In Sunday's NY Times, the Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer continued his narrow-minded assault on most types of charitable donations. He sets up what I'd consider to be a false dichotomy, contrasting the good done by a charitable donation to a health-related cause to the good you aren't doing by donating to an art museum. He purports to demonstrate that donations to an art museum are bad through the following thought experiment:
Suppose the new museum wing will cost $50 million, and over the 50 years of its expected usefulness, one million people will enjoy seeing it each year, for a total of 50 million enhanced museum visits. Since you would contribute 1/500th of the cost, you could claim credit for the enhanced aesthetic experiences of 100,000 visitors. How does that compare with saving 1,000 people from 15 years of blindness?
To answer, try a thought experiment. Suppose you have a choice between visiting the art museum, including its new wing, or going to see the museum without visiting the new wing. Naturally, you would prefer to see it with the new wing. But now imagine that an evil demon declares that out of every 100 people who see the new wing, he will choose one, at random, and inflict 15 years of blindness on that person. Would you still visit the new wing? You’d have to be nuts. Even if the evil demon blinded only one person in every 1,000, in my judgment, and I bet in yours, seeing the new wing still would not be worth the risk.Let me just say that this is bullshit: there is no evil demon and I don't have to make choices about my charitable donations based on this thought experiment. I'm not accepting his premise, in other words.
I was actually enraged by the op-ed piece, and sent the Times a fairly level-headed letter explaining why. They haven't printed it among the responses to Singer, so here it is:
Peter Singer compares charitable giving to heal victims of trachoma to charity to support an art museum. His comparison is certainly interesting, but why do we have to make these choices? Our failure to provide adequate health care to all in need is a structural problem best solved by governments, not individuals or even foundations and NGOs. Mr. Singer doesn't address this point.
Moreover, if everyone who currently gives to the arts switched to giving to health charities, our museums, orchestras, and dance companies would collapse. Does Mr. Singer want a world of privatized art, without these institutions? Does he want to deny access to the arts to the general public?
Giving to the arts isn't bad charity. It does different good from giving to health charities.
For the record, I'm not at all opposed to giving to health-related charities. I give to them myself, and I give quite a bit more money to charities that feed people than to arts organizations. But Peter Singer should just stop trying to guilt-trip people into giving up their support for the arts. I don't want to live in that kind of a society. Does he?