the key elements, what comes to the fore is the moral relation between an individual agent—a potential donor or a humanitarian actor—and a suffering stranger. What recedes into the background, potentially disappearing altogether, are connections grounded in other social, political, historical, or economic relations. The agent stands at the center of a field of possible action, imbued with the kind of moral clarity that only comes when urgent action by an individual is required to stop an uncontroversial harm. This brings out an epistemic feature of this picture. The certainty of direct action stands in [End Page 305] contrast to the uncertainties and endless potential obstacles of politics. The moral urgency of the present takes over, while politics, which is complex and oriented toward achieving broader gains in the future, takes a back seat.

A paradigmatic instance of this perspective was on view at the Live Aid concert in July 1985. Viewed by 1.5 billion people around the world, it was simultaneously broadcast from Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Bob Geldof, the main organizer, had seen a BBC news piece in 1984 on famine in the Korem camp in Ethiopia and decided to organize a benefit concert. As media theorist Lilie Chouliaraki puts it,

No other instance best captures the moralization strategy of Live Aid than the BBC news imagery of famine and death in Korem, projected on the Wembley and JFK screens: “a close up baby—a tiny body but a large head, and its mouth open in a silent cry . . . It is held close to its mother’s face. She shields it with the cloth that drapes them both, drawing it to her, and looks down. The infant’s silent anguish, eyes closed, mouth wide, screaming, continues.” The immediate impact of this image was reflected in the significant increase in the donations rate following the screening, yet its deeper impact lies in introducing the witnessing of human suffering as the most important affective force of the concert.37

In fact, the concert ultimately raised between $100 and $500 million dollars for famine relief.38 Unfortunately, it also led much of the public to view the famine more like a natural disaster than the result of the Ethiopian government’s policy of forcible resettlement and a tactic used against secessionist rebels.39 As in the case of the media-driven event “Biafra,” in this case “Ethiopia” was constructed as a purely moral space, mirroring Singer’s pond analogy, in which Western donors can effectively make a humanitarian gesture.40

The idea of a moral space in which the humanitarian imperative can be fulfilled is not just a construct of the imagination; it is a concrete part of humanitarian practice. The term “humanitarian space” is used by humanitarian actors to refer to the need to establish a space in which they can safely and effectively treat victims and save lives in the midst of surrounding chaos and conflict. There is no single definition of this term, but it has been suggested that it is intended to capture “the existence of a practical, even physical, space within which humanitarian action—saving lives by providing relief to victims of armed conflicts—can be undertaken.”41 As Michael Barnett describes it, humanitarian space is a “space where ethics can operate in a world of politics.”42 The basic idea was reflected in Dunant’s founding ideal: partisan soldiers fighting for their nations, once wounded, are transformed into injured human beings with no nationality.43 They exit the antagonistic arena of war and enter a moral space in which human beings must respond humanely to other human being’s suffering. The idea of humanitarian space, then, is a moralized space in which the humanitarian can act directly on the moral imperative to respond to another human being in dire need.

Of course, it has long been abundantly clear that, when it comes to emergency relief, the idea that humanitarian space is as morally pristine as Singer’s pond is illusory. Humanitarian organizations know all too well how humanitarian space is [End Page 306] secured: getting and maintaining access to affected populations requires difficult negotiations with state and local officials, warlords, and militias. In one of their famously self-critical interrogations, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, MSF detailed the many ways in which humanitarian space is politically constructed, which is not to say that within that context, something resembling the pure moral gesture of saving a life is not possible. But it is to say that constructing the space for such action is itself a political endeavor that entails relations and negotiations with states and other powerful actors. And operating within that space has political effects. As Hugo Slim aptly puts it, “humanitarian action is the pursuit of certain goals within the context of other people’s politics and is consequently carried out in the political sphere above all others” (115; see also 113–14). Power is always being exercised within humanitarian space, particularly over the beneficiaries. Whenever power is engaged with or exercised as part of a mode of action—as it always is in organized attempts by NGOS to save strangers—then a mode of action is at stake that is always also political and not simply moral.

In light of the fact that the complexities of delivering humanitarian assistance are well-known in the aid industry, what would an adequate philosophical account of such complexity look like? Within the domain of the ethics of giving, one approach is to accept the moral duty to alleviate the suffering of distant strangers as defended by Singer while arguing that discharging that duty is no simple matter. For instance, in an essay titled, “Poverty is no Pond,” philosopher Leif Wenar starts by formulating what he calls “the Donor’s Question”: “How will each dollar I can give to aid, or each hour I can devote to campaigning for aid, affect the long-term well-being of people in other countries?”44 After an extensive review of the literature on NGO effectiveness, he argues that Singer has ignored the possibility that sometimes NGOs do more harm than good.45

An alternative to factoring complexity and uncertainty into the Donor’s Question is to reframe the question entirely by placing it in a more political context. Saving nearby strangers can be a direct fulfillment of a moral imperative, but organized attempts to save lives, systematically and over time, cannot be characterized in purely moral terms. As William Galston puts it, “individual rescue typically leaves everything else as it was: throwing a rope to a drowning man typically does not require or produce reorganizations of social relations and responsibilities outside of the rescuer–rescued dyad.”46 How social relations are organized is the domain of the political. It gets into questions of distributing resources, prevention, acceptable risk, and a whole range of questions that go beyond the fulfillment of a moral imperative, which require taking a political perspective.

