Tag Archives: The Ivy League

Telescopic philanthropy and the modern university

Over the last year, I’ve offered occasional thoughts about the role of philanthropy in today’s world, looking mostly at the billionaires (like Bill Gates and George Soros) doing the giving. It seemed–actually it still does– weird and interesting that these guys would concern themselves with how historians and other educators spend their time, and I offered a few possible explanations.

But lately I’ve been more interested in the other side of that story, meaning the enthusiasm that some professors are starting to show about big-money philanthropy. It’s an enthusiasm that says some interesting things about how the university and its humanist professors fit into the twenty-first-century world.

My example is Peter Singer, who’s probably today’s most visible philanthropy-fan professor. Singer’s a world-famous Australian philosopher, who’s taught at Princeton since 1999 (Wikipedia quotes a colleague describing him as “almost certainly the best-known and most widely read of all contemporary philosophers”). He’s been pushing philanthropy for a long time, but lately it’s become his primary focus, and he’s signed on to a view called “effective altruism.” The basic idea is: all over the world, there are people in life-and-death need, and the rest of us have a duty to do everything we can to rescue them. “Everything we can” includes giving as much as we can, but also being smart about it, by making our dollars go as far as possible (that’s the “effective” side of the equation). That includes selecting charities that function efficiently, with low overhead costs and modest offices, and orienting our altruism to the truly desperate– sending food to starving Africans counts way more than (say) endowing book purchases at the local library.

Most interesting of all, those on the donor side have a duty to organize their own lives for maximum altruistic effectiveness. Singer offers an example from his Princeton classrooms, that of a brilliant young student who (influenced by Singer’s teaching) decided against a fast-track career in academic philosophy and instead went to Wall Street; he reasoned that all the extra money he’d earn there would make him a far more effective altruist. Singer has only praise for this career switch, which will allow the young man “to save a hundred lives” in his first year or two out of school, way more than would have been possible on a professor’s salary. Career choices like these (Singer assures us) form part of “an exciting new movement” that’s sweeping elite universities world wide; they show philosophy “returning to its Socratic role” of shaking up our ideas about the good life, dramatically transforming students’ lives, and making “the world a better place.”

From all this glossy talk of innovation and excitement, you wouldn’t know there are important criticisms of Singer’s approach, but they’re out there. As numerous observers point out, big philanthrophy undermines democratic values, by giving individual donors decision-making power over what society as a whole gets. It reinforces social hierarchies, by dividing the world between big-hearted givers and weakling takers and (as in Singer’s version) by giving extra moral status to big money. It tends to destroy public institutions, as their survival increasingly depends on pleasing a few wealthy donors. And it often has more directly destructive consequences. Sending free American food to Africa sounds great, but if it destroys African farming (how do farmers stay afloat when NGOs distribute free food in the marketplace?) and subsidizes American agribusiness (from whom NGOs purchase the “free” food), is it really helpful? Is this about “saving lives” or “clearing out small farmers so that multi-nationals can step in?”

Singer’s Wall-Street-bound student offers an extreme form of this last problem, because whatever his exact big business role, it would take some deep calculations to know whether his donations counter-balance the harm he may doing– especially since some of that harm won’t show up for many years. Do his investments contribute to climate change, for instance, or to carcinogenic industrial processes? Do his clients use the money he makes for them to lobby against health and safety regulations, or against old age pensions? It may be two or three generations before we know the costs and benefits, even if we add up only the lives saved and lost.

I’ll leave the list of criticisms there, since I find them so compelling (for a more complete and careful discussion, see this terrific article by the philosopher Matthew Snow). Instead, I want to think a little about what Singer and “effective altruism” tell us about the modern university and its culture.

First, we might note the strange combination of qualities that Singer’s story attributes to the university itself. There’s an element of professorial megalomania in the account– Singer presents himself as a new Socrates, shaking up philosophy and redirecting the polis, and he sees world-improvement starting in university classrooms, rather than among, say, the poor themselves. But there’s also some startling self-abasement in his story, because its real heroes are the wonderful undergraduates just passing through the university, on their way to making money and improving the world. Think of it as an updated version F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s glamor-Princeton, now featuring ethically sensitized young people rather than Jazz Age partiers. The professors function as their life-coaches, and the other figures in the university– graduate students, librarians, researchers, and the like– don’t make it into the picture.

Then there’s the strange historical shallowness in Singer’s account– meaning, it offers no hint that debate about philanthropy has been raging for about 250 years, and in that time the nay-sayers have landed some pretty good punches. The great nineteenth-century novels are full of philanthropists, most of them horrifying. (Think Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose “telescopic philanthropy” centers on sending colonists to Africa while her own family sinks into ruin and degradation, or Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Brocklehurst, bullying impoverished young women.) Even earlier, the French thinker/politician Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot pointed out how silly and self-serving most charitable donations look to later generations. In the 1960s and 1970s, Michel Foucault explored the structural linkages between philanthropy and power, showing that even the slam-dunk do-gooder projects have come with very heavy baggage.

Now, presumably a smart, learned guy like Peter Singer knows all this, and he may reason that it’s not his job to argue against his own views– that’s for those of us who disagree with him. But whatever full disclosure duties he may have, we can still notice the peculiar firmness of his non-historicity. Here’s another world-class professor implicitly telling the public that the past doesn’t matter, we don’t need to think about it, let’s just focus on the bright, shiny future.

Which leads to a last peculiarity in Singer’s story, the politics. Singer presents himself as a leftist, and he was even a Green Party candidate back in Australia. Clearly he’s desperately concerned about the state of the world today, and really wants to improve people’s lives. Yet when we’ve stripped it down, “effective altruism” looks an awful lot like a celebration of capitalism and the well-paid folks who make it run. It’s a deeply flawed system, seems to be Singer’s position, but it’s not going away, and so we have to work with it.

As I’ve said before, the neo-cons who fume about tenured radicals in the universities can probably relax.