Questions for Peter Singer
The New York Times Magazine, December 24, 2006
1. I am a middle school teacher and therefore don't make enough money to give even 10 percent of my income to charity. I justify my lack of donations in this way — I have given up earning potential to help society. Is this a moral justification? Or should I change careers say, and go into educational sales where I can triple my income and then contribute more money toward eliminating global poverty? — Annette, Petaluma, Calif.
You don't say much about who you are teaching, or what subject you teach, but you do seem to see a need to justify what you are doing. Perhaps you're teaching underprivileged children, opening their minds to possibilities that might otherwise never have occurred to them. Or maybe you're teaching the children of affluent families and opening their eyes to the big moral issues they will face in life — like global poverty, and climate change. If you're doing something like this, then stick with it. Giving money isn't the only way to make a difference.
2. In an October article from The New Yorker on micro-enterprise, Muhammad Yunus and burgeoning social entreprenuers, the author looks at the difference between those who do good because they feel a sense of moral duty versus those who do good to make a profit. What are your thoughts on micro-enterprise as an approach to reducing poverty versus providing international aid? — Emily Webb, Lexington, Ky.
I'm a pragmatist: whatever works.
3. I've heard that you maintain a modest lifestyle, but no doubt it's luxurious compared to the circumstances of the world's poverty-stricken people. Without any criticism implied, I'm curious about how you decide that you've given enough, knowing that there are still people suffering in the world. How do you, personally, justify the purchase of a book or a meal or anything beyond the absolute necessities, when that money could have been saving lives? — Amy, Minneapolis, Minn.
Ultimately, I don't think my indulgences can be justified. I know that I'm very far from being a saint. I should spend less on myself and give away more of what I earn. Of course, I give much more than most. But I know that that isn't the right standard. As for deciding how much is enough, I just do a little better each year.
4. Your thoughtful assessment of philanthropy and the effort to eliminate world poverty resonated with my own values. In your article, it seems that an underlying assumption is that money is able to remedy many problems associated with world poverty. I do not wish to dispute that fact, but it leads to an unavoidable question: Are the stewards of such large sums of money trustworthy?
Undoubtedly, the Millenium Development Goals have great potential, but are the wealthy likely to donate large sums money to an organization that has in the past been accused of mis- and mal-administration of multi-billion dollar programs? Would not the next step forward, then, be at minimum to increase the financial transparency of such organizations, or at most, the establishment of a completely independent fund, governed in part by the largest donors? — Dean Shumway, Chicago, Ill.
If you are referring to the United Nations, then — without either agreeing or disagreeing with your characterization of that organization, I need to point out that I wasn't suggesting that people should donate to that organization. Though the Millennium Development Goals were set by world leaders meeting under the auspices of the UN, the goals can be furthered by donating directly to non-government organizations like Oxfam America (www.oxfamamerica.com) or Millennium Promise (www.millenniumpromise.org).
5. When thinking about an individual and specific life, it's impossible for me to disagree with the idea of saving each and every child that we can possibly save — but when considered abstractly I wonder if saving lives is actually helpful to humanity as a whole. Aren't we pushing the world even further out of balance ecologically by increasing population? I know it sounds terrible, but in the long term, wouldn't we be bettter off if more were dying, rather than fewer? In the same vein, isn't there a point at which it becomes detrimental to extend life expectancy in developed countries by advancing medecine? — Miguel McKelvey, New York, NY
It not only sounds terrible, it is terrible. Thirty years ago, the ecologist Garrett Hardin proposed, for reasons very like those you have expressed, that the world should cut off aid to Bangladesh. Instead, in part because aid of many kinds, as well as the highly successful micro-credit schemes started by Muhammad Yunis, continued, Bangladesh is no longer among the world's most desperately poor nations. Moreover, its population growth has slowed. We don't need to wish for mass starvation to reduce population growth. Far, far better is to help other nations get to the point where improvements in health and education — especially the education of girls — begin to slow fertility.
6. Thank you for your provocative analysis and willingness to take questions.
A moderately affluent New Yorker already contributes approximately 40 percent of her pre-tax income to various government entities in support of public goods that sustain the social capital from which she derives advantage. How ought she reconcile the credible moral imperative to use her income to save lives in the developing world with the observation that a share of her income far greater than your proposed tithe is redirected by the government to domestic purposes that, while critical e.g., education, do not directly satisfy this imperative?
