TED Talks on Mondays are a staple for me. This compelling talk by Peter Singer is wrong. Let me share why.
1. Dr. Singer’s most telling question is founded on the UNICEF statistic that 19,000 children under the age of 5 die from preventable, poverty-rooted causes each day. “Does it really matter that you don’t have to walk around these children as you walk down your street? “I don’t think it does make a morally relevant difference. The fact that they’re not right in front of us… none of that seems morally relevant to me.”
I could not disagree more. Proximity matters. Relationship matters. I am not morally responsible to respond to every person in need, and I have a greater responsibility to those who are nearer to me.
Both Dr. Singer and I make our decision based on our faith. My faith is in Jesus Christ, and his is in humanity. One of my favorite stories comes from Luke chapter 7. Jesus sees a widow draped over the coffin of her only son. His heart breaks, and he takes pity upon her. Now, I have to imagine that there were thousands of widows all over the world at that exact moment who were grieving a horrible loss. But Jesus took action this time. He was moved by what was right in front of him.
Another example comes from a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man who is robbed and left for dead. Several religious leaders ignored the dying man, but a Samaritan brings the man to an inn and cares for his needs. Jesus did not tell a story to systematically end robbery. He did not propose a global solution to murder. He told the story of the good Samaritan, not the good statistic.
Statistics are helpful, but they are often used to over-simplify complex social problems. The fact that people are in need right in front of us matters.
2. The lion’s share of Dr. Singer’s talk is about what should be done. What success means, what is right, wrong, good, bad, etc. I believe very strongly that why is the most important question. Towards the end of his argument, Dr. Singer shares why he is motivated to help:
“I’ve enjoyed giving… it’s something that is fulfilling to me. Being an effective altruist helps us to solve the Sisyphus problem.”
Sisyphus is the king in Greek mythology who is sentenced by the gods to eternally roll a rock up a hill, and each time he gets to the top, he has to start over again. I can relate to Sisyphus each time I go to the DMV.
Dr. Singer says that our lives as humans are a bit like a “hedonistic treadmill”. We look to make more money to buy more stuff and make ourselves happy. On this point, I share some of Dr. Singer’s passion.
In stepping off the hedonistic treadmill, we must step somewhere else. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s stepping onto another hedonistic treadmill. Hedonism was proposed as an ethical construct by a student of Socrates. He believed that pleasure is the highest good. This is almost identical to the argument that Dr. Singer makes for giving. Effective altruism is motivated, for Dr. Singer, by an increase in self esteem, meaning and fulfillment. In other words, we give because we feel good, and in feeling good, we place our hope in headonism.
Rather than being motivated for effective altruism that makes me feel good, why not search for being a good steward, recognizing that my brief stay here on earth is not a story for my glory? I am motivated to serve my Lord, and live in a way in which he will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”. This motivation means dying to my desire to feel good each time I give.
3. Three people are highlighted as the ultimate examples of giving. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates. Better than Carnegie or Rockefeller. The Gates Foundation is huge, and they’re doing great work. Their story contains no obvious parallel moral truth for my life. The giving of these people may be record-setting, but they do not give in a way that even closely impacts their standard of living. Also, their extreme wealth makes relationships with the poor practically impossible.
The Life You Can Save is a website that Dr. Singer started to help people make informed giving decisions. If you run the income/giving calculator, a person who earns around $500,000/year should be giving almost 10%, and a person who makes $50k/year should be giving around 2%. These percentages are nearly meaningless and distract us from the real model of generous living.
What I see in scripture is that generous and sacrificial giving is my Lord’s expectation. Every act of generosity in scripture is tied in relationship (people who know or see other people in need). Giving is a partnership, awash in humility, hospitality, caring, reconciliation, compassion and trust. For Dr. Singer, giving is efficiency and (statistical) effectiveness. Where is the biggest bang for the buck… the greatest ROI?
I actually made an appeal to a mentor recently for the charity I lead. After he said yes, I asked him a little about how he makes his charitable decisions. One of the things he told me was, “I try not to over-think it”.
I know he has thought thousands of hours about why he gives, and thousands more building relationships with who he gives. Over-thinking it is what we do when we don’t have a relationship. Over-thinking is the byproduct of believing that we actually own our money. We are more simple than we think. We do our best giving when we see a need and fill it. The poor, widow, orphan or stranger. We take care of those in front of us, and we expect God to do something greater than our calculations.
Proverbs 3:27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.
James 2:15-16 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?