The man who didn’t save the world

A Saudi prince has been re­vealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's "Sal­va­tor Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 mil­lion. Had he given the money to the poor, as the sub­ject of the paint­ing in­structed an­other rich man, he could have re­stored eye­sight to

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents -

Last month (Novem­ber 2017), “Sal­va­tor Mundi,” Leonardo da Vinci's por­trayal of Je­sus as Sav­ior of the World, sold at auc­tion for $400 mil­lion, more than twice the pre­vi­ous record for a work of art sold at auc­tion. The buyer also had to pay an ad­di­tional $50.3 mil­lion in com­mis­sions and fees.

The paint­ing has been heav­ily re­touched, and some ex­perts have even ques­tioned whether it re­ally is by Leonardo. Ja­son Farago, a New York Times art critic, de­scribed it as “a pro­fi­cient but not es­pe­cially dis­tin­guished re­li­gious pic­ture from turn-of-the-16th-cen­tury Lom­bardy, put through a wringer of restora­tions.”

The buyer – who many be­lieve to be the Saudi crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, act­ing through a dis­tant cousin – has paid a very high price for a paint­ing of a man who is said to have told an­other rich per­son: “Go, sell your pos­ses­sions and give to the poor, and you will have trea­sure in heaven.” That makes it rel­e­vant to ask: what could some­one with a spare $450 mil­lion do for the poor?

The Life You Can Save, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that I founded a few years

ago, has a Char­ity Im­pact Cal­cu­la­tor that en­ables you to see what can be achieved by do­na­tions to char­i­ties with a proven record of ef­fec­tive aid for the world's poor­est peo­ple. It shows that, for $450 mil­lion, you could res­tore sight to nine mil­lion peo­ple with cur­able blind­ness, or pro­vide 13 mil­lion fam­i­lies with the tools and tech­niques to grow 50% more food.

If you want to fol­low Je­sus's com­mand in a more lit­eral man­ner, you could sim­ply give the money to the world's poor­est fam­i­lies to use as they wish. A non­profit called Give Di­rectly will lo­cate the need­i­est fam­i­lies and trans­fer your money to them, de­duct­ing only 10% for its ad­min­is­tra­tive costs.

In case you think that peo­ple re­ceiv­ing such a wind­fall will spend it on al­co­hol, gam­bling, or pros­ti­tu­tion, an in­de­pen­dent eval­u­a­tion has shown that they don't. Give Di­rectly's cash trans­fers in­crease re­cip­i­ents' food se­cu­rity, men­tal health, and as­sets. For $450 mil­lion, you could also buy 180 mil­lion bed nets, enough to pro­tect 271 mil­lion peo­ple from malaria. (For all these in­ter­ven­tions, the num­bers are likely to be some­what smaller, be­cause the Char­ity Im­pact Cal­cu­la­tor is not de­signed for such large sums, and so does not take into ac­count that costs will rise once the needs of those who are eas­i­est to reach have been met.)

When a per­son chooses to buy “Sal­va­tor Mundi”rather than res­tore sight to nine mil­lion peo­ple, what does that say about their val­ues? One thing is clear: they can­not care very much about other peo­ple. What­ever plea­sure they, their fam­ily, and friends will get from view­ing the paint­ing, it can hardly com­pare with the ben­e­fit that restor­ing sight pro­vides to one per­son, let alone many mil­lions.

Rightly or wrongly, most of us do give much more weight to our own in­ter­ests, and those of our chil­dren and other close rel­a­tives and friends, than we do to the in­ter­ests of oth­ers. The more dis­tant, and the more dif­fer­ent from us, those oth­ers are, the higher the rate of dis­count that we ap­ply in prac­tice.

Yet there is a line at which the dis­count rate be­comes so great, and the in­ter­ests of oth­ers are treated with such in­dif­fer­ence, that we must say no, that is go­ing too far. We could ar­gue that most af­flu­ent peo­ple are on the wrong side of that line. What seems to me unar­guable is that to care more about own­ing a paint­ing than about whether sev­eral mil­lion peo­ple can see is a long way be­yond it.

In 2006, the leg­endary in­vestor Warren Buf­fett pledged to give most of his wealth – around $30 bil­lion – to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion to help peo­ple in ex­treme poverty. That gift – the sin­gle big­gest gift any­one has ever given to any­one for any­thing – dou­bled the re­sources of the foun­da­tion. To mark the tenth an­niver­sary of Buf­fett's pledge, Bill and Melinda Gates re­cently re­ported to him on what the foun­da­tion, to­gether with other or­ga­ni­za­tions, achieved to im­prove global health over that decade.

The fig­ure that Bill and Melinda Gates high­light is 122 mil­lion. That's the num­ber of chil­dren's lives saved since 1990 by pro­gres­sive re­duc­tions in the rate of child mor­tal­ity. In other words, if the rate of child mor­tal­ity had re­mained con­stant be­tween 1990 and to­day, 122 mil­lion more chil­dren would have died than did in fact die over that pe­riod.

Per­haps the big­gest con­tri­bu­tion that the Gates Foun­da­tion made to that de­cline was pledg­ing $750 mil­lion to es­tab­lish the Global Al­liance for Vac­cines and Im­mu­niza­tion (now known as Gavi, the Vac­cine Al­liance), a pub­lic-pri­vate ini­tia­tive that works with gov­ern­ments and United Na­tions agen­cies to im­prove the rate of vac­ci­na­tion in poor coun­tries and foster the de­vel­op­ment of new vac­cines. Now 86% of the world's chil­dren re­ceive ba­sic vac­cines – the high­est rate ever.

The Gate­ses claim that ev­ery dol­lar spent on child­hood im­mu­niza­tion yields $44 in eco­nomic ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing the money that fam­i­lies oth­er­wise lose when a child gets sick and a par­ent can­not work. Warren Buf­fett's con­tri­bu­tion to im­mu­niza­tions may be the best in­vest­ment he has ever made.

What do you think would make a per­son hap­pier? Own­ing a paint­ing – even if it were the most mar­velous paint­ing in the world – or know­ing that you had kept mil­lions of chil­dren healthy, sav­ing lives and ben­e­fit­ing fam­i­lies eco­nom­i­cally at the same time? Both com­mon sense and psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search sug­gest that it isn't own­ing the paint­ing. Peter Singer is Pro­fes­sor of Bioethics at Prince­ton Univer­sity and Lau­re­ate Pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. His books in­clude An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion, Prac­ti­cal Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Ma­son), Re­think­ing Life and Death, The Point of View of the Uni­verse, co-au­thored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Most Good You Can Do, Famine, Af­flu­ence, and Moral­ity, One World Now, Ethics in the Real World, and, most re­cently, Util­i­tar­i­an­ism: A Very Short In­tro­duc­tion, also with Katarzyna de LazariRadek. In 2013, he was named the world's third "most in­flu­en­tial con­tem­po­rary thinker" by the Got­tlieb Dut­tweiler In­sti­tute. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate

When a per­son chooses to buy “Sal­va­tor Mundi”rather than res­tore sight to nine mil­lion peo­ple, what does that say about their val­ues? One thing is clear: they can­not care very much about other peo­ple.

Saudi crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Sal­man

Leonardo da Vinci's "Sal­va­tor Mundi” paint­ing

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