Results are in: Peter Singer’s "Giving Game."

Dec. 18, 2015

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Once again this year, I ran the “Giving Game” in my Practical Ethics course. The course discusses, among other topics, the ideas that lie behind the emerging Effective Altruism movement. Effective altruists seek to make the world a better place and to use their resources as effectively as possible for that purpose. Often this means donating to charities which they consider do the most good. But how are we to decide among the many charities working for different objectives. Which one achieves the most good for each dollar donated? To highlight this point to students, each of the 21course precepts was allocated $100, and, together with the class, given a choice of one of four charities to which they could donate their money.

This year, Matt Wage donated the funds for the Giving Game. Wage, who was a student in Practical Ethics in 2009, went to work on Wall Street in order to maximize his earnings, and thus his ability to donate to effective charities.

The four charities were selected to make students think about different issues. Two of them – Against Malaria Foundation and Give Directly – seek to aid some of the world’s poorest people. The Against Malaria Foundation distributes bed nets in regions in which malaria is still a major cause of child deaths and serious illness. Give Directly provides one time cash grants of around $1000 to very poor families in East Africa. Subsequent research has shown that this makes a lasting difference to the families’ health and well-being. Both Against Malaria Foundation and Give Directly are among the top charities recommended by GiveWell, the most rigorous U.S. charity assessor.

A third charity – the Nurse-Family Partnership of New Jersey – was selected to see whether students preferred to donate to a charity helping poorer members of our own community, rather than those in other countries. Finally, Ploughshares International, which seeks to reduce the risk of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, offered students the opportunity to weigh the importance of reducing the risk of catastrophic events, including those that could cause our extinction.

Against Malaria Foundation was the most popular pick, chosen by13 precepts. It has therefore received $1300. This sum will enable it to purchase and distribute about 350 nets. 

Give Directly was the choice of 8 precepts and will receive $800, 90% of which will go directly to an extremely poor family in East Africa. Research indicates that families often use part of their grant to replace a leaky thatch roof (which has to be replaced each year) with an iron roof that will last 10 years or more. Some use the money to start a small business, and others may buy a cow or chickens to provide milk or eggs for the family or for sale.

No precept chose the Nurse-Family Partnership of NJ, suggesting that students were more concerned about making the biggest difference than helping people close by. Ploughshares International was also not chosen. Perhaps students preferred the near-certainty of making some improvement in the lives of very poor people to the mere possibility of reducing the risk of catastrophe.

Both preceptors and students agreed that this was a strongly positive experience; we thank Matt Wage for making this unique learning experience possible.