Why you should give away most of your money

November 8, 1999

Our Financial Guide tells you how to husband your wealth. Now a philosopher takes a different slant.

Why you should give away most of your money

Our Financial Guide tells you how to husband your wealth.Now a philosopher takes a different slant.

By Peter Singer

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who teaches at PrincetonUniversity, is perhaps the world's most controversial ethicist. Many readersof his book Animal Liberation were moved to embrace vegetarianism, whileothers recoiled at Singer's attempt to place humans and animals on an evenmoral plane. Similarly, his argument that severely disabled infants should,in some cases, receive euthanasia has been praised as courageous by someand denounced by others, including anti-abortion activists, who have protestedSinger's Princeton appointment.

Singer's penchant for provocation extends to more mundane matters,like everyday charity. A recent article about Singer in The New York Timesrevealed that the philosopher gives one-fifth of his income to famine reliefagencies. "From when I first saw pictures in the newspapers of peoplestarving, from when people asked you to donate some of your pocket moneyfor collections at school, he mused, I always thought, why that much—whynot more?"

Is it possible to quantify our charitable burden? In the followingessay, Singer offers some unconventional thoughts about the ordinary American'sobligations to the world's poor and suggests that even his own one-fifthstandard may not be enough.

In the Brazilian film Central Station, Dora is a retired schoolteacherwho makes ends meet by sitting at the station writing letters for illiteratepeople. Suddenly she has an opportunity to pocket $1,000. All she has todo is persuade a 9-year-old homeless boy to follow her to an address shehas been given. (She is told he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.)She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a televisionset, and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbor spoilsthe fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be adopted—hewill be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora knewthis all along, but after her neighbor's plain speaking, she spends a troublednight. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back.

Suppose Dora had told her neighbor that it is a tough world, other peoplehave nice new TVs too, and if selling the kid is the only way she can getone, well, he was only a street kid. She would then have become, in theeyes of the audience, a monster. She redeems herself only by being preparedto bear considerable risks to save the boy.

At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world,people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescuedthe boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact,the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its incomeon things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her.Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones areno longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts—so much of our income isspent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health.Donated to a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the differencebetween life and death for children in need.

All of which raises a question: In the end, what's the ethical distinctionbetween a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and anAmerican who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one—knowing thatthe money could be donated to an organization that would use it to savethe lives of children in need?

Of course, there are several differences between the two situations thatcould support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to beable to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of youtakes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appealfor money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopherlike myself—that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong bytheir consequences—if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the