Philosopher Peter Singer, famous for his pioneering work on animal welfare, now focuses on philanthropy, urging people to use the same cool-headed detachment when giving to charity as they would when buying a dishwasher.
Singer, who tackles this topic in his latest book “The Most Good You Can Do”, said many of us fail to go through the same reasoning process when we give money to charity as we do when we spend on other products, as emotion takes over.
“Nobody says ‘I’ll take the one that costs twice as much,’ unless you actually show me that it’s a much better dishwasher in some way,” the Australian academic and writer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
People often give to charities with which they have a personal connection, such as those which seek to cure a disease which killed a loved one.
But Singer, 69, who is a professor at Princeton University, rejects this, recommending instead what he calls “the point of view of the universe”.
“It’s really hard to get people to look up and look at the world as a whole rather than just looking down at their community .. but there are an increasing number of people who do feel this way”.
Proponents of this way of giving call themselves “effective altruists,” a movement that emerged a few years ago but now has thousands of adherents. They seek not just to give large sums away but also to make sure these gifts are “effective”.
Funding a guide dog for a blind person in the developed world costs tens of thousands of dollars, while effective altruists point out the same amount could be used to restore sight to hundreds of people in the developing world.
But Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States and altruism expert, said it is human nature to give to causes close to home.
“Many people have a higher desire to help people like themselves,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We settle down on something we feel passionate about.”
THE LIFE YOU CAN SAVE
GiveWell, a “metacharity”, trawls through data to try to find charities which generate “proven, cost-effective and scalable” outcomes.
It currently recommends just four: Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and Deworm the World Initiative.
These charities, alongside a few others, are recommended by Singer’s organisation “The Life You Can Save”.
Despite the name, he advocates taking quality of life into account as well as simply counting lives saved or extended.
Removing parasitic worms, a cheap intervention, is popular with effective altruists for this reason as it was demonstrated that children without parasites stay longer in school, he said.
Globally, far more is given to charities which look to cure first world diseases, to those which support the arts, and to emergency appeals, than to the global health charities which Singer and his supporters recommend.
“Would your loved one really have wanted you particularly to focus on the disease that killed them?” Singer asked. “There are other conditions in the world that are so much more inexpensive to actually deal with.”
COMPASSION BEFORE PASSION
Charity appeals launched for headline-grabbing disasters such as April’s Nepal earthquake or the 2004 Asian tsunami tend to raise far more than appeals to alleviate chronic suffering.
“There are studies that suggest the money is not as effectively used as it would be if you gave it to one of those organisations that are just quietly there in the background 365 days a year, helping people with ongoing problems,” Singer said.
Funding for the arts is treated with similar scepticism.
“The difference between a renovated concert hall and an un-renovated concert hall can’t compare to saving lives.”
But furthering the good of humanity with no regard for personal connections is not everyone’s objective, said Vesterlund. “Just as we have different preferences for private goods, we have different preferences for charitable giving as well.”
Singer recognises his rational, cool-headed approach faces an uphill struggle against the appeals to emotion which usually encourage people to give to charity.
“It’s true that most people don’t follow the advice that I’m giving, but it’s also true that most people have never heard the advice I’m giving,” he said.