If practical ethics is supposed to be a guide to conduct in the social and political world, then those who would teach it as an academic subject should be careful to work with an appropriate degree of understanding of social and political realities.
Peter Singer is one of the most influential teachers of practical ethics in the world, who actively strives to extend his influence beyond his immediate classrooms at Princeton University in order to make the world a better place. His words get heard. This has just come through from Reuters:
‘A high earner in the corporate world who is giving away large sums can create more social gain than if they did charity work, said Peter Singer, who teaches at Princeton University.’
I was flabbergasted at this piece of arch academic abstruseness, and just had to read on. This is the story of one of his brightest students:
‘Matt Wage came top of his class at Princeton, where he was taught by Singer. There, he and his friends looked at research which said it costs “around $3,340” to save a life, and Wage looked at how best he could set about helping.
Charity 80,000 Hours, named for the time a typical person spends at work during their life, helps people pursue ethical careers. “Some people have skills that are better suited to earning money than doing good directly,” its website says.
Wage decided this applied to him. He accepted a job, with a fat salary attached, in an arbitrage trading firm on Wall Street, with the explicit purpose of doing what 80,000 Hours calls “earning to give”.
Rather than selling out his ideals on Wall Street, Wage is living up to them, giving around half his pretax salary to charities which, according to his research, are most efficient. “I find it very fulfilling,” said Wage, who is now based in Hong Kong.’
This is a real life reductio ad absurdum of the radically individualistic approach to ethics that takes leave of any sense of social and political theory. It ignores how these Wall Street firms and their grotesquely overpaid functionaries “earn” massive amounts of money by actually producing nothing and simply repackaging various complicated arrangements of others’ indebtedness with the result of inflicting untold human suffering amongst those on the unfortunate side of global inequality.
It merely adds insult to injury to suggest that organisations which engage in actual charitable service of some real kind are less worthy of benefiting from the skills of smart young people whose background offers them a path to Wall Street.
Even within the academic world there is considerable current debate about whether philanthropy does more harm than good, addressing such questions as “Can Charitable Compensation Diminish Complicity?”
Meanwhile, the likes of Matt Wage can “earn” 50% of a Wall Street salary, plus whatever pecuniary perks, in addition to the personal satisfaction of doing the maximum amount of good of which they are capable. This with the apparent blessing of Peter Singer.
I presently calculate that I can do most good as a teacher of ethics by directing students’ attention, instead, to the recent encyclical of Pope Francis. Laudato Si is in touch with socio-economic truth as well as the springs of individual human action. I look forward to publishing blogs on this more edifying text.