Clever Animals

Peter Singer’s recent NYT op-ed, “Good Charity, Bad Charity,” mounts a significant challenge to business as usual in organized philanthropy. He has no problem saying that certain forms of philanthropic endeavor are just not as important, and deserve less investment, than others.

Singer proposes a thought experiment comparing giving to treat river blindness in developing countries and giving to build the new wing of a museum, calculating (literally) that the former creates 10 times as much value as the former.

“Given this choice, where would $100,000 do the most good?,” Singer asks. “Which expenditure is likely to lead to the bigger improvement in the lives of those affected by it?”

There’s something forbidding about pursuing Singer’s line of reasoning. Where do you stop? How much of your income is enough to give to proven solutions that improve life outcomes for other people? If those exist and you know about them, aren’t you obligated by that knowledge to give as much as possible?

There’s an element of Singer’s thought that I hesitate to mention, because the debate he surfaces is a useful one. It has to do with the relative merit of people and animals. This element surfaces in what he frames as a more difficult question in philanthropy, as opposed to the “easy” one of deciding that preventing trachoma for 1,000 people is 10 times more valuable than building a new wing of a museum that 100,000 people will visit.

“The choice between, say, helping the global poor directly, and helping them, and all future generations, by trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is more difficult,” Singer writes. Okay, climate deniers aside, so far so good.

“So, too, is the choice between helping humans and reducing the vast amount of suffering we inflict on nonhuman animals.” Really? That’s a difficult choice? “Nonhuman animals.” There’s perspective, and then there’s perspective.

In his provocative op-ed on“The Charitable-Industrial Complex,” Peter Buffett says, “I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism.” There’s an element of Singer’s thought that might label humanism as “speciesism.” Like I said, here’s something forbidding about following his line of reasoning.

I’ll have more to say about Singer’s challenge to philanthropy, but this facet of it seemed worth mentioning.


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