On Charity

Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher and well-known utilitarian, has a piece in The New York Times Magazine on what the rich should give to the poor—and by “the poor,” Singer mostly means those in the poor world, not the American middle class, who feel the need for another big screen TV or hot tub. Singer begins with a barrage of rhetorical questions:

Philanthropy [like that practiced by Bill Gates] raises many ethical questions: Why are the people who are giving doing so? Does it do any good? Should we praise them for giving so much or criticize them for not giving still more? Is it troubling that such momentous decisions are made by a few extremely wealthy individuals? And how do our judgments about them reflect on our own way of living?

Actually, it raises only one ethical question: What is the best way to help? In other words, effectiveness is the key, not intent or “moral” obligations.

It is interesting that when Gates decided to give so much money away, he created his own foundation. Why? Probably because philanthropy is broken. The new head of the Rockefeller foundation, Judith Rodin, admits as much. She is also trying to reform ineffective philanthropic organizations:

In the 21 months since she became president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Ms Rodin has shaken to its core the charitable foundation established by John D. Rockefeller, an oil tycoon, in 1913. The 58 people who have left the staff, about one-third of those she inherited, are but the most visible evidence of the thorough change in culture over which she is presiding—or, rather, the most audible evidence, judging by the vociferous public complaints of some of the departed.

Ms Rodin is helping to answer one of the questions raised by a new generation of business-minded philanthropists, led by Bill Gates: whether the older philanthropic institutions would respond, and if so, how. Few institutions are less accountable than charitable foundations, which face no meaningful market pressure to keep them on top of their game.

Singer’s piece goes on and on, covering the same old philosophical ground. Should we help? How much should we give? What did Kant say? What is the basis of our obligation?

Of course “we” should help, but only in ways that actually do some good, rather than hurt or waste resources. Many think “intent” is the key to moral action. I disagree. I think this is the easy path: it allows you to disregard actual effects, which are hard to measure (“I’m going to save the planet by shopping at Whole Foods!”). I think, in fact, that such a focus on intent is purely selfish. You, the putative good Samaritan, can feel good about a gift merely by intending a benefit. It lets us all off the hook too easily.

Imagine if the CEO of a company told investors, “Yeah, I know the stock is in the tank and we are close to bankruptcy, but I intended things to turn out well.” Or if a politician led his country into a war based on lies and then told the public, “You know, in my heart, I thought it was the right thing to do.” Intent doesn’t matter. Deeds, not words.

The ancient Greeks, we are told, felt that a man could not be judged happy until his death, because you never know how things will turn out until the end. In other words, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Similarly, the real test of philanthropy is, What was the result? After all, there are plenty of well-intended fools out there whose well-meaning plans lead to disaster for all concerned. (Hitler thought he was helping Germany.) The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Gates and Buffet and the new philanthropists get this. Singer and his ilk don’t.