What should we give?

Wondering how much you should give to charity? Peter Singer has some pointers, based on his classic example of how much we should expend to save a child drowning in a shallow pond.

In any case, even if we were to grant that people deserve every dollar they earn, that doesn’t answer the question of what they should do with it. We might say that they have a right to spend it on lavish parties, private jets and luxury yachts, or, for that matter, to flush it down the toilet. But we could still think that for them to do these things while others die from easily preventable diseases is wrong. In an article I wrote more than three decades ago, at the time of a humanitarian emergency in what is now Bangladesh, I used the example of walking by a shallow pond and seeing a small child who has fallen in and appears to be in danger of drowning. Even though we did nothing to cause the child to fall into the pond, almost everyone agrees that if we can save the child at minimal inconvenience or trouble to ourselves, we ought to do so. Anything else would be callous, indecent and, in a word, wrong. The fact that in rescuing the child we may, for example, ruin a new pair of shoes is not a good reason for allowing the child to drown. Similarly if for the cost of a pair of shoes we can contribute to a health program in a developing country that stands a good chance of saving the life of a child, we ought to do so.

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13 Responses to What should we give?

  1. Sean Cooney says:

    I’m not sure if this is clear in Peter Singer’s book, but the example of the child falling into water is a very ancient one. Mengzi, or Mencius, one of the most famous of Confucius’ followers, gave this illustration more than 2,300 years ago. Of course, the psychology is a bit dated, and the history mythic, but the passage still seems to suit the times…

    [2A:6] Mencius said: “All people have a heart which cannot stand to see the suffering of others. The ancient kings had this heart which could not stand to see the suffering of others, and, with this, operated a government which could not stand to see the suffering of the people. If, in this state of mind, you ran a government which could not endure people’s suffering, you could govern the realm as if you were turning it in the palm of your hand.”

    “Why do I say all human beings have a heart which cannot stand to see the suffering of others? Even nowadays, if an infant were about to fall into a well, anyone would be upset and concerned. This concern would not be due to the fact that the person wanted to get in good with the baby’s parents, or because s/he wanted to improve his/her reputation among the community or among his/her circle of friends. Nor would it be because he/she was afraid of the criticism that might result from a show of non-concern.”

    “From this point of view, we can say that if you did lack concern for the infant, you would not be human. [translation by Charles Muller]

  2. tirta says:

    The drowning child in a pond nearby yields an automatic emotional response from anyone with intact mental faculties, while the African child afar doesn’t. This is as natural as our species can be. One is automatically predisposed — thereby needs not reason — to help the drowning child, in stark contrast to conscious deliberation upon sending money to Africa.

    Singer is indeed arguing for an ever important issue, but his philosophical premises are psychologically incomparable. The distance between is and ought in the two cases is diametrically different.

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  4. Russell says:

    As usual I didn’t find Singer much use. His answer really is that you should do all that you can – but how do you work out what that is? How do you determine what you need to live reasonably as a part of this society, compared to what you should give when there are so many in countries where millions live in abject poverty?

    I like my garden, I grew up in a house with a garden, most people live in a house with a garden – should I move into a small, cheap apartment so I could give the money to charity? The only point of Singer’s article is to remind us to feel guilty.

  5. Borofkin says:

    The problem of where to draw the line is always going to be difficult, because unless you choose to live in near poverty, it will always be possible to sacrifice another luxury to donate more. Singers point is not that we should live a meagre existence and donate most of our salary to charity, rather he is arguing that it is wrong to do nothing. Where precisely the line is drawn is up to the individual. Singer claims to give 25% of what he earns to “NGO’s, mostly to organizations helping the poor to live a better life,” however he also says “I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give.”

    Singers argument is that we have an obligation to give something. The difficulty of deciding how much to give does not weaken this argument.

  6. Russell says:

    Borofkin wrote: “Where precisely the line is drawn is up to the individual.”

    Not exactly – Singer says in the article that it is wrong to only do your fair share – that to do what others do, or should do, is not enough. Apparently you shouldn’t stop ’till there’s nothing left to put right.

  7. Patrick says:

    I agree with Russell. The analogy is pernicious, because it does imply that we ought to give everything surplus to a subsistence lifestyle.

    Well was it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, because if we did that then our savings, and obviously our investment, would be nil, and shortly we would achieve the egalitarian nirvana of universal immiseration.

    The thing that bugs me is that as rich people in rich countries we can afford to indulge our hearts at the expense of our econometric minds, because we have so much money it doesn’t matter if we waste lots of it. But in very poor countries they don’t have that luxury – getting the economics right there is paramount because each dollar is worth so much.

    That, I believe, was the point of the Economist’s recent article (no link but I will mail it to anyone interested) on fair trade coffee if anyone saw it.

  8. Borofkin says:


    Fair enough. Having (now) read the entire article, I think the concept of “significant hardship” is important. In the example of the child drowning in a shallow pond, ruining a good pair of shoes is not considered a significant hardship, and therefore an obligation exists to save the child. However, if the pond were infested with person-eating sharks, and there was a high probability of being killed, the hardship test would produce a different conclusion: saving the child would be good, but not obligatory.

    The same test can be applied to giving to charity. If you are spending money on items that, if you substituted charity-giving, would not impose any significant hardship, then according to Singer you should give it to charity. So the question for you is, does moving to an apartment without a garden constitute a significant hardship?

    I’m about to go and spend $2.30 on a coffee when I could have instant for about 30c, and give the surplus $2 to charity. So now I’m getting guilt with my coffee. It seems you were right after all.

  9. Patrick says:

    I have an easy cure for Singer-induced guilt, Borofkin. Remember the following: consumption is charity!

    Your two dollars is better spent paying people to do things and make things and creating an investable[sic] surplus into the bargain.

  10. Russell Hamilton says:

    “consumption is charity” – what a happy thought for this time of the year

    (Patrick – you haven’t been writing scripts for “Absolutely Fabulous” have you?)

    “consumption is charity” – I like it better than “greed is good”.

  11. Matthew Finlay says:

    Consumption may be charity, but we should ask where that charity is directed. The $2 is benefiting the retailer, and everyone involved in the process of bringing that coffee to you. Most of these people, however, are Australians and are probably not at risk of dying from (to use Singer’s example) the rotavirus. The extra $2 will help them far less than someone on $1 a day. So even if we accept that consumption is just as good as charity, that charity should still be aimed at those who would most benefit.

    Also, many problems, such as diseases which can be vaccinated against, are not best dealt with by indiviuals acting alone, for these issues charitable donations to organisation would be far more effective than increasing individual wealth.

  12. Patrick says:

    Well, yes and no. I agree that if you want to save poor africans now, paying directly for their vaccinations is a good idea. But if you don’t want to be paying directly for their vaccinations in sixty years, then don’t forget to consume, especially non-fair trade coffee, and campaign for the abolition of trade barriers.

    As for ‘far more effective’, consumption in a relatively free market is the basis of broadly-based economic growth and without that we’ll end up needing someone to pay for our vaccinations in sixty years’ time.

    Rich=healthy; consumption makes more people richer; consumption=healthier (as well as charity).

  13. Borofkin says:

    I agree with Patrick that consumption of goods and services that benefit poorer nations is better direct aid. It’s a “teach a man to fish” situation. So what we should be doing with our charity dollar is giving it to organisations that lobby for fair trade.

    As a consequentialist, Singer would agree, assuming you could convince him that the removal of trade barriers would produce more benefit than direct aid.

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