Archive for January 17th, 2014

January 17, 2014

Is it Ethical When an Ethicist Browbeats Prospective Donors?

Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and founder of The Life You Can Save, not only thinks it is acceptable to browbeat prospective donors, it’s exactly what he did in an op-ed article published in The Washington Post.

In my opinion, Singer’s piece, “Heartwarming Causes are Nice, but Let’s Give to Charity with Our Heads,” contains a glaring ethical problem:

Coercive Manipulation. Singer suggests that people who donate to causes that he does not endorse, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, are guilty of murder.

Let’s look more closely at this issue before exploring other problems with Singer’s reasoning.

After pointing out that the Make-A-Wish Foundation does not save lives, Singer presents a variety of examples of how contributions to his select group of organizations, instead of Make-A-Wish, can actually preserve lives. Singer writes:

Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do. According to Make-A-Wish, the average cost of realizing the wish of a child with a life-threatening illness is $7,500. That sum, if donated to the Against Malaria Foundation and used to provide bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions, could save the lives of at least two or three children (and that’s a conservative estimate).”

Singer goes on to say:

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid [referencing a child who benefitted from Make-A-Wish last year]?”

Such adolescent logic is harshly manipulative. The taking of a human life is widely considered the greatest possible sin. By accusing people of this sin, Singer is using guilt to coercively manipulate donor behavior.

Mosquito by Ibrahim Koc

Mosquito by Ibrahim Koc

Rather than offering an unbiased exploration of the roles of emotion v. intellect in the philanthropic process, Singer uses the forum to browbeat people to meet his own personal philanthropic standards.

I’m not sure why Singer thinks he is better qualified to judge which charities are worthy to exist or not. Nevertheless, it is certain that Singer feels he has a better moral compass than the rest of us. And, unless we want to be murderers, we should support his anointed causes.

What I find particularly interesting is that, while Singer appears concerned about saving lives, he seems little concerned with the quality of those lives saved.

What happens to the child who has been saved from Malaria? Would Singer oppose donations to build a school to educate those children? After all, the money otherwise could have gone to buy more mosquito nets.

Singer’s op-ed article provides an excellent example of what nonprofit organizations should not do when trying to attract people to a cause. Instead, here are some of the things that charities should do:

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