Political Ethics for Humanitarian NGOs

Taking this perspective on humanitarian NGOs is a central aim of Jennifer Ruben-stein’s recent book, Between Samaritans and States, which focuses on the activities of “large-scale, mainstream, INGOs that are headquartered in wealthy Western countries, rely at least in part on donors for funds, provide humanitarian aid in addition to whatever else they do, and are not strongly religious” (21). This group includes what Michael Barnett calls the “gang of six”: CARE, Catholic Relief Services, MSF, [End Page 307] Save the Children, World Vision, and Oxfam. Although the bulk of Rubenstein’s book addresses ethical dilemmas humanitarian actors face in their everyday operations, she does touch on the Donor’s Question. She maintains that a humanitarian NGO should not be viewed, as Singer originally did, as a kind of “do-gooding machine”: insert money here, save a life over there (chap. 8). Rather, she suggests an analogy with supporting the candidacy of a politician in a district other than your own. You give them money because you support their platform, which is constituted by a mix of moral positions, political ideals, and pragmatic strategies. You might withhold support if you think a particular politician, despite sharing your position on key issues, simply does not operate in ways you can condone. And if you do decide to give support, perhaps based on past performance, you would still monitor their future activity and may decide to stop supporting at some point. “The moral risk, ambiguity, uncertainty, need for careful oversight, and concerns about illegitimate overstepping— together with the hope of helping make a better world—that feature in our conception of donating to a political candidate outside our own district should also characterize our understanding of the political activity of donating to a humanitarian INGO” (20; my emphasis). This analogy is fitting, as it situates moral principles within a larger political framework that is appropriate given the nature and track record of organized attempts at helping distant strangers. It integrates the ethics and politics of the Donor’s Question into the analysis of the nature and scope of the ethical and political responsibilities of humanitarian NGOs themselves.

It is those broader responsibilities, some of which are long-term and relate to larger structures, that inform Rubenstein’s normative analysis throughout the book. For instance, when she looks at ad campaigns directed at potential donors, she identifies what she calls the “moral motivation tradeoff”: LiveAid-type imagery can effectively motivate people to donate, but also has “negative discursive effects” in the way it portrays individuals and countries receiving aid (185). Rubenstein proposes a range of strategies for negotiating the tradeoff, including the use of “critical visual rhetoric” (205). This two-step process, already practiced by some INGOs, uses images to grab viewers’ attention before shifting to a more critical and nuanced discussion of the issues with the aim of educating the viewer. This allows INGOs to raise necessary funds while also taking responsibility for ways in which their campaigns affect the larger discursive context in which images circulate, generating and sustaining a set of shared understandings of various people, cultures, and regions, or the nature and causes of famine and poverty.

The moral motivation tradeoff is one of four ethical predicaments Rubenstein analyzes in the book, relying on what she calls a “cartographic approach” (3–8), which means mapping the ethical and political terrain INGOs have to navigate in order to be able to identify better and worse paths they might take. Much hangs, in this work, on definitions and typologies. A central question is definitional: what kind of actors are humanitarian INGOs? The answer, addressed in Chapters 2 and 3, is crucial to conceptualizing and addressing the second core question: what types of ethical predicaments do humanitarian INGOs face? The four predicaments are laid out, one per chapter, in Chapters 4 through 7. The guiding idea is that humanitarian INGOs are [End Page 308] distinctive entities in ways that must be acknowledged. Clearly defining what they are will help us determine what they should do.

As the book’s title indicates, and Rubenstein convincingly argues, these “nongovernmental” organizations engage in “governance” in ways that go beyond the actions of individual Samaritans but also differ from state governments. More specifically, she identifies three key characteristics of such INGOs. First, they are “sometimes somewhat governmental.” Not only do they participate directly in global governance by trying to shape international institutions, they often serve the very same functions as conventional governments by making influential decisions about the use of resources, shaping the policies of domestic governments, and providing basic services. Second, they are “highly political” in two key ways: their actions and advocacy often have unintended, negative political effects, and they exercise “discursive power”—the power to shape the meanings of important terms like “humanity,” “suffering,” and “emergency” (71). Third, INGOs are often second-best actors. That is, in many situations there are other actors—domestic NGOs or government agencies—that should be doing what the INGO is doing and could potentially be more effective and more consistent with democratic and other norms.

