Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher, has something in his portfolio of topics to offend everybody. Pro-life people heartily dislike his enthusiasm for euthanasia. And if you ever invite Professor Singer over to your house, don’t order the Meat Lovers Pizza, because Singer is an animal rights activist and devout vegetarian.
Singer is of course also someone who applies his utilitarian philosophy to charity. He touches on his philosophy of charity as well as his other favorite subjects in a lengthy interview with, of all places, Gawker, a website I thought was only devoted to vapid celebrity chat.
I won’t discuss his views on animal rights or euthanasia here, except to say that the vile rumor that the chief objection that Singer had to “death panels” is that they involved panels is completely unfounded. He says that while he is opposed to “involuntary euthanasia,” or killing someone against their will, he supports the voluntary right to die as well as “involuntary euthanasia” in cases where consent cannot be obtained, such as an infant born with severe disabilities. Singer also says that given how controversial his positions on euthanasia are, “I do think, in hindsight, it might have been better if I had never addressed that topic.”
As for charity, Gawker gets points for linking to Singer’s original paper on charity from 1972, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality," giving readers a sense of where Singer came from and how he has evolved over time. Reacting to the Bangladesh famine of 1971, Singer wrote “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” If everyone in Britain who could give five pounds to the Bengal Relief Fund did so, “there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the refugees.”
Singer provides a postscript, saying that although the Bangladesh crisis was over,
the world food crisis is, if anything, still more serious…the need for assistance is, therefore, just as great as when I first wrote, and we can be sure that without there will, again, be major famines.
As it turned out, most of the major famines that have taken place since 1972 have happened because of government, as when one side in a civil war withholds food from another side. We all know about the incompetence of national and international development agencies in distributing food to the poor.
So if Peter Singer in 1972 said donating to prevent famines is a moral duty, the Singer of 2014 says that is an option that is better than existing options. When asked if helping Third World economies grow, Singer says that
I think it’s good for there to be investment in developing countries, and put businesses in there, and create employment, and so on. . . . [But] a lot of people that I’m addressing don’t have that opportunity. . . . They’re ordinary people going about their jobs. They’re not investors, or major capitalists, or CEOs of corporations. So if you said to them, "Let’s promote economic development in Uganda or elsewhere," they would say, "How can I do that?" Whereas if you say, "You can donate to the Against Malaria Foundation and you can provide bed nets," there’s a way for them to do that.
Singer also says that he is not opposed to gifts to the arts, but “that in the world as it is, it’s not a charity that I would give the highest priority to” and that it’s more important to help fight poverty in the Third World.
Of course there’s a lot of bad charity out there—enough that I wrote Great Philanthropic Mistakes. I would also agree that fighting poverty should be the first priority of the philanthropist. If Peter Singer wants to recommend proven organizations that do a good job in fighting “extreme poverty,” more power to him. I see from the website Singer supports, The Life You Can Save, that only about 17,000 people have taken the pledge to give one percent of their incomes to fighting “extreme poverty.”
I think that’s because part of the reasons we give include pleasure, which is not part of the grim utilitarian calculus. Utilitarians like Peter Singer think the world can be reduced to equations—so many dollars, so many lives saved. But we give to local organizations in our communities because we want to see our neighborhoods improve. The variables that result from a neighborhood garden, for example, are not variables in any philanthropic equation Peter Singer ever devised.
Here’s a personal example. If a busker can play his or her instrument, I’m always happy to throw some change or a couple of bucks into the singer’s hat. I even buy CDs from street musicians. That’s because listening to good local musicians is a far better way to spend a few minutes waiting for a train then staring into space or at a smartphone. I like music and would like to see more musicians get work, so I like to use my philanthropic dollars in this way.
One of the greatest problems facing philanthropy today is groupthink—the large foundations that move in lockstep, the hectoring voice that says, “You can’t give money to musicians! There are starving people in Africa who need your donations now!”
We should do everything we can to encourage variety in our giving. In that world, the charities Peter Singer supports are valuable players. To say they should be the only players—or even the most important—ultimately weakens rather than strengthens philanthropy.