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

Peter Singer's practical ethics course forces students to think carefully about donating to charity.
Aaron Favila/AP Photo

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.

Presented by

Christine Gross-Loh is the author of Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us (Avery, 2013)

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