Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Peter Singer's Philanthropy

Peter Singer is well-known for how seriously he takes utilitarianism.  It leads him to a strong defense of animal rights, to controversial views concerning care for those with severe disabilities, and to the promotion of philanthropy.

He’s at it again.  In this article from the Wall Street Journal, he talks about his goal to have wealthy people give away one-third of their income.  But not to just any cause, of course – he chastises David Geffen for giving $100 million to renovate part of the Lincoln Center in New York, when that money could be better used to prevent starvation and disease in impoverished parts of the world.

I think it’s clear that we ought to give more than we do.  There is something obscene about how much money we have, and how we spend it, in a world where there is so much poverty and suffering.

At the same time, there are legitimate questions about how much to give, and about what causes to support.  The following story illustrates the problem.  Back in the 1980’s, famines in Ethiopia made headlines and prompted rock stars to come together, record (historically bad) songs, and hold concerts, with the proceeds going to famine relief.  The success of those efforts is still unclear, leading many people to wonder whether donations to such causes do any good.

In 2013, Peter Singer gave a TED talk in which he addressed some of these questions.  The video is posted.  Note two things about what he says.  First, many of the philanthropists he highlights are philosophers.  Yay philosophers! 

Second, Singer’s answers are, again, thoroughly utilitarian.  By his lights we need to think of our philanthropic decisions in terms of overall consequences.  We need to approach these matters from "the perspective of the universe."  Rather than giving a blind person a guide dog, we should use that same money to cure blindness in hundreds of people in developing countries.  Singer doesn’t say so explicitly, but he clearly thinks this reasoning applies even if the blind individual is your own child.  Is he right?

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