These features apply variously in different situations, raising different ethical requirements. For instance, when an INGO is clearly a second-best actor, they should figure out ways to play a supporting role to local, best actors, or perhaps leave altogether. Though ethically required, this can pose significant operational challenges to an organization. The tension they have to manage is between their responsibility to carry out governmental activities effectively versus backing off when possible. INGOs have an obligation to avoid displacing first-best actors or preventing them from emerging and succeeding (see, for instance, Rubenstein’s discussion of Haiti as a “Republic of NGOs,” 59–60).

In other situations, where an INGO is the actor of last resort, they have a strong responsibility to stay in order to avoid pulling the rug out from under people who have come to rely on them. This can get tricky. Rubenstein focuses on “stay or go” dilemmas that arise when staying would, in some way, contribute to a bad outcome—like increasing violence—but leaving would upend everything on which a vulnerable population has come to rely. Staying allows them to continue providing aid with the moral cost of possibly contributing to injustice; going allows them to avoid contributing to injustice, but at the cost of denying aid to innocent people in need. A classic case is when it became clear to INGOs working in Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire that ex-soldiers were using aid intended for civilians to help regroup militarily. In this situation, MSF-France at least, decided it had to leave, justifying its decision by stating that “far from participating in the resolution of the conflict, international aid perpetuates the situation and, worse still, prepares the crisis of tomorrow” (qtd. on 107).

Like the best critical anthropology of humanitarianism, which starts with the voices and critical reflections of practitioners themselves, Rubenstein starts with concrete dilemmas faced by humanitarian organizations and adds a further layer of analysis, informed by political theory, to the best reflective responses. For example, she builds on MSF’s talk of an “ethics of refusal,” which they use to describe some of [End Page 309] the “political and expressive dimensions” of their work (154).47 Sometimes it is embodied in a kind of public claim-making that puts pressure on other actors to step up—when, for instance, they refuse to be a political pawn or when the organization states that it “rejects the idea that poor people deserve third-rate medical care and strives to provide high-quality care to patients,” or when they maintain a presence in areas where it is costly for them to work in order to draw others’ attention to a looming crisis (quoted on 154–55). In short, the ethics of refusal captures activities that are part of generating solidarity and engaging in the kind of witnessing or speaking out for which MSF is famous. Rubenstein is quite sympathetic with this approach—it is central to the idea of attempting to save individuals while also promoting “structural justice”—but highlights an ambiguity in its typical formulation: advocates of this approach are not always clear about how to justify expensive projects that help a small number of people (163). If they succeed in pressuring others to act, they can be quite cost-effective, but if they fail is this distribution of scarce resources still justified? Rubenstein maps out a modified version of this position based on a “more complete map” that accounts for the key features of INGOs (conventional governance, global governance, discursive power, and second-best status) (164): “The ‘ethics of resistance’ is my term for a type of political judgment that recognizes and seeks to navigate among these different and sometimes conflicting sources of responsibility. It focuses largely on overall consequences, but has an expansive understanding of what consequences matter, and is attentive to the distortions that can result from efforts to measure and commensurate them” (167). In this way, Rubenstein builds on MSF’s current approach, faulting it mainly for working with an “incomplete map” (164).

This and other examples show how Rubenstein treats the practitioners she engages in the book “as empirically well-informed political and moral theorists in their own right, whose conceptual and normative arguments deserve respectful attention” (24). But I still have to wonder if practitioners might have difficulty engaging the end result. Even academics who read little in “analytical political theory” might find it a bit tough to keep track of many of the subtle distinctions at stake, or to engage the practice at this level of abstraction (as a colleague in anthropology once put it, normative analysis like this “drains the blood from the phenomena”) (27). Rubenstein is keenly aware of the challenge of making this kind of theory compelling, admitting that “some of these arguments are rather dry” (27). But I am quite sympathetic with her ultimate aim. “While I aim to show that important theoretical and ethical insights can be gleaned from working ‘closer to the ground’ than is the norm in the field of political theory, I also want to persuade anthropologists, journalists, and aid practitioners that there is value in working at a somewhat higher level of abstraction than is their usual practice” (3). Operating effectively at this intersection between theory and practice is no easy task. Even if the end result is of more value to theorists than to practitioners, the book sets a high standard for any future work aimed at bringing political theory to bear on humanitarian practice. Aside from the reflections of former practitioners, there is not much else out there in this vein.48

