Giving 101: The Princeton Class That Teaches Students to Be Less Selfish

Imagine walking along a road past a pond, when out of the corner of your eye you see a toddler boy flailing about in the water. You quickly look around. There is no other adult in sight. If you don’t jump in to save him, no one else will. He will drown. You know what you have to do. You dive right in and drag the drowning toddler from the water.


But what if that little child were drowning—proverbially—half a world away? What would you do to save him then? 


This is one of many questions Peter Singer, an Australian professor of bioethics at Princeton University, asks undergraduates during his popular semester-long course on practical ethics. The lecture course covers euthanasia, animal rights, infanticide and abortion, effective altruism, and other weighty topics.

Singer puts a uniquely practical spin on how he gets his students to stretch their thinking. This semester, each discussion group in his course of almost 400 students was given $100 to donate to one of four organizations: the Future of Humanity Institute, the Fistula Foundation, GiveDirectly, and Princeton University. The Future of Humanity Institute is an interdisciplinary research center based at Oxford; the Fistula Foundation provides life-changing surgery to correct a devastating childbirth injury that affects women in poor countries; GiveDirectly is a charity that gives 90 cents of every donated dollar directly to impoverished families in Africa; and Princeton University is, of course, the prestigious Ivy League university these students are attending. Singer is not asking his students to play this giving game just to make things interesting. Singer wants them to consider why Americans and other privileged citizens of affluent countries show so little generosity towards those who have so much less. Why we don’t we give more? What gets in our way, and what would it take for us to overcome that? 

Singer is one of the world’s most controversial philosophers. He supports a parent’s right to end the life of a severely disabled infant and argues that animal and human suffering are on an exactly equal moral level; his views have inspired both fervent admiration and fierce denunciation. Shortly after Singer first arrived at Princeton in September 1999, billionaire publisher Steve Forbes told Princeton’s trustees that he would stop giving money to the university until Singer left. The trustees refused to rescind the appointment. Still, Singer has been what the New York Times once called a “public relations nightmare” for his employer. Nevertheless, over the decade since Singer first arrived at the university, his Practical Ethics course has become famous on campus, enrolling nearly 400 students this past semester.


In his book, The Life You Can Save, Singer cites OECD figures that show that the United States is “at or near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of the proportion of national income given as foreign aid.” Though many Americans consider themselves charitable, and as a people we give 2 percent of gross domestic product to charity, we overestimate the amount of money we spend on helping those who are far away; in fact, the amount of foreign aid we give as a percentage of gross national income has fallen. A third of our donations are to religious organizations; educational institutions are the second largest recipients of American charitable giving. All the while we continue to spend tremendous amounts of money on ourselves. We spend money on bottled water and daily lattes that, Singer argues, could save a child’s life.

Singer tells his students that though almost anyone would dive in to save a drowning child, Americans eschew giving to the world’s most desperately poor—including the 19,000 children dying every day of sheer poverty-related causes—even though it is well within our means to help. By failing to do so, Singer claims, we cannot consider ourselves to be living a “morally good life.”


It’s human nature to feel compelled to save those who are close to us—our immediate kin, our friends, the little boy we stumble upon whose desperate movements in the water tug at our hearts. It’s much harder to feel that sympathy for faceless children somewhere else (whether in another neighborhood in our town, or halfway across the world). Studies have shown that people tend to give more generously when they are shown a photo and told a story about one, identifiable, specific child. They will spend more on a child they know something about than on saving several statistical lives—in one study, people told that a single child needed a $300,000 dollar lifesaving medical treatment gave more than those who were told that $300,000 would cover medical treatment for eight children.


One reason, according to Singer, that people are so hesitant to give is they think their kindness will not matter. This tendency to think that one can’t do very much, or to dismiss all forms of aid as useless, is what researchers call “futility thinking:” What difference can one person even make? Research indicates that money makes people more individualistic and less altruistic. In other words, as societies become wealthier, their citizens become more individualistic and depend less upon one another. Self-interest becomes the norm. 


But one antidote against futility thinking is to carefully research charities and organizations—something that Singer’s $100 donation experiment allowed students do. They were presented with four organizations, asked to research and discuss their merits, and vote on where the $100 should go. They applied the lessons they’d learned in the course: that not all donations are equal, and that some donations have a measurably more positive impact than the same amount donated elsewhere (consider, for instance, the difference between donating $2000 to an organization ranked highly by the charity evaluatorGiveWell, such as the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets to help protect children from contracting malaria, versus the same amount of money donated to an arts museum in the United States). They learn that their money will always go much further overseas: that a very small amount of money for an American can be life-saving to someone who is desperately poor. In other words, they learn about the tenets of effective altruism: how to evaluate organizations for transparency and benefits, and figure out which forms of aid are the most cost-effective. This is information that tends to inspire more giving.


What would ultimately help people overcome their tendency to not give? “We don’t really have a good answer to that question,” Singer admitted. He did mention research that indicates that people are more influenced by emotions than by reasoning, which is why that picture of a small girl in a distant landwould promote more spontaneous giving than information about African girls in general. A photograph is specific and concrete. In his book, Singer argues that global tragedies that have been filmed have attracted more contributions than those that have not, regardless of the actual amount of casualties and damage. Altruism is often, at a gut level, emotionally prompted. But when combined with an understanding of human nature and the right sort of rational information, emotions and reasoning can combine to cultivate a formidable culture of giving. 


“I’ve always been inclined to give to charity,” Adam Tcharni, a junior at Princeton who took the course his freshman year, told me. But the class made him think about giving differently. He now believes that geographical borders don’t matter, that there is no difference between his obligation to the hypothetical drowning child in front of him and the dying child half a world away. As Singer calls his students’ attention to the tremendous inequality in how the world’s resources are allocated, he suggests that it’s hardly ethical to live in luxury when so many do not and that it’s unethical to fail to save a single life when so little money would be needed to do so.

The result of the $100 giving game? The 36 discussion groups in Singer’s class chose unanimously to donate to the Fistula Foundation ($1750) and GiveDirectly ($1850). None chose to donate to the Future of Humanity Institute or Princeton University. “It seems that students believed the money would do more if it went to people who are very poor, rather than to an already wealthy university or to promoting research about the future of humanity,” Singer told me.


One group did seriously consider donating to Princeton with the specific goal of funding an endowed chair in ethics similar to Singer’s, the idea being that helping to educate more students in the ethics of effective altruism might serve a greater good. Although in the end the group decided their limited resources would go further if donated to GiveDirectly, Singer’s impact on a generation of Princeton students is clear. Laura Hildebrand, a senior at the university, says Singer’s course was enlightening. “He shows all perspectives; at the same time, he presents what is really entailed in being entirely altruistic and entirely unselfish. He teaches his students: This is how you can maximize your impact on the world.”