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The ethics of giving back

Last summer, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell argued that donating to Princeton was a “moral crime.” When people decide to donate their money to a cause, he noted, they must also consider where that money is not going. He assumes that people donate to improve the lives of others, and, therefore, that they are wrong to donate to the school with the largest per capita endowment in the world, where the impact of their donation is minimal.

If you choose to donate to Princeton primarily to improve lives, then Gladwell is right. But my guess is that many people do not consider philanthropy as their primary reason for donating. I believe, instead, that there is another justifiable reason to donate.

To hammer in Gladwell’s point, consider a thought exercise inspired by Peter Singer’s book “Ethics in the Real World.” Suppose that you donate $10,000 dollars to the construction of a new philosophy building at Princeton. Let’s also suppose that you know about the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets to developing countries.

If you wanted your money to have the biggest impact on the lives of those affected by it, where should your money go?

Mosquito nets cost $2.50, so your $10,000 would buy 4,000 nets. Each net protects two people, on average, so those nets would protect 8,000 people from malaria. However, since only 0.2 percent of those infected with malaria will die, your money could save the lives of about 16 people.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the philosophy building will cost $100 million to construct. In its 100-year life span, it will foster the intellect of 1,000 students each year, for a total of 100,000 students. Because you would contribute 1/10,000th of the cost, you could claim credit for the intellectual experiences of 10 students.

How does this compare to the lives of 16 people?

Gladwell may now have a convincing point. In this scenario, most would value donating to the Against Malaria Foundation over donating to their alma mater. Insofar as you wanted to improve the lives of others, donating to Princeton is certainly irrational. But to what degree is it a “moral crime?”

When it comes time to donate to Princeton, many of us may give for reasons that Gladwell doesn’t expect. More than improving the lives of others, donating is a way of participating in a community that has shaped part of our lives. It is a recognition of the institution’s role in making us who we are now, and it connects us to the community of people that share our experience.

Though privileging one’s in-group is immoral, we do it all the time. We give financial help to our friends and family before we think about donating it to the homeless. We buy our friends coffee instead of providing four people with mosquito nets.

In these cases, we give not because of the impact of the marginal dollar, but the symbolic investment in the livelihoods and relationships that matter to us. Some of us have a similar relation with Princeton and, therefore, the choice to donate to our school should be considered by the same ethical standards: as an obligation to one’s own community.

If you are donating primarily because you want to make an impact on people’s lives, Gladwell is clearly right: there are much better places to put your money. But if you donate because of the social ties between you and your community, then your decision to give to Princeton may not be so different from privileging friends over strangers.

Chang Che is a comparative literature major from Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at