Batkid, suffering strangers and distant philanthropy

Peter Singer has a great article in the Washington Post that begins with the public outpouring for Batkid, and why people are more likely to give to something like the Make-A-Wish foundation than they are to organizations that provide sleeping nets in regions with malaria, or treatment for diseases that are treatable in the United States but often deadly elsewhere, before turning to the United States’ complicity in global poverty:

People who get money as a gift are likely to be more willing to give it away than those who do not receive this unexpected bounty. Nevertheless, the “giving experiment” shows not only that many Americans would like to help the global poor but also that they are genuinely happy to do so. All they need is the knowledge to be able to do so effectively.

I’ll leave others to take on this last point – though I think that structural poverty and inequality are an outcome of reduced foreign spending by the U.S. government, I imagine most Americans would balk at being accused of desiring global poverty (and I think that making the link between the one and the other was one of the central points of this article.)

But, I was more interested in an earlier claim, that

The answer [to why we focus on Batkid rather than helping unknown multitudes] lies, at least in part, in those above-mentioned emotions, which, as psychological research shows, make the plight of a single identifiable individual much more salient to us than that of a large number of people we cannot identify.


[T]he unknown and unknowable children who will be infected with malaria without bed nets just don’t grab our emotions like the kid with leukemia we can watch on TV. That is a flaw in our emotional make-up, one that developed over millions of years when we could help only people we could see in front of us. It is not justification for ignoring the needs of distant strangers.

Rhetorically, I absolutely agree with him.  It’s easier to make a case about the utility of a donation when you focus on one story rather than generalities – and studies bear this out.  I’m not as convinced that we can axiomatically make the jump from particular > general to proximate > far.  In the nineteenth century, I’ve found that distant philanthropy was very attractive precisely because donors could imagine the best results of their donations.  (It also had a lot – and I think more – to do with the ways in which distant philanthropy was more suited to political framing.  It’s much easier to say that the Irish famine is really about the abuse of centralized power, and therefore a good paralell for the Wilmot Proviso, for example, when the donors – in this case, Southern slave owners – were removed from the particularities of the crisis by several thousand miles)  But I don’t see this as a fundamental “flaw in our emotional makeup” – a phrase which suggests that people (in Singer’s case, Americans) are unable to imagine, or even appropriate the suffering of distant strangers.  A long history of international and institutional philanthropy undermines his somewhat absolute claim.  In the case that I study, thousands of people with no connection to Ireland gave over one million dollars.  The same can be said of other nineteenth-century causes, and with the advent of the Red Cross in the late nineteenth century, donors weren’t even giving to a particular set of suffering strangers, but to the relief of distant victims broadly.

So if not from the research, and not from the history of philanthropy, from where does Singer’s conflation of distance and particularity come?  He uses two examples from NPR callers, one woman who refused to donate money to overseas causes, because she couldn’t be sure her money would help someone, and another whose experiences in Haiti prompted her to give because she had been able to see exactly how far very small (for most Americans) donations would go.  This seems less about distance to me than it does about the specific versus the general (this whole topic is also informed by how Americans value the lives of different people, a determination often inflected by race, gender and class), but I was also struck by the fact that I have never come across a famine donor anxious about how their money was being spent.  Some of the people who gave to Irish famine relief also gave to help the Irish Revolution of 1848, and many of those donors wrote frequently and at great length about their hopes that money would go to particular people or aims (guns vs. revolutionary literature, for example) – but in the case of famine fundraising, which began in 1845 and continued into 1852, I have not found a single instance of anxiety about fraud.  And while some appeals told stories of individual sufferers, most appeals for Irish aid describe misery in very general terms – emphasizing the extent of distress and widespread scarcity rather than the fact that a donation could save one Irish child.

Certainly, philanthropy has changed between the nineteenth century and today, but I’m struck by the fact that the kind of proximate, paternalist charity that Singer says is – and always has been – the philanthropic norm, was absolutely typical of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century charity, but was radically disrupted by market, print and transportation revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century.

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