Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Stuff

April 15, 2015

We desperately crave things.

New, better phones. New, better cars. New, better computers to write new, better St. Joseph’s College news stories (nudge).

Our yearning for things is only exceeded by our need for more stuff. A hedonistic treadmill, Peter Singer calls it.

“We can’t really enjoy that many possessions,” Singer said at his April 14 Brooklyn Voices event. “This idea of the hedonistic treadmill is you think you’ll enjoy life more if you get more consumer goods. Then you get the consumer goods and you enjoy them briefly, but pretty soon you’re back to the level of enjoyment you were at before — so you have to buy more stuff.”

This is where effective altruism, Singer’s philosophy and subject of his new book, The Most Good You Can Do, comes into play.

Currently a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of 40 books, Singer was named one of Time magazine's 100 most important people in 2005. In 2013 he was third on the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute’s ranking of Global Thought Leaders. In 2012, he was made a companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest civic honor. He's also the founder of The Life You Can Save (, an effective altruism group that encourages people to donate money to the most effective charities working today.

The list of credentials can continue for another 1,000 words. Singer has got a solid grasp of the hedonistic treadmill most Americans, and developed citizens, are currently running on.

“It’s bizarre how the storage industry has taken off," Singer said to a capacity crowd in Tuohy Hall. "People live in larger houses, more space per person than they ever did before. Yet they need storage space. There’s something wrong here.

“In contrast, with respect to effective altruism, people who are working for a purpose that harmonizes with their values, that they see as being significant, don’t need satisfaction out getting more and more stuff, because they have a fulfillment that comes knowing that they’ve done something worthwhile with their lives. They look back on their lives with a sense of satisfaction and pride, and self esteem. I wonder how many of the people who are sucked into the hedonistic treadmill actually do that.“

“Having things to have things is almost a national pastime — the excessive accumulation of wealth,” agreed Michael Specter, the host and interviewer for last night’s Brooklyn Voices event. Specter is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a former correspondant for The New York Times and author of the book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

Specter asked his own prepared questions for the first half hour of the event before he invited students and audience members to write down their own. Within five minutes of his request, a hefty stack of white index cards were passed on stage.

“There must be like two people in the audience who didn’t fill out a card!" Specter laughed. "Which is amazing and evidence of the interest. I can’t possible read all these … he’ll die, we’ll ask some.” 

How does one give effectively? Is it better to wait for a foundation to develop before donating to it? Should we invest in our own philosophy and spirituality instead of seeking personal fulfillment through giving donations?

Check back in two weeks, when we'll post C-SPAN2's video coverage of the night as part of their Book TV series, with full clips of Singer's responses to these and more questions.

Becoming an effective altruist

Singer’s new book is already a success internationally. The royalties he’ll receive from the sales will be substantial — for whatever organizations we, the public, decide to donate the funds. You can decide on his website:

Looking for a better way to give? Check out the recommended links below.

Peter Singer’s Reddit AMA

And remember to join us at St. Joseph's College next Brooklyn Voices event on April 27 for The Gilbert Sorrentino Birthday Tribute, featuring Sam Lipsyte, Mark Chiusano, Christopher Sorrentino, James Wolcott and Don DeLillo. Reading and discussion to be hosted by Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday. Event is at 7 p.m. in the Tuohy Hall Auditorium and is free and open to the public.