Peter Singer's Advocacy "Charity"
by Tibor R. Machan
Philosopher Peter Singer, of Princeton University just penned a piece for The Sunday New York Times Magazine titled "On Giving." The gist of it is that most of us ought to part with our wealth and send it to the poor of the world. There are some figures as to just how much those with various levels of income ought to send but these numbers are all fiction—Singer doesn't know us, not the very wealthy, not the somewhat wealthy, nor the rest of us. We all have different situations, some with several kids, some with ailing parents, some devoted to the arts, politics, scholarship, or science that consumes much of our spare wealth. So the number-crunching in the essay amounts to speculation, at best. The serious pitch is that whatever we have, large portions need to be given away.
Not surprisingly Singer's essay is very unclear on just what percentage we should give away of what we have. No wonder. It is impossible to say in any general terms how charitable and generous one ought to be. These are just the sort of decisions that free men and women must make based on their own circumstances and the situations they face around them. The reason, in fact, that our moral virtues, such as courage, honesty, generosity, prudence and the rest, are general guidelines is that they are indicators, not formulas, for doing the right thing. Neither Peter Singer nor any other philosopher, theologian, economist or political theorist is going to be able to answer how much I or you ought to give away of what we have. Only we can do that—it is, as some have put it, all a matter of local knowledge.
A good clue may be gleaned as to what Singer would like us to do from what one of his like-minded colleagues, Peter Unger, once wrote: "On pain of living a life that's seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others."
Is this true? Because it is such a broad generalization, it probably is not. It assumes, for example, that what most of us spend our money on is worthless and implies that those who gain employment from such spending ought to go jobless. It also assumes that giving money away is of greater help to others than investing money in various projects or saving it so it could be lent out to support productive work. Indeed, Singer's essay is seriously lacking by failing to compare the benefits to those who need money of investing versus giving money away. As with the late Mother Teresa, Singer, too, seems to think it is more important to merely tide someone over instead of helping them get on their own feet.
Singer is also goes astray for thinking that the world is a kind of huge zero-sum game where those who gain must make others lose. He supports this with some theories to the effect that in order for us to be well off, others must suffer but that is really quite silly—economists for centuries have shown that buying, selling, hiring, and all that good commercial stuff is just what creates wealth, not giving things away, something that should be saved for emergencies and only when it is effective.
Another fallacy in Singer's thinking is that he keeps hinting at the idea that no one quite earns all of the wealth he or she has, even if it came by without out and out thievery. Well, of course not. When a beautiful model or talented singer or ball player gains huge sums, those sums weren't always fully deserved (earned). This is especially so with those of us, hopefully quite a few, who enjoy our work and for whom it isn't some great hardship to be productive. And there are the out and out lucky, too, who have a good deal that is theirs not because of arduous labors and suffering.
Yet, the fact that something is come by through luck or pleasant work doesn't make it someone else's. Our health can be good and it is still our health and Singer and his friends aren't justified in taking it from us. Property rights aren't sound principles because all of us always earn our resources through painful labor. They're sound principles because they preserve our sovereignty and keep the likes of Singer at bay.
Indeed, the bottom line of property rights has to do with who will decide how resources should be spent—the people who own them or
others, like Professor Singer. Interestingly although much of what Singer says in his New York Times Magazine piece avoids the worst part of the story, namely, advocating confiscating what we own, there is a part that reveals the author's view on that. He says, at one point, that a cabby asked him if he "thought the U.S. should give foreign aid. When [Singer] answered affirmatively, he replied that the government shouldn't tax people in order to give their money to others." So what did Singer trot out in response? The stuff about how much of what we have we didn't come by from our hard work. But that is entirely beside the point—few if any of us came by our lungs or eyes or good looks because of hard work, yet it is not for Singer to decide what we may do with these things. Indeed, most of our wealth came about through extremely complex ways. Still it is our wealth.
Generosity is indeed a moral virtue: to give those who should have something given to them. But how much that should be, when it should be given, and under what if any conditions, is very much a matter of the context. When some advocate making up formulas the danger is that the power to disburse will be theirs and no longer belong to those with the resources. And that may be what lurks behind all of this "giving," actually, not genuine generosity!