A recent disagreement between two ethicists highlights the moral decisions donors have to make before they sign the check.

Should we give objectively, choosing the charity that does the most good? Or should our dollars go to what we consider most worthy?

Let the ethicists have at it.

Donate based on impact

Donors are morally obligated to support causes that do the most good, argues , a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. To Singer, causes can be weighed for their benefits and donors should empirically measure how much good they are doing.

He recently laid out a in The New York Times to illustrate how not all causes are equal.

Your local museum needs a new wing. But another group wants your money to fight trachoma, an infectious–and treatable–eye disease that can blind children in . Singer thinks the choice is clear: you should save people from losing their sight.

Doing good is not always the best we can do, Singer says. When we balance the good two projects can do, he sees a moral contrast that we cannot ignore.

“[A] donation that saves one person from becoming blind would be better value than a donation that enables 1,000 people to visit the new [museum] wing.”

Singer believes that we should objectively choose between . Singer’s objectivity flies in the face of the common notion that each of us should choose what matters most to us and donate there.

There is no hierarchy of goodness

“We cannot create a hierarchy of goodness,” asserts Melissa Berman, president and chief executive at the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, in a New York Times letter to the editor in response to Singer’s article.

Singer’s hypothetical scenario fails to properly value the arts, says Berman, who argues the arts strengthens culture, learning and the economy.

Donors have to appreciate the complexity of need, Berman says. Where Singer sees objective comparisons, Berman sees a sea of equal options. Donors must wade into the murky complexities of the world and make decisions for themselves, Berman says.

No impact analysis will take away the personal responsibility to choose what matters most.

Donors must decide what causes to support. Does a donation to improve education in Peru do more good than a donation to another sector? Does it matter? Photo: Nathan Golon for Mercy Corps.


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