One significant exception is Hugo Slim’s recent book, Humanitarian Ethics, which aims to have even more direct value to practitioners. Indeed, the cover of the book— subtitled “A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster”—simulates a kind of [End Page 310] field handbook.49 If Rubenstein’s book is squarely within the domain of applied political theory, Slim’s is more in the domain of professional ethics. Slim has long been the dominant figure in the area of humanitarian ethics. Like Rubenstein, he too says he wants to focus on the political, but instead of starting there, as she does, his political framing only comes out, rather clumsily, halfway through the book. Slim ultimately deals with many of the same issues as Rubenstein, though less systematically, in a chapter on “persistent ethical problems” (Chapter 11). Before he gets there, he surveys various ways of thinking about moral choices and moral responsibility (Chapters 9 and 10). At times this feels like a long list of ethical vocabulary—“dirty hands,” “tragic choices,” “slippery slopes”—but without the same systematic clarity found in Rubenstein on the pros and cons of thinking about things one way rather than another. Reading Slim is kind of like looking at the schematics for a complex ethical machine without any real sense of how one might operate it.

If Slim’s engagement with normative thinking is disappointing, his engagement with critical theory is downright distorting. He displays little taste for nuance when it comes to the best critical work on humanitarianism, lumping together scholars like Michel Agier, Didier Fassin, Craig Calhoun, and Laurence McFalls for summary dismissal: “This kind of academic deconstruction by critical theorists is exceedingly binary and overblown. It represents the dualistic anti-Western fantasy of some post-modern thinkers and shows a tendency to discount the political power and brutality in non-Western societies.”50 Missing the point of this work entirely, he combines Fassin and Calhoun to construct an absurd straw man: “Humanitarian reason is . . . credited with ‘imagining’ and ‘inventing’ emergencies in order that the wicked West can take humanitarian control over large high-risk areas of the world. For these and other critical theorists, therefore, humanitarian government and humanitarian aid are extremely dangerous for the people cast as victims in these ‘imagined’ catastrophes.”51 Anyone who has read Fassin and Calhoun will know how off the mark this is.52 Ethnographic methods are in some ways uniquely suited for uncovering subtle, and often not so subtle, ways in which power operates within humanitarian practice. Slim himself stresses that humanitarianism is political, but too quickly dismisses work like Agier’s, who aims to better understand precisely how “politics” is operative within refugee camps and the ways in which “control and assistance are entangled.”53

Not that Slim is averse to all critique, but he says he prefers the “more nuanced and less ideological” approach of Alex de Waal, who “sees a less malevolent and more disorganized intent behind the recent emergence of humanitarian power.”54 This is telling. It seems like Slim’s main objection to a wide range of critics is that they portray the harms caused by the humanitarian system as part of an organized scheme with dark intentions. There may be some theorists who view it this way, but Slim is simply reading this subtext into texts in which it is clearly absent. Still, it is by no means obvious how to combine the results of critical approaches with more normative approaches to the ethics and politics of humanitarianism in a compelling and fruitful way. For all Rubenstein’s talk of INGOs as governmental, she focuses primarily on what she calls “conventional governance,” not “Foucauldian governance” (18, 71). But Rubenstein is at least committed to systematic analysis of the political nature of NGOs. A more comprehensive integration of normative analysis with the critical [End Page 311] insights garnered from the history and anthropology of humanitarian practice remains to be written.

In the end, Slim is far more focused than Rubenstein on individual humanitarian workers, and whether they are able to maintain an ethical connection to beneficiaries. It is not surprising, then, that the core of his humanitarian ethics is a kind of virtue ethics designed to guide “the ethical humanitarian worker.”55 But his virtue ethics is rather under-developed; at times it seems that embodying “humanitarian virtues” amounts to little more than being good at applying the core humanitarian principles in practice.56 Surely Slim is correct that it makes a difference what motivations practitioners have, and that it is better for them to view themselves as partners in helping others rather than as heroic rescuers (though Rubenstein does a great job challenging ideological appeals to “equal partnership” in Chapter 5). But he runs the risk of making the behavior of individual humanitarians the whole game, implying at times that the humanitarian system is merely the sum total of choices made by individual actors.57 His ultimate focus on personal ethics ends up jettisoning the political almost entirely. Rubenstein, by contrast, begins with a definitional question that raises the issue of the political nature of humanitarian INGOs from the start. Moral questions, though indispensable, get asked and answered only from within this already defined political context, which demonstrates why starting points and frameworks are so important. Similar framing problems plague the advocates of effective altruism insofar as they, like Slim, make the political seem like an afterthought.

