Photo by Andrew Wilkinson

Peter Singer: Maximizing Impact

Peter Singer: Maximizing Impact

Peter Singer’s arguments raise interesting questions about the intrinsic obligation to help those in need.  On one hand, his anecdotal examples are compelling and memorable, and I do believe in his message that we should not ignore those in need just because they are living in far off countries; on the other, he focuses too much the guilt that the wealthy should feel for having the fortune to be born in a developed, Western nation rather than in poverty.

The graphics he includes in his TED Talk do pack a powerful emotional punch: in particular, the visual representation of how much money is required to raise and train a seeing eye dog versus to provide treatment to cure certain varieties of blindness in developing countries was shocking and impactful.  But Singer’s methodology rigidly focuses on the effectiveness of various charities as the sole measure of whether they deserve donors’ support, ignoring the emotional component of donation.  This narrow-mindedness is both ignorant and unnecessary.

In the case of a person who decides to donate time and money to assisting blind people, Singer argues that donors should only donate to effective charities, since they will then impact the most people.  However, isn’t it enough for a person to feel passionate enough about a cause that they will willingly donate their time and money to it?  If a person chooses not to donate to charities for whatever reason, but is passionate about raising and training seeing eye dogs, why should their contributions be ignored or belittled as being “ineffective”?  Certainly, the $40,000 that Singer cites as necessary to train the dog and the recipient ultimately only had an impact on one person; but that $40,000 was donated nonetheless.  Someone was suffering, and someone else sacrificed their own time and resources to help—just as Singer advocates.

In reality, not everyone is willing or able to donate such a large sum of money or an intensive amount of time; most donations will be relatively small sums of time and money that, when added together, can have a significant impact on the recipients.  In these instances, donating to a charity that will maximize the use of your time and money is a worthy goal.  But for those people who are willing to give up thousands of dollars and years of their lives for a positive cause that they are passionate about, I don’t believe that the by-the-numbers evaluation of effectiveness that Singer prescribes is a viable examination of how we should donate.

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