Too much grat­i­tude? Giv­ing back to do the most good

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - PETER SINGER

Last Novem­ber, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest pri­vate do­na­tion to higher ed­u­ca­tion in modern times: $1.8 bil­lion to en­able his alma mater, Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, to pro­vide schol­ar­ships for el­i­gi­ble stu­dents un­able to af­ford the school’s tu­ition.

Bloomberg is grate­ful to Johns Hop­kins, he ex­plains, be­cause the op­por­tu­nity to study there, on a schol­ar­ship, “opened up doors that oth­er­wise would have been closed, and al­lowed me to live the Amer­i­can dream.” In the year after he grad­u­ated, he do­nated $5 to the school, all he could af­ford. Thanks to the suc­cess of Bloomberg LP, the in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial-in­for­ma­tion com­pany he founded in 1981, he has now given a to­tal of $3.3 bil­lion.

Many peo­ple give from grat­i­tude, not only to the uni­ver­si­ties they at­tended, but also to their pri­mary and sec­ondary schools, and to hos­pi­tals that treated them when they were ill. These ap­par­ently laud­able rea­sons for giv­ing are in ten­sion with the idea, pop­u­lar­ized by the “ef­fec­tive al­tru­ism” move­ment, that we should do the most good we can. Bloomberg seems aware of this way of think­ing, for he of­fers an­other rea­son for his most re­cent gift: “No qual­i­fied high school stu­dent should ever be barred en­trance to a col­lege based on his or her fam­ily’s bank ac­count.”

In the United States, in con­trast to other af­flu­ent coun­tries, stu­dents are often un­able to go to the col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties of their choice be­cause they can­not af­ford the high fees charged. Stu­dent loans may be avail­able, but they will have to be re­paid after grad­u­at­ing. Bloomberg’s gift adds one more uni­ver­sity to the hand­ful (in­clud­ing Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity, my em­ployer) where those with­out the means to pay will have their tu­ition and liv­ing ex­penses fully cov­ered.

Bloomberg has an ad­mirable record of do­ing good. Thrice elected mayor of New York City, his ad­min­is­tra­tion saved lives by ban­ning smok­ing in res­tau­rants and in­door work­places and re­duced air pol­lu­tion, in­clud­ing a 19 per­cent re­duc­tion in city­wide green­house gas emis­sions. He cam­paigned against il­le­gal guns and later founded and fi­nan­cially sup­ports the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Every­town for Gun Safety.

Ac­cord­ing to Forbes, which this year be­gan rank­ing the world’s rich­est peo­ple for their phi­lan­thropy, Bloomberg has given away more than $5.5 bil­lion. That places him third, trail­ing only War­ren Buf­fett and Bill and Melinda Gates on the Forbes list, which takes into ac­count both the ab­so­lute sum given and the pro­por­tion of a per­son’s wealth rep­re­sented by that sum. Bloomberg has taken the Giv­ing Pledge, com­mit­ting him­self to giv­ing at least half of his for­tune to char­ity. In fact, he has writ­ten that “nearly all of my net worth will be given away in the years ahead or left to my foun­da­tion.”

And yet I can­not ap­plaud Bloomberg’s do­na­tion to a uni­ver­sity that al­ready had an en­dow­ment of $3.8 bil­lion and charges un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents $53,740 per year to at­tend. My pref­er­ence is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 mil­lion to Glass­boro State Col­lege, a pub­lic uni­ver­sity in New Jersey that at the time had an en­dow­ment of $787,000 and an­nual fees of about $9,000. Rowan him­self was a grad­u­ate of MIT, one of the world’s finest uni­ver­si­ties, but grat­i­tude was not his mo­ti­va­tion for do­nat­ing. He wanted to make the big­gest dif­fer­ence he could, and be­lieved that one makes a big­ger dif­fer­ence by strength­en­ing the weak links in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem than by giv­ing even more to those who al­ready have a lot. (If you want to know more about Rowan, and why he is likely to have been right, lis­ten to Mal­colm Glad­well’s en­ter­tain­ing pod­cast about him.)

But while do­ing the most good ought to take pri­or­ity over per­sonal feel­ings like grat­i­tude, we don’t have to set aside our per­sonal feel­ings en­tirely. Grat­i­tude could have led Bloomberg to have given, say, $1 mil­lion to Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity on the ba­sis of those feel­ings.

That would have more than sat­is­fied any moral debt he may have felt to­ward his alma mater, and left $1,799 mil­lion to go to­ward do­ing the most good.

For­tu­nately, it’s not too late. Just since 2014, Bloomberg’s wealth has jumped by 50 per­cent, to $48 bil­lion.

If he thinks that in­creas­ing equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity in ed­u­ca­tion does the most good, he can fol­low Rowan’s ex­am­ple and seek out needy in­sti­tu­tions. The re­ally weak links in ed­u­ca­tion, how­ever, are not in the United States. Ge­orge Soros, an­other im­pres­sive phi­lan­thropist, founded the Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­sity in or­der to pro­vide new ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents from all over the world, but es­pe­cially from the for­mer com­mu­nist coun­tries of Cen­tral and Eastern Europe.

To­day, the great­est need for ed­u­ca­tion is in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, where many chil­dren do not even com­plete pri­mary school. In Kenya, pri­mary school teacher salar­ies start at 17,000 shillings per month, or $2,000 per year. At that rate, $1.8 bil­lion would get you 18,000 such teach­ers for the next 50 years.

Nor is ed­u­ca­tion the only con­tender for the most good you can do.

Dy­lan Matthews, who writes about ef­fec­tive al­tru­ism for Vox, drew on es­ti­mates by the char­ity eval­u­a­tor GiveWell to sug­gest that if Bloomberg had do­nated his $1.8 bil­lion to the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion to en­able it to pur­chase and dis­trib­ute more bed nets, he could have saved more than 400,000 lives.

There are also many other highly cost-ef­fec­tive char­i­ties with proven tech­niques for help­ing peo­ple in ex­treme poverty (for ex­am­ples, see The Life You Can Save, a non­profit I founded). And you don’t have to be a bil­lion­aire to make a dif­fer­ence.

At that rate, $1.8B would get 18,000 such teach­ers for the next 50 years

Peter Singer is pro­fes­sor of bioethics at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity, lau­re­ate pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne and founder of the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion The Life You Can Save. His books in­clude “An­i­mal Lib­er­a­tion,” “Prac­ti­cal Ethics,” “One World Now,” and “The Most Good You Can Do.” THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.project-syn­di­cate.org).

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