Giving what we can: St Andrews lecturer changes the way we think about charity

Photo Credit: Flo McQuibban

Imagine yourself walking in the park, trying out some £20 shoes you just bought. You spot a child drowning in a shallow pond, and find yourself having to make a choice between doing nothing and wading into the pond to save the child, thereby ruining your newly bought shoes. What should you do? This is a famous thought experiment by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, from a paper titled Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972). Nearly everyone finds it obvious that you should save the drowning child, even though your shoes would be ruined. Singer argues that since you’d not be sacrificing anything of comparable moral worth in saving the child’s life, you should do it. Singer goes further than saying just that we ought to save people from drowning if we can do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral worth. What if you could donate £20 to charity instead of buying new shoes, and save the life of – or reduce the suffering of – some other, worse off, person? Singer argues that this is something you ought to do, even though those you’d be helping are physically distant from you. Why should it matter whether one is suffering on the other side of the planet, or right in front of you, if you could help alleviate their suffering?

Singer’s principle requires us to give and give, until our sacrifice is of comparable moral significance to the bad things we could prevent by further giving. In practice, this principle would plausibly imply that the affluent should be giving well over 10 per cent of their income. But let’s assume, as many people do, that it is often morally permissible (that is, not morally wrong) not to give this much money to charities. (I am not talking about permissibility in a legal sense, but in a moral sense – we don’t have a legal obligation to give to charity.)

Cases where it might be permissible not to give to charity are cases in which you have to significantly diminish or risk your own wellbeing. However, if you choose to give to charity despite this, it is argued that it’s often wrong to give to less effective charities when you have the option to donate to more effective charities. This is the case even when it would have been permissible not to give to any charity. This is the argument Dr Theron Pummer, a new philosophy lecturer, advances in his paper Whether and Where to Give (which he recently presented to the St Andrews philosophy society, inspiring a lively discussion).

Essentially, Pummer argues that even if you are not morally obliged to give to charity (under certain circumstances), it does not follow that it is morally permissible to give to any charity you want. In Pummer’s own words, “optionality about whether to give doesn’t entail optionality about where to give.” To illustrate this, consider a variation of the above pond scenario, where there are two ponds instead of one: east pond and west pond. In east pond there is one person drowning, and in west pond there are 100 people drowning. Unfortunately, you cannot save all 101; you’re forced to choose between the one and the 100. As long as other things are equal (they’re all strangers to you, they all have decent lives, and so on), it seems fairly obvious that you ought to save the 100 people from drowning instead of the one. In other words, it would be wrong to instead save the one, allowing so many more to die.

Now, let’s build on this scenario by adding that there is a minefield leading to both of these ponds. To get to either of the ponds you would have to cross the same minefield, which leads to a 25 per cent chance of death or serious injury. Would you be obliged to save the 100 people in this case? Pummer argues that we might reasonably grant that, because of the potential cost to you, you don’t have an obligation to save the 100 people from drowning. In Singer’s words, you might be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance; namely, your well-being or even your life. But what if you were to cross the minefield? Here Dr Pummer argues that if you’re going to be crossing the minefield, then you better save the 100 people. If you choose to save the one person instead of the 100 people, you seem to be doing something wrong, because you could have saved many more people without risking your own wellbeing any more than what you would have done already.

While Peter Singer argued that you ought to give money to overseas aid or charity organisations because it would greatly help those who are worse off than you yourself are, Theron Pummer argues that if you are willing to give money to charity, you ought to do what makes the outcome best overall – if you choose a clearly suboptimal option, you are simply doing something wrong. (He’s assuming none of the charities in question do serious harm or infringe rights.)

This tells us something interesting about our obligations concerning certain types of charities. To illustrate the point with a more real-world example, consider giving to Guide Dogs of America versus Sightsavers International. Neither of these two charities have a bad cause, but the latter is much more cost-effective in achieving the same goal of helping the blind. Since the latter is more cost-effective, and you won’t have to sacrifice any more of your wellbeing to donate to that charity instead of Guide Dogs of America, you ought to give to Sightsavers International if you are willing to give at all. So, even if we grant that you have permission not to give to any of the mentioned charities, it does not follow that you are at moral liberty in where to give when choosing between the two. It is important to note that Pummer’s position does not exclude the views Singer argues for in Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Pummer’s position simply augments the view Singer presents, by calling attention to the obligation to give well, in addition to the (already widely discussed) obligation to give more. So, if you are donating money to some cause, you better find the charity for that cause that is most cost-effective and impactful.

The views presented by Pummer are sensitive to the reality that it is notoriously difficult to compare the good done by charities that focus on different causes (compare cancer research charities with charities like the Against Malaria Foundation that distribute insecticide-treated nets). Both Singer and Pummer are sympatheticto the view that charities focusing on improving the well-being of distant people in extreme poverty are likely to do considerably more good per dollar donated than charities focusing on those nearby.

Nonetheless Pummer presented a view that leaves some room for giving to suboptimal charities, particularly in cases where the difference in good done isn’t great, and where you (the donor) would suffer a substantial personal loss if you didn’t give the money to the suboptimal charity. It’s harder to say here that you’ve done wrong. But usually one’s personal motivations for giving attach to particular causes (such as cancer), and it would be wrong to give to a less effective charity within one’s favoured cause. Pummer brings up some possible objections to his views, and I want to add one of them here. He points out that someone might object to his views by asking ‘Won’t your argument motivate readers to switch from less effective charities to not giving at all?’ Since, based on his view, you may not have to give, but you are not permitted to give to a suboptimal charity. Pummer responds to this by arguing that it would be permissible to switch from giving to a suboptimal charity to not giving only if you are unwilling to make the sacrifice involved. If giving is very costly, and you’re unwilling to pay that cost, then it may well be permissible not to give. But if you are willing to pay the cost of giving to charity (as indicated by your donations to a suboptimal charity), then it seems wrong no to. That would be like telling those drowning in the west pond, ‘Look, I’m absolutely willing to incur the substantial cost to save you, but I won’t do it’.

There are movements and organisations that embrace the way Singer and Pummer think about giving. They go by the names of Effective Altruism, Giving What We Can, The Life You Can Save, GiveWell, and 80,000 Hours. They not only urge you to donate more to important causes, but also to consider how cost-effective and impactful certain charities (and indeed causes) are. They’re very much in line with the thought that where you give is in some sense vastly more important than whether you give at all. Giving What We Can encourages people to pledge 10 per cent of their income to effective charities. To illustrate what 10 per cent of your income could do for a charity, I will use the average salary for a St Andrews graduates as an example. The average St Andrews graduate makes about £23,000, but lets round it down to £20,000. If 10 percent of that income is donated to Against Malaria Foundation, for example, the organisation would be able to distribute an additional 482 mosquito nets every year the money is donated. If you choose to donate the same money to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, they would be able to treat 2,469 people for neglected tropical diseases. Choosing to donate to one of these two options is, according to Giving What We Can, equivalent to saving one life every year you donate. In St Andrews, Theron Pummer and a group of students (including Joe Slater, Rufaida Al Hashmi, and myself) are now in the process of establishing a local chapter of Giving What We Can. The official launch event for this chapter will be held sometime in the second semester of this academic year, and there will be plenty more events preceding and following the launch event.


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