Should we save lives or support the arts?

This past weekend, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, penned an article discussing “effective altruism” entitled “The Trader Who Donates Half His Pay.” The essay profiles Matt Wage, a Wall Street Trader, who donates $100,000+ every year to various charities. Kristof quotes Wage,

One thought I find motivating is to imagine how great you’d feel if you saved someone’s life,” Wage says. “If you somehow saved a dozen people from a burning building, then you might remember that as one of the greatest things you ever did. But it turns out that saving this many lives is within the reach of ordinary people who simply donate a piece of their income.

Its not surprising to learn that Wage studied under Peter Singer while he was a student at Princeton. Singer is a leading voice in the effective altruism movement. As Kristof notes, Singer “takes a dim view of conventional charitable donations, such as supporting art museums or universities, churches or dog shelters” because charitable dollars could be saving lives by supporting charities such as Against Malaria Foundation.

Is it an either/or question though? Should we give to charities that are not directly saving lives, such as universities, operas or art museums, knowing that people are dying of preventable causes such as malaria or malnutrition?

I think that making it an either/or scenario frames the question from a place of scarcity. There is so little money to go around, we should only give to “life-saving” charities. I suggest that we start from a place of abundance — there are more than enough resources to go around.

A few thoughts on a posture of abundance:

  • Every person has the potential to be a giver.
  • Givers are activated when they connect their passion and resources with a cause.
  • Givers and causes need each other to reach their full potential.

There are too many resources that have not been activated for us to resort to an either/or paradigm.