KQED's Forum got dozens of comments last week on its show with ethicist Peter Singer, who questions the wisdom of spending so much money on Batkid in 2013.
You remember Batkid, right?
Of course you do. Anyone who lived in the Bay Area -- or maybe even the country -- had their heart warmed by the 2013 story of Miles Scott, a 5-year-old leukemia survivor who had his heart's desire to be a superhero fulfilled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. All of San Francisco -- police, city officials, the public -- were happily enlisted in the effort.
(T)oday, in what had been carefully kept as a surprise for Miles, San Francisco played the part of Gotham City. Thousands of people turned out to watch the boy, in a Batkid costume, rescue hostages and foil an evil plot by The Riddler, among other exploits.
"This wish has meant closure for our family and an end to over three years of putting toxic drugs in our son's body," Miles' mom, Natalie, said on the Make-A-Wish site. "This wish has become kind of a family reunion and is our celebration of his treatment completion."
It's not often a news story can spark so many positive feelings in so many. That is, with the notable local exception of San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, who carped about the stunt's cost -- later pegged at $105,000 -- in light of so many in need of more fundamental help. While others were congratulating the city for its deep empathy, Mar Tweeted:
"Wondering how many 1000s of SF kids living off SNAP/FoodStamps could have been fed from the $$."
Naturally, Mar was immediately Tweet-shamed as being, like, the worst person in the world. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "A few minutes later, in a hurriedly issued press release, the supervisor said, 'I simply wanted to urge that we, as a city, find similar amounts of love, compassion and empathy for children living every day in dire circumstances who, in the vast majority of cases, will not be supported or even recognized by our society.' "
But it turns out Mar wasn't the only one.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and author of the new book, "The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically." Singer joined Forum host Michael Krasny Thursday to discuss the "effective altruism" movement, which seeks to maximize the net good from philanthrophy. On Forum, Singer made a number of provocative points about both the Batkid phenomenon and people's philanthropic choices in general.
Singer said that just by using the average cost of fulfilling a wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, $7,500, you could save two children's lives in developing countries.
"So what’s better: to give one very sick kid one great day or to save a child's life? I think everyone would agree it’s better to save a child’s life."
Singer said he does not believe in focusing philanthropy locally or nationally. "I think to say that because this kid is not in America is a little like saying because this kid is not white, or whatever race you happen to be. … Kids’ well-being matters, wherever it is.”
Contributing to the arts is not effective altruism, Singer said. “I’m not against the arts and I’m certainly not against people feeling good, but we live in a world that has a billion people in extreme poverty. That is, they’re living on the purchasing power equivalent of about $1.50 per day. And because of that, their children die of preventable diseases, people who have cataracts remain blind because they can’t afford the very simple, inexpensive operation that would enable them to see again. I think you really ought to be thinking, if you are a philanthropist, if you have spare resources, and basically we all have spare resources to some extent -- about using them to do the most good, not just some good."
Referring to David Geffen's recent $100 million donation for the renovation of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Singer said, "Not just to make some wealthy Manhattanites and other tourists who might frequent Lincoln Center think of what a beautiful renovation job is being done with this concert hall, but really to do the most good you can.”
He said people with an IT background frequently understand the notion of more efficient philanthropy. "There’s kind of a mindset of people in computing or mathematics or philosophy, to a certain extent. They get it rather rapidly that you want to do the most good you can. It’s not just a matter of getting a warm glow by saying, 'I’ve made a sick kid have a great day,' or something of that sort. They get the idea of looking at the calculations to think how I can do the most good."
Singer contended that would-be do-gooders who go to work on Wall Street rather than become aid workers, for example, are making a rational choice.
"A lot of people would think going to Wall Street would be the last kind of career you’d take up if you want to do good. ... But the reasoning here is that by earning a lot you can give a lot, and then you can actually do more good than if you became an aid worker. There’s plenty of good people looking for jobs as aid workers. So the amount of good you can do would just be the marginal difference between your abilities and the abilities of the second-best applicant for the job you end up getting.
"Whereas if you take a job on Wall Street and are able to give $100,000 plus per year ... those charities could create a couple of new jobs or they could do other things, distribute more bed nets where kids are dying from malaria, etc."
Singer said addressing malaria and parasitic worms in the developing world are the most effective use of philanthropic funds.
"These causes have been very well-studied and they are things that are testable. ... You can work out pretty rigorously how much it costs to save a life. The same is true of treating kids with worms. They will spend more time at school and achieve more at school. It’s a very simple, inexpensive treatment. It costs about 50 cents per child per year. And that’s more effective than employing more teachers, in terms of how well they do at school."
Not everyone agrees with this philosophy, of course, as you can see from some of the comments below ....