New Orleans Recently, I read Princeton University’s professor and philosopher Peter Singer’s books advising on the amount of money we should give and where we should give it in hopes of living a moral life. The two books, The Most Good You Can Do and Life You Can Save, are really almost the same book, written twice to beat the drum harder and keep the messages being heard. I don’t say that as a criticism, but a statement of fact. The message that Singer is trying to get across may have to be repeated, more loudly, ever couple of years.
The upshot is that Singer recommends that you give at least 5% of your income charitably. He’s no liberal. He believes you need to open your wallet to the world’s poor and unfortunate on a global basis, and he wants the dollars to save lives. His argument there has great appeal as a guide, but as you can imagine his position is controversial, even as he evangelizes and picks up recruits. I came to read the books inclined to become a fan, given ACORN International’s work and global commitments, but some of his prescriptions are hard to swallow even for me.
For a philosopher, he is surprisingly infatuated by the algorithms of poverty: how many dollars can save how many lives. I’m not sure I trust such a formulaic approach. He would likely applaud our work in the megaslums of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but scoff at the attention we also give to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Europe. He understands how the power of money works, but not how power makes change, even on issues like lowering the costs of remittances that would convert into much more money. From book to book his enthusiasm for money following a simple metrics of poverty grows, especially if some of the founders were former students. He struggles mightily in these books for example on whether or not Oxfam and its campaigning strategy is worth a dollar or a damn. In the first book, he comes close to making a case that they are a good place to put your dollars. In the second book, he is uncomfortable that they are not single-issued with more easily calibrated results and don’t embrace the same assumptions about a purely metrics driven donation space as he would like.
On the other hand his take down of the Rockefeller Family Fund showed some chutzpah, especially as he easily poked fun at their notion of enabling the rich to make flimsy decisions on their donations in the slender hope that the rich would move to programs more promising in the by and by. On a moral basis he generally is no fan of money going to art, museums, and cultural projects, while people are starving and hurting, which must make some uncomfortable if they stumble on one of his books.
For all of the arguments he would make in these two volumes where I would nod in agreement and underline with excitement, I couldn’t shake a nagging uncomfortability. He doesn’t value work in this fight against poverty. He pays some faint tribute to it, but essentially brushes aside the notion that individuals can really fight poverty as effectively as money can. He seems to have made a very utilitarian judgement that effective organizers and change-makers are as rare as hen’s teeth, but money grows on trees, so let’s go put it to work saving lives and doing good.
His stories of people getting the religion he’s preaching constantly underscore this calculation for him. The students who he presents as sucking it up and going to Wall Street to make the most bucks, but are committed to living on less in order to give more, are his heroes. I found myself wondering if Singer had not been as affected by the proclivities of his students as he was interested in moving them towards his program. A Google search sent me to an issue of Forbes from 2014 noting that 36% of Princeton graduates go into finance even in the wake of the Great Recession, and suddenly I felt I had a clue for Singer’s argument: if you can’t fight them, join them. If they were marching off to Wall Street anyway, why not take a good lick from their checks to save lives and do the most good. Even his parsing of the contribution level down to 5% to deliver the least pain for the most gain in making converts seemed to address the market for his sale.
I don’t mean to seem cynical even though I can’t sign up as a true believer. I’m not going to quit doing the work and just go with my contributions, but I’m going to hope that Singer continues to provoke and prod those that have to heave more at the real issues. I am a fan of his finger waving at the rich to pony up if they want to claim interest in doing no harm and living a moral life. I hope he keeps being invited to speak to foundation boards and chides them to do right and do more. We don’t have to sign his pledge to root for a philosopher speaking more truth to power.