Sunday, November 7, 2010

Philanthropy: The Factor of Time Urgency

A couple of entries ago, I sort of buried the link to Peter Singer's groundbreaking NY Times article on philanthropy, which makes a counterintuitive but persuasive argument that failure to give away most of your savings right now is deeply immoral. Bill Gates still holds many billions, so a case can be made that obscene greed has led even history's greatest philanthropist to hoard assets in a world fraught with grave immediate need.

But please don't ponder my inelegant thumbnail version of Singer's well-nuanced argument. Read what he has to say. It's mind changing. But I felt that one critical piece missing, and asked him to fill me in:
Dear Prof. Singer,
Each moment is indeed rife with dire need, but the direness is not unique to any one moment. Extreme suffering has been rife for millennia, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

So if we invest our savings and live modestly until death, keeping funds available in the event of calamity, and bequeathing the vast majority to good international charities, where's the negative? Yes, people will die now who'd have been saved if we'd donated earlier, but others will die later if we'd donated later. Suffering is unending, so what's the special significance of giving at any particular moment?

He wrote back this:
Depends whether you can invest it at a better rate of return than it would have (in human, rather than financial terms) in a developing country. There is evidence that the return rate is very high, in helping people to help themselves.

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