A Bed for the Night or Change the World?58

Not all MacFarquhar’s subjects are apolitical. While her book is mainly focused on the tension between living an ordinary life and extreme devotion to the lives of strangers, she does touch on the tension between helping strangers and changing structures. “Some people try to help one person at a time, and other people try to change the whole world. There is a seductive intimacy in the first kind of work . . . The second kind of work is more ambitious, and also cleaner, more abstract. But success is distant and unlikely, so it’s helpful to have a taste for noble failure, and for the camaraderie of the angry few” (15). The first full portrait of a do-gooder in the book is Dorothy Granada, who travelled some of the well-trodden paths I have mentioned. She started out as a nurse, doing the first kind of work, but eventually felt it was not enough—the perennial pull of “ethics creep”—and so became an activist to protest poverty and nuclear weapons (15). She ultimately tired of the peace movement too, and of the kinds of people it attracted. Feeling the need to focus more on direct action to affect individual lives, she moved to Nicaragua in the mid-1980s to live in an encampment for refugees seeking protection from the fighting in the countryside. Fellow activists in the peace movement challenged her much the way effective altruists worry about doing the most good: “Anyone could be a nurse! How could she abandon the higher calling of peace? How could she be so selfish?” (35–36).

Other do-gooders in the book were able to engage in both direct action and politics. In a chapter on “The Most Oppressed of All,” we hear about Aaron Pitkin, who is not only a vegan but, because he realized at a young age that ending factory farming would alleviate an immense amount of suffering, also “works at a large [End Page 312] animal-rights organization, and has been an extraordinarily effective chicken advocate, helping to bring about a dramatic change in both laws and attitudes” (42). In a chapter on “The Children of Strangers,” we hear about Sue Hoag and Hector Badea, who not only adopted twenty kids after they had two of their own, but founded an adoption agency; Sue has worked on foster-care and disability policy in Washington and does speaking and trainings all over the country on adoption.

Those who explicitly embrace the mantle of effective altruism, on the other hand, are quite often accused of not being sufficiently political. The objection typically involves two distinguishable points. First, effective altruists are accused of narrowly focusing on certain types of outcome: they address symptoms while ignoring underlying causes of suffering.59 As Lisa Herzog puts it, “this is the underlying assumption of Singer and his colleagues: they take the institutional order as given, implicitly denying that it can be transformed.”60 Second, in conjunction with this aversion to proposals for more radical change, effective altruists are accused of being individualistic in how they portray potential agents of change, promoting an individualistic ethical ideal at odds with the collective political action needed for any kind of structural or institutional change.61

These points raise thorny questions about the relation between ethics and politics—not unlike the tensions Rubenstein highlights for humanitarian organizations themselves. In a recent defense of effective altruism, the philosopher Jeff McMahan responds to such charges by arguing that “individuals must decide what to do against the background of what others will in fact do . . . I am neither a community nor a state. I can determine only what I will do.”62 It is not that McMahan thinks institutional reform is not worth thinking about or aiming at. Rather, he seems to think a division of labor is just fine, and is primarily responding to those who claim effective altruism has an overly narrow view of what philosophers should do. His point is that such critics fail to see that a wide range of different but related questions can be addressed at the same time. “That some philosophers work to understand what our individual duties might be against a background of malfunctioning institutions,” McMahan writes, “does not free ‘the philosopher’ from trying also to understand issues of global justice and institutional reform.”63

McMahan is right to insist that, as individuals, we cannot simply dispense with the task of deciding what to do in an imperfect world, and that this should not be viewed as necessarily opposed to other reflections on structures and institutions or collective responsibility and political action. But it also cannot be denied that the tenor of effective altruism—from the founding analogy of rescuing a child from a pond to the omnipresent task of calculating how many lives you can save—is about wedding technical proficiency with individual moral action. Of course nothing requires it to stop there. MSF has long been guided by those same ideals while also developing a politically oriented “ethics of refusal.” Their history of trial and error in trying to achieve the right balance is simply an indication of the messy realities in any attempt to do good here and now while also aiming at long term change.64 So McMahan is right to say that effective altruism need not be opposed in principle to political action aimed at structural change. But how have effective altruists tended to [End Page 313] relate to politics in practice? And what degree of political engagement can possibly be incorporated into this framework, given its starting point and framing assumptions?

In fact, effective altruists are typically rather skeptical about the likelihood of significant structural reform. Again, McMahan: “I can, of course, decide to concentrate my individual efforts on changing my state’s institutions, or indeed on trying to change global economic institutions, though the probability of my making a difference to the lives of badly off individuals may be substantially lower if I adopt this course than if I undertake more direct action, unmediated by the state.”65 Echoing this point about calculating probabilities, Singer typically takes a pragmatic view about what may or may not work. On the one hand, he will stress that organizations like Oxfam not only engage in emergency relief but also promote changes in the global economic order.66 And he argues that we should be open-minded in the following sense: “If, after investigating the causes of global poverty and considering what approach is most likely to reduce it, you really believe that a more revolutionary change is needed, then it would make sense to put your time, energy, and money into organizations promoting that revolution in the global economic system. But this is a practical question, and if there is little chance of achieving the kind of revolution you are seeking, then you need to look around for a strategy with better prospects of actually helping some poor people.”67 It is the latter point that always seems to get the most emphasis. For example, Singer stresses that powerful advocacy campaigns often fail, like the wave of activism in 2008 against the U.S. Farm Bill’s huge subsidies for American agriculture. “Defeats like this suggest that our efforts are better spent elsewhere, where we can be confident of making a difference.”68 And Singer often reserves his most robust rhetoric for defending individual actions that have made a difference: “Maybe it won’t change the structure of things. But until I’m shown how to do that, I’ll settle for making some people better off . . .When we can’t make deep structural changes, it is still better to help some people than to help none. When Oskar Schindler protected Jews who would otherwise have been murdered, he had no impact on the structure of the Nazi genocide, but he did what he could, and he was right to do so.”69 This really does seem to be Singer’s core message.

