Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, seems to think there is just one correct way to engage in philanthropy. Not surprisingly, it’s his way, which he calls “Effective Altruism.”
While I agree with some of the elements of Effective Altruism, there are a number of points with which I disagree. Recently, both Singer and I had a chance to air some of our views on the national PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly:
At the risk of providing you with a simplistic overview of Effective Altruism, here are some of its key elements and my concerns with them:
Donors should not make emotional decisions about philanthropy. They should devote serious thought and analysis when making giving decisions.
I agree that donors should make informed decisions, examine the efficiency and track record of charities, and understand how their gifts will be used. If more donors spent more time researching the charities they give to, there would likely be fewer fraudulent charities.
However, while donors should engage in more thoughtful, analytical giving — and many do — we should not ignore basic human nature and the findings of neuroscience research. It’s unreasonable to suggest philanthropic giving should be a solely intellectual exercise. The fact is that emotions are involved in almost every decision we humans make. This means, we need to give with both our heads and our hearts.
Individuals should seek to earn as much money as they can so they can donate more money than they otherwise could.
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable, worthwhile suggestion. However, in practice, this could create cultural and economic problems. For example, if everyone followed this advice, it could lead many charities to become understaffed, staffed with incompetent people, or having to take funds away from mission fulfillment in order to pay competitively much higher salaries.
Our society doesn’t just need lawyers and Wall Street traders, we need a diverse labor force, and we need people who will actually do good in addition to funding good.
Getting people to donate more does not just involve getting them to earn more. On average, Americans donate approximately two percent of personal income to charities. Without earning more, donors could certainly give more than the two percent average without having to make a serious sacrifice. The key is to inspire donors to want to do so. That’s where we get back to appealing to both hearts and minds.
Donors should give where it will do the most good.
Everyone who donates or volunteers their time wants to support effective organizations. But, how does Singer define “Effective”? It turns out he doesn’t just mean efficient and impactful. For Singer, effective is essentially synonymous with life-saving. Singer demonstrates this at The Life You Can Save, a website he founded, where all of the recommended charities focus on saving lives.
While saving lives is certainly noble, Singer doesn’t simply advocate for such charities. He ridicules donors who support charities that are not engaged in life-saving activities. Among his favorite targets are donors to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He implies that people who donate to Make-a-Wish are guilty of murder since they do not, instead, give to a charity that buys mosquito nets to prevent malaria. You can read my analysis of a Singer anti-Make-a-Wish column here.
Actually, Singer himself is not always in favor of saving lives. For example, he has supported infanticide, what he calls “after-birth abortion.” Under certain circumstances, defined by Singer, he believes it is perfectly acceptable to murder babies. In Practical Ethics, he wrote:
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