I am troubled by a column of Peter Singer's in the LA Times. In it he raises and responds to the question of where one should be directing one's charitable donations. His answer is that you should be giving in such a way as to do as much good as possible: so, not for building new churches or improving already excellent educational institutions or public art collections and such; but rather to making a difference for the better for the world's poor. Singer writes:
Given the huge discrepancy between how much most Americans have and how little the world's poorest people have, your dollars are likely to do more good if you give to charities helping people living in extreme poverty in developing countries - as long as you are careful to give only to the most effective ones.
He concludes his column by saying you should 'give where you will have the most impact'.
What troubles me about the argument is that I find what Singer says to be useful as a rough-and-ready principle but not as overriding every other possible consideration. Naturally, we should try to ensure that our charitable efforts are more rather than less effective, and poverty of the kind Singer focuses on is a quite proper object of charitable remedial effort. At the same time, I cannot see how to justify a principle which says in effect, 'Do no good for others unless that good is the best possible good you can do'. Not only is this impractical since you won't always know how to optimize your efforts, but it means you must override considerations like love, loyalty, gratitude, the spontaneous impulse to be helpful to proximate others, or others you just happen to know about, or others for whom you have some special sympathy (for whatever reason), and so on.
World poverty is indeed an evil in need of eradication. But the field of problems in need of remedial attention is a crowded one. I doubt there is any simple formula for directing people's efforts in helping others. (For two related posts see here and here.)