Thursday, January 15, 2009

Peter Singer and donating to African village libraries

Peter Singer famously moralizes about the ethical duty to give just about everything you have away to help the truly unfortunate. His example: you have a choice to throw the railroad switch, on one siding stands a child, oblivious to the runaway train, on the other hand your classic car, your life's pride and joy and your retirement savings, all gleaming but stalled on the track. Do you kill the child, or destroy your own life? If you agree to save the child, why are you not doing that right now, when so many children die from cheaply preventable diseases?

There are many objections to this kind of reasoning: artificial, constructed examples might lead you to all sorts of contradictory choices; your brain does not respond to reason when making choices, so the construct is irrelevant; maximizing the well-being of others leads to all sorts of strange paradoxes, etc.

But.... is it "better" to donate to a village library in Africa than to Oxfam or Mercy Corps, which promise to "save lives" right away? Is it better to donate to the Genocide Intervention Fund? How is one to make choices amongst these competing charities? Is dividing up your charitable giving among 10 different charities a cop-out? How long would it take you to learn which charity was most effective? How long would it take you to learn what your own brain wants to accomplish with its charitable giving? Does your brain even have a goal, when it decides to give?

I've been thinking about this line of questioning for years, and feel comfortable with my "pragmatic" answers to these question... do you?

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