Peter Singer on giving boldly

Peter Singer, Princeton professor of bioethics, thinks Jesus got it wrong about giving to charity in secret. We should give to charity boldly and in public:

Jesus said that we should give alms in private rather than when others are watching. That fits with the commonsense idea that if people only do good in public, they may be motivated by a desire to gain a reputation for generosity. Perhaps when no one is looking, they are not generous at all.

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From an ethical perspective, however, should we care so much about the purity of the motive with which the gift was made? Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor’s name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

A substantial body of current psychological research points against Jesus’ advice. One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is their beliefs about what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same. Perhaps we will eventually reach a tipping point at which giving a significant amount to help the world’s poorest becomes sufficiently widespread to eliminate the majority of those 25,000 needless daily deaths.

That is what Chris and Anne Ellinger hope their Web site,, will achieve. The site tells the story of more than 50 members of the 50 percent League – people who have given away either 50 percent of their assets or 50 percent of their income in each of the last three years. Members of the league want to change expectations about what is a “normal” or “reasonable” amount to give.

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We need to get over our reluctance to speak openly about the good we do. Silent giving will not change a culture that deems it sensible to spend all your money on yourself and your family, rather than to help those in greater need – even though helping others is likely to bring more fulfillment in the long run.

Read it all here. Hat tip to Economist’s View.

So, is Professor Singer correct? Does the fact that our giving in public will cause others to give a reason to ignore Jesus’ admonishion? Or is this yet another example where utiliarian fails to provide the full answer?

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