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Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer has been getting a lot of attention lately with the publication of his book, The Life You Can Save. The book makes the argument that it is a clear-cut moral imperative for citizens of developed countries to give more to charitable causes that help the poor, and Singer makes practical recommendations for how much people should give (1 percent of income for the lowest 90 percent of taxpayers and a sliding scale for those above). Thoughtful initiatives to encourage more generosity from those who can afford it have obvious merit—yet more money without serious thought about where that money should go is not the answer. In a Wall Street Journal review, William Easterly points out that Singer acknowledges the problems inherent in aid and charity of ensuring that money goes where it is needed and used effectively, but that Singer does not revisit his original premise—that people should give more—with those problems in mind.

Still, Singer is a philosopher, not an aid expert. Most would probably find it possible to overlook his excessive enthusiasm for aid and charitable gifts per se; or at least tackle them, as Easterly does, in a fair, collegial style. Not Tyler Cowen. An economics Professor at George Mason University and active blogger, Cowen interviewed Singer on Bloggingheads, and made the Princeton scholar look nothing short of ridiculous by showing, for example, how Singer’s verbal support of a suggestion to offer a higher tax deduction for gifts given to charities that work on humanitarian causes amounted to supporting lower taxes for the rich as a way to help the poor. Cowen’s deeper point is that giving that is blind to the deeply problematic nature of where gifts go can be just as morally suspect as turning your back on a dying child. But he makes that point by engaging Singer in intellectualized, theoretical discussions that reside quite firmly on the fringes of any debate about giving and morality. For example, Cowen somehow hoodwinks Singer into weighing in on whether it is moral to encourage one’s pregnant daughter to sell her infant to a rich family for a million dollars, and then give the money to a charitable organization to save lives in the developing world.

Such manipulations allow Cowen to win intellectual points, and Singer’s mistake is to try to tackle them straight and with sincerity, instead of calling them out as (mostly) irrelevant—as well as mostly inconsistent with Cowen’s usual, practical approach to economic puzzles. Yet such intellectualizing does not do much to help us learn how best to live, nor does it provide much productive unpacking of Singer’s ideas on how best to give. 

Full Disclosure: A Portion of the proceeds from The Life You Can Save will be given to GiveWell, a nonprofit on whose board PA editor Tim Ogden sits.


GiveWell is a foundation that explores the effectiveness of different aid agencies so that donors can make sure their money is being used effectively. Singer encourages people to use this agency and to think about how you spend your money, he doesn’t pretend to be an expert on development, nor does he ask that people dump money into problems without serious thought as to where it should go.

October 11, 2009

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