Peter Singer on Where Your Money Can Do the Most Good

Two hands, palm up, holding a coin

Should we advocate some charitable giving over others?
Image: Shutterstock

David Geffen’s donation to Avery Fish Hall raised some eyebrows, but arguably none with a history quite like Peter Singer.

The writer and philosopher’s most recent book, The Most Good You Can Do, focuses on philanthropic giving in terms of, as the title suggests, where it can do the most good. In Singer’s opinion, this means focusing one’s efforts on the impoverished around the world to bring up the general quality of life before donating to bigger community organizations such as a concert hall in New York City.

For example, Singer points out that less than $100, never mind $100 million, could restore sight to someone who is blind.

Singer himself has given away 10% of his income for 40 years, with that percentage rising to between a quarter and a third of his income as he progressed in his career. A scholar at both Princeton University and the University of Melbourne, Singer hopes to change the way those involved with charity view ethics.

It’s a tricky business, with some critics saying it’s counterproductive to openly disapprove of any sort of charitable donation; Singer, however, believes adamantly in a first things first philosophy, as well as the importance of knowing where donations go and what specifically they fund.

Singer also notes in his book that students and recent graduates have been more receptive to his philosophy than are older adults. Millennials, he says, are extremely altruistic, possibly because of technological advances. Technology “connects them all over the world, so they’re more cosmopolitan, and the barriers between people in different countries and far away have declined,” he says. “Another factor is that with the IT revolution, a different kind of person makes a lot of money and…they’re extremely well paid, and they’re wondering what to do with that money.”

Singer views donating a portion of one’s income as a method of taxing the wealthy in a productive way. His books points to several studies showing that beyond a certain income level—generally around $75,000—earning more money doesn’t increase well-being. So why not put that money toward increasing someone else’s well-being?

Most people, Singer notes, tend to give based on passion or emotional response—someone asked them, or they saw a particularly touching ad. According to Singer, it’s far more important to put passion aside and look at how one’s donation is actually being used. To that end, there are a variety of apps and websites out there that help would-be donors make their choices.

What do you think? Are some charities more “worthy” than others? Should we be focusing our donations on third world countries rather than community concert halls? Does one kind of donation mean “more” than another, or are they all equally important? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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