What Is Philanthropy?

Without a doubt, the highest privilege of wealth is the opportunity it affords for doing good, without giving up one's fortune.

- Cicero, De Officiis, II 18

Podcast of the Day

Many [give] to charities in the hope of helping those less well off. Simple acts of kindness—but are they efficient? Perhaps this is not the primary consideration one has of their philanthropy, but a new utilitarian movement is now applying serious intellectual rigour to the tug of the heart strings. It’s called effective altruism, and it has little time for random deeds.

Listen to The Philosopher's Zone episode: Doing Good Better

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Short Article of the Day

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

Continue reading Peter Singer's article: The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle

Further Reading

Most of us want to make a difference. We see suffering, injustice and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone doing it, is a difficult problem.

Which cause should you support if you really want to make a difference? What career choices will help you make a significant contribution? Which charities will use your donation effectively? If you don’t choose well, you risk wasting your time and money. But if you choose wisely, you have a tremendous chance to improve the world.

Continue reading the Introduction to Effective Altruism

Related Topics

Animal Ethics | Empathy | Moral Psychology

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.