Comparing charitable causes

An article in the NYT reminded me of my previous post about charity [both linked below]. Authored by Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, the article uses a rather tortured method of comparing benefits. That is, a thought experiment on whether whatever good comes from one route is worth a 1/n chance of whatever bad comes of not having gone the other route. In this case, is seeing a new museum wing worth a 1/100 chance of going blind?

Well, not if you put it like that!

It is a clever way to phrase a problem in order to validate the argument that giving to certain types of charities (such as “health and safety”) is more worthwhile than giving to others. My previous post “Charity” phrases the issue in a way that makes the opposite conclusion the obviously correct one. My problem with this article’s analysis is the artificiality of the choice. A potential benefactor of a museum isn’t ever going to face this choice: see the new wing and risk going blind. Sure, it sounds terrible. But there are many more reasonable questions to ask. For example:

“Am I (and the people I know and care about) more likely to benefit from my gift to charity A or charity B?”

“Which charity will have a longer lasting or more obvious effect on the world?”

“Which charity will reduce human suffering/increase human happiness more?”

There will always be, for lack of a better term, this “low-hanging fruit” so to speak. Someone who is starving, diseased, in need of prosthetics, surgeries, inoculations, mosquito nets, etc… But consider for a second what we would’ve lost if all of the de’ Medici money had gone to these sorts of causes rather than funding Italian Renaissance art. Where the music world be if patrons of Mozart and Haydn had instead dedicated their fortunes to feeding peasants? A few lifespans might have been extended, sure. But of these, how many would have made lasting contributions to society or human knowledge? Approximately none.

For me this issue boils down to one of quantity versus quality. The focus on “health and safety” types of charities maximizes for the number of lives saved. Directing money towards “arts, culture and heritage” maximizes for the quality of life possible. But the latter does so not only immediately and in specific instances, but broadly and indefinitely into the future. It may not be “urgent” — but it seems clear which is more worthwhile.

Charity

Good Charity, Bad Charity

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