The problem with this approach, then, is less that institutions and structures, along with the politics needed to change them, are entirely ignored. It is more a problem with precisely how they get factored in. Rubenstein rightly insists that we must resist the “myth of the do-gooding machine” (223). But effective altruism almost unavoidably perpetuates the myth and sustains the ideal of perfecting the machine. The machine is so seductive and all-encompassing that it subsumes politics, too, as just another data point. Institutions and organizations either help or hinder one’s individual aim. If they hinder my goal of doing the most good I can do, then I need to find a more direct route that avoids them along with the messy uncertainties of politics. So even if McMahan’s division of labor may be justifiable in principle, there is still a tendency in many articulations of effective altruism for political and institutional questions to be entirely subsumed under the question of individual action. It is hard to see how, given such framing assumptions, it will not always prescribe the same path: avoid the uncertainties of politics (unless, of course, a massive transformational [End Page 314] movement that is likely to succeed arises, which is hard to imagine if we all avoid the uncertainties of politics and keep our moral noses to the ground in doing good).

This is why Rubenstein’s reframing is so important. Her alternative analogy—that donating to INGOs is like donating to a political candidate outside one’s district— already includes the best elements of effective altruism—moral concern for suffering strangers and hard-headed empirical analysis—but within a larger framework that foregrounds our collective responsibility for the system under which we all live and the injustices it perpetuates. While she is able to incorporate the best elements of effective altruism into what I would call politically responsible altruism, it is not at all clear that effective altruists can convincingly incorporate her insights into their framework.

Even as today’s effective altruism develops more sophisticated empirical analyses, the moral vision that animates it is still quite similar to the one in Singer’s founding essay: the individual moral agent stands at the center with a world extending out as one continuous humanitarian space—a space in which the individual can potentially “do good.” Institutions are viewed in technical terms, much the same way Singer saw them when originally thinking about NGOs, as better or worse mediators between oneself and the good one can do. What gets reinforced rather than challenged, is a view of ourselves as relatively powerless when it comes to changing systems in which we find ourselves. The only power we are encouraged to embrace is the power of individual actions to change the lives of other individuals. Theorists like Rubenstein, on the other hand, always keep existing structures and power relations in view, pointing to our collective responsibility for them. That too can feel like a “crushing responsibility,” but the framing question is not, how can I live an ethical life and do the most good, but rather how can we, together with others, take up the task of changing all this.

Jeffrey Flynn

Jeffrey Flynn is associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University. His first book was Reframing the Intercultural Dialogue on Human Rights: A Philosophical Approach (Routledge, 2014). In 2013–2014 he was a Member in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ). He is currently working on a book on humanitarianism.


1. Tony Vaux, The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War (London: Earthscan Publications, 2001).

2. Michael Maren The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (New York: The Free Press, 1997), and Alex De Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

3. David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

4. One exception has been the work of Hugo Slim, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), which I discuss briefly below. See also Chiara Lepora and Robert Goodin, On Complicity and Compromise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Lisa Fuller, “Priority Setting in International Non-Governmental Organizations: It Is Not as Easy as ABCD,” Journal of Global Ethics 8, no. 1 (2012): 5–17.

5. Rubenstein did nine months of fieldwork with the ICRC, MSF-France, MSF-Belgium, MSF-Amsterdam, Oxfam-UK, and the International Rescue Committee in 2001–2002, along with shadowing an IRC aid worker for two weeks in Northern Uganda. Between Samaritans and States, 23.

6. Hugo Slim, cited in Rubenstein, Between Samaritans and States, 22.

7. “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 496.

8. See Singer’s account of Oxfam’s political advocacy in The Most Good You Can Do, 157–62; and Rubenstein, Between Samaritans and States, chap. 5 on INGO advocacy.

9. For an excellent account of humanitarian organizations grappling with such changes, see Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 215–17, 234–36.

10. See Chapter 4, “Why You Shouldn’t Donate to Disaster Relief: Question #3: Is this area neglected?” in a book by one of the founders of the effective altruism movement: William MacAskill, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference (New York: Gotham Books, 2015).

