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This Wonkblog article was posted on Twitter via @pegobry. It chronicles a new generation of altruistically-minded individuals who, rather than doing non-profit work or volunteering, are pursuing the most lucrative work possible and then donating (in the case of some of the individuals profiled here, anyway) half of the money to charity.
I think giving away half your income to help save lives is wonderful, but I have serious reservations about hitching it to a Peter Singer thought experiment, as one of the subjects of the piece does. Singer’s formulation goes like this:
A man walking by a shallow pond notices a toddler struggling in the water. No one else is around. Rescuing the child would ruin his shoes and muddy his suit. Tending to the girl and finding her parents would take time, making him late for work. So he walks away. The girl drowns.
Singer first told this story in his 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and it is among the most famous in modern ethics. To Singer, the lesson is this: “If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
It’s the caveat, “without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” which gives me pause. By that definition, if the man in the story determined that the value of his suit and time were comparable to the life of the girl, then, in saving the suit and not the girl, the man has met the burden of his moral obligation.
This article also raises the question of the state of the giver and not just the gift. This type of monetary giving is indeed very generous and helpful, but it is also the least sacrificial form of giving, in my opinion.
It’s really easy to give money online. It’s really difficult to dig a well. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t know of anyone whose life was irrevocably changed by clicking “SEND.” I may be too harsh, and I’ll admit that I don’t know whether or not these individuals volunteer, or how they spend their time, but I don’t think I’m stretching it to say that purely monetary giving will have less staying power than if one saw firsthand how the monetary sacrifice was changing lives. This brings me to the bigger problem I have with Singer’s lesson learned: It seems to me that Singer’s idea of what we morally “ought” to do is a relative concept, and can just as easily justify saving a life or not; giving away half your income or not.
I want to reiterate that I’m not criticizing the generosity of these individuals. They are commendable. I just see the moral driver as weak, and I also see this as yet another way in which progressives will beat us over the head for not caring about people as much as they do.
What are your thoughts? What am I missing?