Peter Singer on BatKid

This is worth a read, and, in my opinion, absolutely right.  The discussion is relevant to broader questions of identified v. statistical lives, as well as “choice architecture” questions about how charities ought to seek out donations.  Take a look:

Heartwarming causes are nice, but let’s give to charity with our heads

Full disclosure: Several years ago my family took advantage of a Make-A-Wish trip resulting from my younger brother’s leukemia.  He is now a thriving adult and doing great, and the experience was incredible, especially for those families with children facing terminal diagnoses.  But the fact remains that this really has to be seen as a “luxury” charity – and when faced with a stark side-by-side choice of where the dollars could be spent, Peter’s analysis nails it.

    4 thoughts on “Peter Singer on BatKid

    1. I don’t think I agree with Singer’s conclusion about make-a-wish, or about the many other “heartwarming” charities that probably wouldn’t pass the malaria-net test: helping the homeless, running marathons to raise money for cancer, the jimmy fund telethon, etc.

      What is special about make-a-wish is the charity’s defiance. It is not about healing the world’s hurts but finding joy in spite of them. Batkid was a chance for thousands of neighbors not just to express their sympathy, but to join the little boy in thumbing their nose at a real-world bad guy. I’m not that familiar with Singer’s views but surely he’d allow us all to spend some of our time not just increasing the number of lives but living the ones we have.

    2. The last couple of paragraphs of the Singer WaPo article had me scratching my head. They gave away $2,500 to strangers on the street with a video camera, and got back $2,421. Okay, that’s kinda interesting I guess, but what’s the point? By flashing money in people’s faces you can get their attention and make a pitch to make a donation. And then the donation on average is slightly less than the money you handed them. If it was significantly more than the money you handed them, now that would be surprising.

    3. Thanks for the comments, Matt and Chris.

      Chris, I was equally puzzled by that gift/charity example and its relevance. Maybe the point was just that people are more generous than we might expect, but unless people are getting a lot of unexpected gifts, I don’t really know what to make of it.

      Matt, I do see your point about the joys of life and in fact, had to defend myself against my whole family at Christmas dinner when this issue came up! But I stand by my argument that it would be crazy/horrific/unconscionable to tell a mother that her child may or will die a preventable death because I decided to direct my charitable donation not to organizations that could save lives but rather to fund things like trips to Disney World or the Metropolitan Opera. Would anyone really pick that world behind the veil?

    4. I am sure these issues have been thoroughly explored in the literature, but my gut take is that the choice behind the veil is not so straightforward. Would you prefer a world without lightning because, even though it is beautiful and exciting, it killed 23 people in the U.S. last year? Or for those who hate lightning (like my dog), a world without the aurora borealis would presumably save a handful of distracted drivers/pilots every decade or so. I see your Metropolitan Opera vs. healing a child hypo as similar to these hypos in that it requires making a trade-off between the quality of life, on the one hand, and the volume of it, on the other.

      Singer does weigh in on this in the op-ed but I found his take unsatisfying. He says that the “joy” value of Make-a-Wish is a “flaw in our emotional makeup” that is “not justification for ignoring the needs of distant strangers.” Singer does not provide the reasoning behind this conclusion and it is not apparent to me that it is either correct or incorrect. But it is a key point; nobody gives to Make-a-Wish because they think it is the most efficient way to save lives.