11. See Chapter 4, “Earning to Give,” in Singer, The Most Good You Can Do. This question is posed in terms of what is the most good you can do with the eighty thousand hours of a typical career. See the website for the organization founded by Benjamin Todd and William MacAskill, www.80000hours.org, and Benjamin Todd, 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career that Does Good (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016).

12. John Gray, “How & How Not to Be Good,” The New York Review of Books, May 21, 2015.

13. See Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, chap. 2, “A Movement Emerges.”

14. The Giving What We Can Pledge, accessed January 19, 2019, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/pledge/. See the profile of Toby Ord in Chapter 2 of Singer, and MacFarquhar’s discussion of Giving What We Can (88–102).

15. Membership numbers as of July 24, 2017. Online communication with website authors, July 26, 2017.

16. Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (Spring 1972): 229–43. Recently reissued in book form, with a foreword by Bill and Melinda Gates: Famine, Affluence, and Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

17. The calculation of $200 comes from Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” The New York Times Magazine (1999). Singer later admitted that calculating how much to donate in order to save a life might be more complicated, and then further distinguished between what he thinks one is actually morally required to give (to the point of marginal utility) from what he thinks should be promoted in light of certain facts of human psychology. See Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (New York: Random House, 2009).

18. Barnett, Empire of Humanity, 133. I also describe this historical period as the context for properly understanding Singer’s essay and the impact it would have had on its very first readers, in “Philosophers, Historians, and Suffering Strangers,” Moving the Social: Journal of Social History and the History of Social Movements 57 (2017): 137–58. The following paragraphs draw on 155–56 of that essay.

19. Lasse Heerten, “The Dystopia of Postcolonial Catastrophe: Self-Determination, the Biafran War of Secession, and the 1970s Human Rights Movement,” in The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s, ed. Jan Eckel and Samuel Moyn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 19.

20. Günter Grass, “Völkermord vor aller Augen: Ein Appell an die Bundesregierung,” in: Die Zeit, November 10,1968, 5, cited in Lasse Heerten: “ ‘A’ as in Auschwitz, ‘B’ as in Biafra: The Nigerian Civil War, Visual Narratives of Genocide, and the Fragmented Universalization of the Holocaust,” in Humanitarian Photography: A History, ed. Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 249–74, 262.

21. Konrad J. Kuhn, “Liberation Struggle and Humanitarian Aid: International Solidarity Movements and the “Third World” in the 1960s,” in The Third World in the Global 1960s, ed. Samantha Christiansen and Zachary Scarlett (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 71.

22. De Waal, Famine Crimes, 73.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 75.

25. Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” 232.

26. See Peter Redfield, “A Less Modest Witness: Collective Advocacy and Motivated Truth in a Medical Humanitarian Movement,” American Ethnologist 33, no. 1 (February 2006): 6. Redfield notes that they had the crisis in Bangladesh in mind, 6–7.

27. Peter Redfield, Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (University of California Press, 2013), 55.

28. MSF’s total expenditures in 2012 were about $1.1 billion with a surplus of $176 million; 91 percent of revenue came from donations from individuals or private institutions. Thomas Weiss, Humanitarian Business (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 106–07.

29. On this sense idea of inaction as complicity, see my “Philosophers, Historians, and Suffering Strangers.”

30. Bertrand Taithe, “Reinventing (French) Universalism: Religion, Humanitarianism and the ‘French Doctors,’ ” Modern & Contemporary France 12, no. 2 (May 2004): 147–58, 149.

31. Barnett, Empire of Humanity, 145.

32. Redfield, Life in Crisis, 38.

33. Dale Jamieson, “Singer and the Practical Ethics Movement,” in Singer and His Critics, ed. Dale Jamieson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 7.

34. Peter Singer, Preface to Famine, Affluence, and Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), xi.

35. It was later published as his first book, Democracy and Disobedience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973). Singer has also been quite active in the animal rights movement. As Jamieson tells us, Singer’s activist approach to practical ethics has led him to “march, demonstrate, and sit in a cage in a city square to publicize the plight of battery hens. He has been enjoined from publicly criticizing or demonstrating against a circus, and arrested for trying to photograph confined sows on a pig farm partly owned by Australia’s prime minister. Twice he has stood as a candidate for the Green Party in Australian federal elections.” Dale Jamieson, “Singer and the Practical Ethics Movement,” 7.

36. For the shifts in the Anglo-American context, see Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), chap. 4; and Jan Eckel, “The International League for the Rights of Man, Amnesty International, and the Changing Fate of Human Rights Activism from the 1940s to through the 1970s,” Humanity 4, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 183–214, esp. 200–01. For the shifts in the French context, see Moyn, The Last Utopia, 169–70, and Eleanor Davey, Idealism beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954–1988 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

37. Lilie Chouliaraki, The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism (Polity, 2013), 122, quoting in part from Jenny Edkins, Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 107. Chouliaraki goes on to contrast the Live Aid concert with the Live 8 concert in 2005 in order to note interesting shifts in the “moralization strategy” and aesthetic and performative aspects of benefit concerts as a form of “ceremonial humanitarianism.”