Consider also that she likely also spends approximately 25 percent of her pre-tax income just on housing, and perhaps approximately 10 percent on basic food and medical expenses for herself and family. At the risk of overloading the question: should she argue for lower taxes for herself on the grounds that her income would be better spent abroad, assuming all lives are of equal value? In the absence of such a trade-off, your proposal seems rapidly to approach the conclusion that an individual should be satisfied with keeping approximately 10 of her income for discretionary spending. — Tim Kleiman, New York, NY
Without taxes, we would have no government, and would not be able to earn our present incomes. Plus, our taxes aid the poor in this country, and that is worth doing. So let's not argue for lower taxes. In view of how privileged moderately affluent New Yorkers are, compared to the poorest 20 percent of the world's people, I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that they should be satisfied with keeping 10 percent of their income for discretionary purposes. But don't forget that their donations will be tax deductible, so they might end up with a little more.
7a. Ought we to forget about the poverty that exist in the United States. Certainly, a great number of people are well off in America. But, there still exist a growing number of impoverished people in the United States. How might we integrate your suggestions with a solutions combating poverty in the US? —Keith Lucas, Newark, N.J.
7b. Why is your call to action situated exclusively around poverty outside the U.S. when there is a serious poverty problem right here at home that has neither gotten the philanthropic interest of Gates and Buffett nor much coverage from the national news media? —Ira Silver, Framingham, Mass.
Poverty in the United States is a problem and we should be seeking to combat it. But there are two reasons why dealing with domestic poverty should not take priority over helping the poor in other country. First, poverty in the U.S. is mostly relative rather than absolute. The U.S. poor have access to social support that can take care of their most basic needs. The 1.2 billion people living on the purchasing power equivalent of less than $1 a day have no food stamps or medicaid schemes to fall back on. Second, a dollar goes much further in Malawi than it does in Mississippi. The costs of helping the U.S. to escape poverty are far higher than those of doing the same for the poor in developing countries.
8. In your article you state that "private donors can more easily avoid dealing with corrupt or wasteful governments. They can go directly into the field, working with local villages and grass-roots organizations." How big a donor must I be to qualify under this? I would like to educate/help care for children in a poor country, not just by contributing to a charitable organization.( I have about $200,000 to do it.) I would very much appreciate your answer! —Susan Krcmar, New Jersey
Your willingness to donate such a sum, and your do-it-yourself attitude is highly commendable, but you may find that trying to organize something yourself will chew up a larger portion of the funds you have available than would occur if you gave it to an organize that already has expertise in the developing world, and contact with grass roots organizations. You'll have to travel to developing countries to find the right place for your project, and the right local people to run it. You may have language problems, and not know how to deal with a very different culture. If you are inexperienced in this kind of work, you'll repeat the mistakes that everyone makes at first.
Maybe a better solution would be to talk to an organization like Oxfam America and see if they already have projects of the kind you are interested in supporting — for instance, projects to educate or care for children in developing countries. With your generous donation, they will be able to fund more of them. And I'm sure they would be happy for you to go over to the country in which your funds were being used, and see what your money is doing.
9. I worked in West Africa in the late 1980's and witnessed the inefficiency of the aid organizations. What assurances are provided today to ensure that donations find their way to the people in need i.e. percent delivered vs. percent devoured by administrative waste, inefficiency or worse, corruption? —James Fiebelkorn, Houston, Tex.
The better organizations have learnt from the mistakes of the past — which doesn't mean that there are no mistakes now, but that waste and corruption are less common than they once were. Before you give, talk to the organization you are thinking of donating too, and see what you can find out about their work. If you are thinking of giving a large sum, you might ask about going to see some of their projects for yourself.
10. Is it ethical for guys like Gates and Buffett to amass this much wealth in the first place? —Sundeep, Peachtree City, Ga.
That's the way the system works. It isn't ideal, but we haven't discovered a better method of producing and distributing the goods that people need and want. So I'd say, yes, it is ethical for Gates and Buffett to become extremely rich, as long as they understand that the accumulation of such great wealth carries with it the responsibility to use it, or most of it, for good purposes.