Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Good Charity, Bad Charity"?

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?


Elaine Fine said...

Unfortunately there are an awful lot of people who think of art (and non-pop music) as elitist. Thanks for this post.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is not Peter Singer's point, though. He's making a more insidious and dangerous point.

Phil Fried said...

In a related post, and not the focus of the op-ed, it appears that Mr. PETER BUFFETT, a composer runs a huge non profit that gives no money to the arts. He wants to increase humanism, yet give no money for the humanities. (I wrote the times about this--they did not post my comments).

Lisa Hirsch said...

I found Peter Buffet's op-ed really interesting - he's right about the charitable-industrial complex - but you are right, and right on, about what his foundation does and doesn't do.

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps it has to do with my personal position in relation to "the arts," but I don't really understand the mindset of someone who would think of giving money towards an artistic endeavor (or building, or piece of music, or performing organization) in the same way one would think of giving money (or help) to an organization that helps people get food or health care. It is the tax deduction thing that make us lump them all together, and therefore compare them. They are apples and oranges, as far as I'm concerned.

I make my contributions to "the arts" by offering some of what I do for free to people who may not be able to otherwise afford it. I am a proud member of a great museum so that I can enjoy the member benefits, like not having to wait in line, not having to pay for individual visits, being able to get a cup of tea in the member lounge, and being able to go to specialty shows.

Sometimes, in the absence of actually having personal funds to contribute to local charities, I play fund-raising concerts (without charging a fee). I imagine that the audience members enjoy the chance to hear a concert AND contribute to a local charity (and they always give a lot of money). I offer string orchestra arrangements to people for free because school orchestral programs often don't have money for music, and because there are a lot of people in various hinterlands who otherwise wouldn't have access to any string music.

Perhaps Peter Buffet's relationship to music could be characterized as something he does for a living. I don't think that anybody has any business making judgements about how he (or any other person who has money to give away) chooses to follow his interests in the non-musical part of his life.

There are rich people who love art, but are not artists themselves. They give to museums. There are also rich people who love music, but don't play or do it for a living. They are the people who tend to support performing ensembles in order to get the "member benefits," whatever they may be for various organizations and various places.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't subsidize the arts under any circumstances. They should make their own way.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Really? Interesting viewpoint!

Museum, dance companies, orchestras, and chamber ensembles wouldn't exist in their current form without user donations - can't really tell if that's what you mean by subsidize, or whether you mean direct government subsidies such as grants (in the US). Charitable donations in the US are a form of indirect subsidy, since they're tax-deductible for so many donors.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Of course, Peter Singer is making a more subtle point than that: he's suggesting directing charitable contributions in particular directions, for reasons I find questionable.

Unknown said...

None of the arts should be subsidized by the government. The people who go to it should pay for it, either by buying tickets or via donations. The US system of no subsidies (The NEA's budget is
small - we'd be better off without it) and tax deductibility of charitable gifts seems the best compromise. Let's take opera for a moment. What's really wrong with opera is not even
hinted at by today's commentators: most composers are not able to write new operas that the public wants to hear. Without viable new works opera becomes an overpriced
museum. Great as it is, how many Falstaff performances can you fit into a life? If an operatic genius appeared all would be well with opera.

Getting back to the original point. The question is how much should inequalities be limited, by whom, and by what means? The more equal we get the less free. See
Frederich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin for why.

Anonymous said...

I agree. The dark side of utilitarian philosophy is its tendency to lead to this ridiculous hair-splitting assessments of exactly how much happiness to how many people a given action creates. You can't do it that way. The quality of generosity, like that of mercy, is not strained.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Calimac, I'm not sure with whom you are agreeing, because of the order in which comments came in and were approved. I do agree with your assessment of hair-splitting assessments.

Rebecca, I do not understand the role of subsidies in your claims about new operas. There aren't more new operas produced because 1) opera is hugely expensive to produce 2) opera companies don't want to take chances 3) it can take time and practice to learn how to write good operas, which most composers never get.

You seem to be claiming that subsidies - in the form of user donations? - are somehow inhibiting the creation of new opera, probably on grounds that people will vote enthusiastically with their feet if there are enough good operas. I think you are wrong about this.

Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. to Rebecca. I haven't read either Berlin or Hayek. Curious about the specifics, but what Paul Krugman has to say about Hayek's economics is not encouraging.

If you're just taking standard libertarian lines, yawn.

Henry Holland said...

None of the arts should be subsidized by the government

Much better that it subsidizes the arts than feeds the maw of a bloated military/industrial complex that produces stuff that nobody in the military wants just so congresscritters in all 50 states can say "See! We're bringing jobs to Keokuk!".

The US system of no subsidies (The NEA's budget is small - we'd be better off without it)

The money given to the NEA = a paltry $155 million. The cost of one Northrup Grumman Global Hawk drone plane = $144 million, $222 million if development costs are figured in. So, for the cost of one plane that kills innocent Yemeni's, we could fund the arts.

I know Americans have a much-deserved reputation in Europe for being philistines, but really now.

Ernie in Berkeley said...

Henry is correct in pointing out Singer's main fallacy: that there is a set amount of potential donations in the world and they must be allocated justly. But this is not a zero-sum game. There's plenty of money out there (and more created by the minute); it's just not distributed in any way that could be called fair, from the point of view of the world's needy.

Anonymous said...

Lisa - it's with your original post that I'm saying I agree.

Dr.B said...

Health care should be in all its facets and manifestations paid for by the government, leaving no requirement that anyone donate to it. People who love the arts should donate to keep them going.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Calimac.

Dr. B, yes, I agree with you.

shallnot said...

I have heard Peter Singer interviewed and have been sent a link to a site that is based on his "Drowning Child" paper and in both cases have found that he tries to get you to agree with his agenda via "bait and switch" tactics.

In the case of the drowning child what starts out as you passing a shallow pond with a drowning child evolves into a drowning child in another country that we have to accept, in the contrived conditions of the thought experiment, can saved at no great expense or harm to ourself. Much like the sneaky demon in his latest article this is a crass way of forcing you to agree that if you accept the one scenario then you need to accept his tenuously related alternate scenario.

I find "bait and switch" annoying when salesmen attempt it; for academics to do so really irks me.

In the case of donating money to the arts or to 'save the world' charities there is an excluded middle option that is we can do both.

Unknown said...

I generally don't like it when people link to their own shit in a comment thread, but my thoughts on arts funding, for what they are worth, are here:

Vajra said...

I do not disagree with Singer that the First World could do more to alleviate suffering in the Third World. However, he devises a false dichotomy: choosing between contributions to save a life and contributions to the arts. He appears to argue that one can do one or the other but not both. In this he strikes a rather Puritanical pose. It's almost certain that by reducing spending on military armaments by the USA alone, many trillions of dollars could be spent on improving conditions in the less developed world. Certainly spending on education, infant mortality, nutrition, etc. is commendable but, using a partial quotation from the Gospels, "Man does not live by bread alone". Indeed, one strong strain in the women's suffragist movement is the acknowledgement that meaningful life is more than survival, but includes both bread and roses. The arts are not superfluous but necessary.

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

Moslih Eddin Saadi, Gulistan (Garden of Roses)