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So Peter Singer has a new book about charity coming out, and…

“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying, “You’re attacking Peter Singer again? What is it with you and that guy?”

Well, for the critic, Peter Singer is an entire month’s worth of unboxing. He doesn’t just deliver red meat—he’s a Brazilian meat buffet of awful positions. Every time you think you have uncovered everything bad about the man, he comes up with another appalling idea.

In an intriguing essay in The New Atlantis, Ari Schulman has many links to some of Singer’s worst statements. For example:

Euthanasia? In a 2000 interview with Reason’s Ronald Bailey, Singer explained that he spent a good deal of money caring for his mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. However, Bailey reported that Singer said that he had to make decisions about his mother jointly with his sister, and if “he was solely responsible” for decisions about his mother, “she might not be alive today.”

Bestiality? We should respect animals. Animals are our friends! But in a 2001 article for the website Nerve, Singer claimed that if an unsprayed dog humps your leg, this could lead to “mutually playful interactions” between man and beast and Let’s Not Go There.

Schulman even claims that Singer advocated cannibalism, but his evidence is a forty-three-minute lecture on YouTube, and, well, I’m sorry, but I have many, many better things to do than watching Peter Singer talk about anything for forty-three minutes.

Schulman’s point in unearthing these morsels of raw meat is this: if Singer really believes these awful views, why should we trust him on the best way to be charitable?

Singer is a utilitarian, who once famously argued “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.” As Schulman notes, Singer has never explained what he means by “bad” or “comparable” in this sentence.

We could dismiss Singer as another dusty denizen of the ivory tower. But unlike most philosophers, Singer actually is influential. He’s a force behind the “effective altruism” movement, which, as Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill notes, is convincing many people to earn huge salaries so they can give away half their income. Most notably, Bill Gates has announced that he is an admirer of Peter Singer, and Gates has blurbed Singer’s new book.

I am grateful to Schulman for linking to a 2013 op-ed by Singer from the New York Times where he explains his arguments. Singer blasts a pamphlet put out by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) gives potential donors a wide variety of options on how they can spend their donations. RPA says when a donor asks “What is the most urgent issue?” the proper response should be, “There’s obviously no objective answer to that question.”

Singer poses the following thought experiment. Suppose you have $100,000 to give. The local art museum asks for money to build a new wing. But you could use the same money to save 1,000 people in Africa from suffering from trachoma, which gradually causes blindness. If the new wing of the art museum costs $10 million and would attract 100,000 visitors, your $100,000 gift would amount to 1 percent of the capital campaign or 1,000 visitors, compared to permanently saving African lives.

First off, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors “roadmap” seems to me to be a good introduction to philanthropy. They score points with me for accurately summarizing the giving of Chuck Feeney and why Feeney wants to give away his money in his lifetime. Where I’d disagree with RPA is their statement that there is no “objective answer” on how to give, where the advice of the world’s great religions is that fighting poverty should be the highest priority. But their advice in general seems fair to me.

Where Singer loads the dice is when he presents the options of either funding a capital campaign or saving lives in the Third World. But there are lots of other ways to give than capital campaigns.

The other day the Washington Post ran an obituary for Dr. Gerald Perman, a psychiatrist who founded the Vocal Arts Society in 1990. Over the years the society presented 100 recitals, featuring such great singers as Renée Fleming, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Thomas Quasthoff.

“The fees are modest but no one minds,” Austin Baer wrote in the Atlantic in 1998. “An all-volunteer staff takes not a penny in overhead, and the talent—a bright mixture of top names and stars-in-waiting—is treated like royalty by an audience of connoisseurs.”

Now for Peter Singer, the good deeds of someone like Perman shouldn’t be counted. I disagree. Perman helped a lot of great artists practice their art. He added beauty to the world. That’s an honorable goal.

I’m not going to condemn either the charities Peter Singer endorses or the people who have decided to follow his charitable methods. If that is what you want to do, more power to you. I just hope the people who have decided to give away half of their giant incomes have adequately saved for their retirement.

But it should be a law of giving that there is no One Right Way to give. Moreover, one doesn’t have to give to any cause. So if Bill Gates decides not to give money to art museums, he doesn’t have to. But if Gates or anyone else says that no one should give to art museums, that advice is severely wrongheaded.

Peter Singer is an important voice in debates on philanthropy. But his statements on how and why we should give should not be taken as definitive.

(Hat tip: Kathryn Jean Lopez, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE)


4 thoughts on “The First Law of Giving: There is no one right way to give”

  1. Ari Schulman says:

    (And it’s illuminating, I should add.)

  2. Ari Schulman says:

    Thanks for your comments, Mr. Wooster.

    About Singer and cannibalism: the link I provided in the article should go right to the point in the video where Singer and Dawkins discuss cannibalism. It begins at the 19:04 mark.

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