38. Dale Jamieson, “Duties to the Distant: Aid, Assistance, and Intervention in the Developing World,” The Journal of Ethics 9, no. 1–2 (March 2005): 151–70, 154.

39. Rieff, A Bed for the Night, 39–40.

40. See Jamieson’s account, in “Duties to the Distant,” of how Singer’s pond analogy mirrors what Jamieson calls the “LiveAid Conception.”

41. Cynthia Brassard-Boudreau, “Shrinking Humanitarian Space? Trends and Prospects on Security and Access,” The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, November 24, 2010, accessed January 19, 2019, https://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/863. For a critical, deconstructive account of humanitarian space, linking it to the logic of state sovereignty, see Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

42. Barnett, Empire of Humanity, 34.

43. Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown, Introduction to Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy, ed. Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 16–17.

44. Leif Wenar, “Poverty Is No Pond: Challenges for the Affluent,” in Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy, ed. Patricia Illingworth et al. (Oxford University Press, 2011).

45. Singer himself significantly expanded the range of moral and empirical considerations that must be accounted for, while still maintaining his core argument, in The Life You Can Save.

46. William Galston, “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9, no. 4 (October 2010): 385–411.

47. The phrase is drawn from James Orbinski’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace prize for MSF in 1999, in which he identifies “the refusal of all forms of problem solving through sacrifice of the weak and vulnerable” as a “founding [principle] of humanitarian action” (quoted in Ruben-stein, 154).

48. See fn 4.

49. Hugo Slim, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

50. Ibid., 217.

51. Ibid.

52. Nor is it simply the views of those of whom he is critical that Slim misunderstands. He tries to sympathetically draw on Rawls by applying the “difference principle” to particular cases in the world of humanitarian action rather than to the basic structure of society (62–63, 239), but this is not the proper way to use the principle.

53. Michel Agier, “Humanity as an Identity and Its Political Effects,” Humanity 1, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 29–45, 43.

54. Slim, Humanitarian Ethics, 218.

55. Ibid., 231.

56. Ibid., 242–43.

57. Ibid., 231.

58. The section title alludes to Bertolt Brecht’s “A Bed for the Night,” a poem that captures, in a way analytical work often cannot, the powerful pull of individual direct action that won’t change the world (“For a night the wind is kept from them / The snow meant for them falls on the roadway”) along with the enduring need to change the world, to “improve relations among men” and “shorten the age of exploitation.”

59. Singer acknowledges and responds to this objection in Peter Singer, “From ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality,’ to Effective Altruism,” The Philosophers’ Magazine, no. 73 (2nd Quarter 2016): 60–61.

60. Lisa Herzog, “Can ‘Effective Altruism’ Really Change the World?” OpenDemocracy.net, February 22, 2016, accessed January 19, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/lisa-herzog/can-effective-altruism-really-change-world. See also the reply by Scott Weathers, “Can ‘Effective Altruism’ Change the World? It Already Has,” OpenDemocracy.net, February 29, 2016, accessed January 19, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/scott-weathers/can-effective-altruism-change-world-it-already-has.

61. See Joanna Scutts, “The Surefire Formula for Doing Good?,” In These Times, September 17, 2015. See also Amia Srinavasan’s review of MacAskill, Doing Good Better in “Stop the Robot Apocalypse,” London Review of Books 37, no. 18 (September 24, 2015); and Samuel Moyn’s review of MacFarquhar: “The Beauty and the Costs of Extreme Altruism,” The Nation, November 5, 2015.

62. Jeff McMahan, “Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism,” The Philosophers’ Magazine, no. 73 (2nd Quarter 2016): 92–99, 96–97.

63. Ibid., 97.

64. See Peter Redfield, Life in Crisis. For excellent analysis of an historical example, see the discussion of debates among abolitionists on whether to purchase the freedom of individual slaves or to focus solely on abolishing the system, in Margaret M. R. Kellow, “Hard Struggles of Doubt: Abolitionists and the Problem of Slave Redemption,” in Humanitarianism and Suffering, 118–39.

65. McMahan, “Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism,” 97, my emphasis.

66. Singer, Life You Can Save, 36. Singer, “From ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality,’ ” 61.

67. Singer, Life You Can Save, 36.

68. Ibid., 114.

69. Peter Singer, “Achieving the Best Outcome: A Rejoinder,” Ethics & International Affairs 16, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 128, a reply to Andrew Kuper, “More Than Charity: Cosmopolitan Alternatives to the ‘Singer Solution,’ ” Ethics & International Affairs 16, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 107–20.

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