Tag Archives: The Most Good You Can Do

Philosopher Peter Singer’s Advice for the Rich

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

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.

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Grace Wherever We Find It

9780300180275New Orleans     When we hear that someone handled something with grace, we instinctively know, deep inside, what that means, but it’s hard to put a handle on it, teach it, or pass it on.  The Oxford English Dictionary takes two and half pages to try and put their arms around it for goodness sakes!

I found myself thinking of this when I read The New Yorker story of David Bradley, the very wealthy publisher of The Atlantic magazine and his role in trying to help free five hostages held, largely by ISIS, in Syria.  Part of what deepened his commitment to such an extraordinary effort had been a letter he had received from James Foley, during Foley’s first stint as a hostage.  Foley, once freed, had written Bradley a “thank you” note for his help.  Two months later Foley wrote a second, longer “thank you” note, when he had learned more thoroughly about the special role that Bradley had played in his release then.  The story by Lawrence Wright said that Bradley had copied the letter from Foley and given the copies to his children as examples of “grace.”

Grace in the religious tradition is a gift given without hope of thanks or reward, and, secularly, grace has seeped into our realities as a favor or gift without a quid pro quo or in the terms of the OED, without implying “a right or obligation.”  In their more classic language grace is the “share of favour allotted to one by Providence or fortune; one’s appointed fate, destiny, or lot; hap, luck or fortune….”

Do we see so little of this now that implicitly we have to almost collect and memorialize the examples, and, if so, how tragic that we are so beggaring our lives.  I found myself looking for more examples all around me.

Reading the paper, Dan Barry of the New York Times wrote a long column in which the word “grace” is never mentioned, but where it shone tellingly.  He was writing the follow-up to a picture taken of an African-American South Carolina state trooper, who turned out to be Leroy Smith, the head of the troopers, helping a white, elderly, black-t-shirted protestor with a Nazi-sympathizing, racist group protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the capitol.  The man was suffering from what appeared to be fatigue and heat exhaustion, and Smith was helping the man up 40 stairs to the air-conditioned part of the Capitol.  There’s a picture of grace.  The story says an elderly white woman protestor trailed behind them asking the trooper if the other protestor was going to be all right.  If she did not thank Smith, that would be a good example of the absence of grace.

Maybe it’s not so rare.

Just yesterday on a scorchingly hot New Orleans day I was driving down St. Claude within blocks of my home and pulled up to a stoplight at Desire Street.  Driving this old beater, my windows are down because the air-conditioner is a historical artifact.  A man approached the window from in front of the liquor store on the corner with a sweating plastic bottle of water and reached it towards me.  I said, “No, I’m good,” assuming it was probably some kind of scam, like a free-window wash.   He kept his hand outstretched and said, “What you’re not hot? Take this water, since we can’t drink our water anyway.”  There had been a boil water notice for two days from the Sewerage & Water Board for our local water.  I took the water and then noticed behind him on the curb an open blue cooler with a handwritten marks-a-lot sign saying “Hank’s Free Water” and two young children, probably his sons, standing next to the cooler.

I yelled thanks and drove the rest of the way home.  I didn’t drink the water though.  Only minutes before I had been reading Paul Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, about “effective altruism.”    Hank and his water seemed such a vivid example of grace in action, and perhaps a small manifestation of “effective altruism,” that I knew immediately that water would never touch my lips.  It would have to find its way to my children, or better, the next stranger I see hot and thirsty on the street.

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