In an academic exercise with real-world applications, students in CHV 310: Practical Ethics were asked to determine whether charitable donations could be better used by the University or by charities that provide aid in the developing world. Almost all of the course’s precepts chose the organizations that support people in less-developed nations last week. None of the precepts donated their allotted $100 to the University.
Out of 36 of the course’s precepts, 17 precepts voted for the Fistula Foundation and 17 for GiveDirectly. One precept decision resulted in a tie and will split the money between the two organizations. The last precept will decide next Monday.
One of the course’s preceptors, David Nowakowski GS, said he wasn’t surprised the student vote was split between two charities that provide aid to developing countries.
“GiveDirectly and the Fistula Foundation were by far the two more likely of the options,” said Nowakowski. “People have already given tens of thousands of dollars to Princeton by the fact that they’re here.”
Nowakowski added that he thought the charity options not based in developing countries, Princeton University and the Future of Humanity Institute, did not prove credible options when compared to GiveDirectly and the Fistula Foundation.
“It was interesting because they were different kinds of charities. If we had something like a charity that provided early childhood education in poor urban cities in the U.S., that might have been a more credible alternative than Princeton,” said Nowakowski. “The game may have been stacked a little bit in that regard to make the point that there are really good choices to make in the developing world. The choices that we had in the more developed countries don’t seem like the best places you could’ve donated your money even once you had decided to give in the U.S. or in Europe.”
Peter Singer, the professor of bioethics who leads the course of 299 students, agreed that choosing Princeton University as the representative for domestic donation may not have been specific enough for students to feel that donating to it would make a difference.
“In hindsight, I think it might have led to a better, more specific discussion about whether we have a reason to give locally even if you have a situation where you can get more for your dollar in a developing country,” Singer said. “I think the Princeton example didn’t test this very well because people talked about how well-endowed Princeton already is.”
Chemistry major Ian Tamargo ’14, who voted to give to the Fistula Foundation, also agreed that both Princeton University and the Future of Humanity Institute didn’t seem as credible as the other two options.
“In the class, they taught us about effective altruism, which is just how to get the most benefit for the amount of money that you pay. Those were the two clear choices because you only had $100. So if you give $100 to GiveDirectly, that money could go a long way,” Tamargo said. “If you give to Princeton University or the Future of Humanity Institute, $100 doesn’t really make that much of a difference.”
Nowakowski said he thought the way the students chose related directly to Singer's lectures.
"It relates to some of the things that Professor Singer has lectured about in terms of having the greatest marginal difference. There is such a great good that can be done for such a small cost in those parts of the world that it becomes a very easy decision to make a choice to help people in those circumstances," Nowakowski said. "Your dollar goes a lot farther in those developing countries than it does here in the U.S.”
Nowakowski added that he wasn't sure if Singer's arguments in favor of donating to developing countries had influenced the students' decisions because the options available created a situation in which the two most credible charities were in developing countries.
Singer also said he was not surprised by how the students chose to donate.
“Like the students, I would’ve chosen either the Fistula Foundation or GiveDirectly. I am moved by the condition of women with obstetric fistula … but I like GiveDirectly because I think it’s trying something new and it’s very transparent,” Singer said. “I like both of these organizations, and I do in fact give to both of them.”
Though the precepts chose between two charities in developing countries, Nowakowski said, to his surprise, one of his precepts came very close to choosing to donate to Princeton University.
"They wanted to give a very special targeted gift to fund a new chair in ethics to do more of the kind of work that Peter Singer is doing," Nowakowski said. "They had a very specific goal in mind because they thought that would help their peers become more ethical and to give more money to charity by hearing the lectures."
Nowakowski said this example showed him that Singer's lectures clearly did have an impact on the student's decision-making process.
Singer said he would repeat the exercise when he teaches the course in future semesters, though he may include a local charity with a more specific cause in the future menu of options.
A Path That’s Clear, an organization that offers similar “giving games” on its website, currently holds the CHV 310 donation money. After the last precept chooses its charity on Monday, A Path That’s Clear will donate roughly $1,800 to each of the two charities. These funds will provide almost two $1,000 money grants to two families in Kenya through GiveDirectly and about four surgeries for the Fistula Foundation.