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The Liffman Provocations: What would da Vinci do?

February 26th, 2019

The last two of my posts have sought to explore both sides of the heart vs head challenge in giving, firstly by arguing for the power of the very objective, analytic approach taken by the effective altruism movement, and second, by acknowledging the difficulty this poses for many of us and considering the merits of a somewhat different approach.

By Michael Liffman

This is a debate which can go on endlessly, at various levels of philosophical complexity and abstraction, but its core question is one we can all understand. In this article, I would like to draw readers into reflecting on this dilemma and sharing their reflections with others. To do so, I am going to use the influential and effective distillation of the issue put forward by Peter Singer in his advocacy of effective altruism. But I am going to experiment by adding a twist to it.

Singer gives the hypothetical example in which you are walking past a pond and you see a young child who has fallen in and is about to drown. You can easily jump in and save the child but in so doing will ruin the expensive shoes you have just bought. Do you do so? Of course, everyone agrees the life of a child is worth far more than the cost of a pair of shoes. But Singer uses this example to point out, very confrontingly and effectively, that in our daily lives, we do in effect walk past drowning children: much of what we spend on ourselves, he suggests, could instead be given to, for instance, Oxfam, where it could literally save lives. 

Singer uses this in his influential book, 'The Life you can Save', and the movement of the same name he then created, to encourage all of us to be more philanthropic (while recognising, realistically, that there are limits on how much people can be expected to divert from satisfying their own needs). That proposition is probably not too challenging to those who have chosen to be Philanthropy Australia members - although even the most generous givers could presumably dig even deeper. 

It is his next book, 'Effective Altruism', that contains the challenge that faces even those who are committed donors. Well-intentioned generosity, Singer claims, is not enough. Singer extends his utilitarian logic to argue that, even when giving is undertaken, it remains necessary to be resolutely hard-headed and unsentimental so that funds given are clearly directed at saving the most lives rather than other, less important, causes. An easy (but certainly not the only) target that follows from this logic is funding the arts. Singer is unrelentingly critical of the massive donations given to elite galleries to purchase yet another masterpiece for their already vast collections; but by extension, he questions arts funding in general and much other funding as well. Indeed, he goes as far as to argue that, in general, donors in privileged nations like Australia should confine their generosity to poorer nations where they can most efficiently save the most lives rather than give to local causes.

So, the logic is rational, clear and compelling, and I find it extremely persuasive. But, as I suggested in my earlier post on effective altruism, many - perhaps most - people continue to have misgivings with the highly cerebral Singer approach, so let me extend the child in the pond example to incorporate some of those misgivings - and in so doing, I invite you to reflect and to share your reflections with other Philanthropy Australia members by responding to this post.

First, the arts. Let's imagine (and admittedly this example is rather far-fetched, but it serves my purpose) that the person passing the pond is a security courier transporting, in a backpack tightly strapped to their body, da Vinci's original Mona Lisa to a gallery to which is to be loaned for display. Jumping into the pond to save the child will destroy not simply a pair of shoes but also one of the world's most priceless and treasured art works. Does this change your decision? Do you continue to think that the drowning child should be rescued? If so, what does that say about the debate about the value of the arts compared to saving a life - and does it help determine your view on arts funding? What might Singer think? What might da Vinci think?

Another example. Are all lives of equal value? Would it make a difference if the drowning child had a severe and degenerative physical or mental disability?  Or if the drowning person were not a young child but a notorious drug dealer on the run? Do we favour those with whom we have a personal connection?  What if - stretching the plausibility of the example even further - there were not just one but two children who had fallen into the pond and were at risk of drowning - the child of a neighbour whom you know has three other children, and another child unknown to you - and you only have the ability to save one? 

Should funds be directed at long term causes or the relief of immediate suffering? Suppose the courier's backpack contained, not the Mona Lisa but $10 million in very fragile cash notes which had been collected over many years to be donated to a research program seeking a cure for a devastating childhood disease that that seemed to originate in Australia?  Or a unique specimen of a biological agent that offered a cure for cancer?

I don't raise these to disagree with effective altruism, nor to indulge in excessively remote philosophical speculation, but to use Singer's device of offering concrete, albeit hypothetical and over-simplified, examples as a means of digging deeper into the real-world questions of priorities and values in grantmaking, and to ask how far rationality and consistency can and should be applied to grantmaking.

And, as I used to say to my students, these exercises do not yield right or wrong answers, but hopefully can prompt better questions...

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