Skepticism

How Many People Died Because of Batkid? Zero.

Zero. The answer is zero. Okay? Great.

Despite that actual fact, Peter Singer and outlets reporting on him, like Gawker, have attempted to make people think the answer is greater than zero. Here’s the argument:

According to Make-A-Wish, the average cost of realizing the wish of a child with a life-threatening illness is $7,500. That sum, if donated to the Against Malaria Foundation and used to provide bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions, could save the lives of at least two or three children (and that’s a conservative estimate). If donated to the Fistula Foundation, it could pay for surgeries for approximately 17 young mothers who, without that assistance, will be unable to prevent their bodily wastes from leaking through their vaginas and hence are likely to be outcasts for the rest of their lives. If donated to the Seva Foundation to treat trachoma and other common causes of blindness in developing countries, it could protect 100 children from losing their sight as they grow older.

The question at this point should become, “How many people were going to donate their money to the Against Malaria Foundation but instead donated it to Make-a-Wish for the purpose of fulfilling Batkid’s dream of being a superhero? I’m going to guess that number is zero. Singer decides not to offer any evidence that the number is greater than zero, so I’ll stick with my guess until shown otherwise.

I actually don’t find Singer’s article particularly bad – I’m in favor of evidence-based charitable giving, and making certain that your money is doing the most that it can. Singer makes good points about how people are psychologically influenced to give to charity in ways that sometimes defy logic. Research on this is very important and can help us better understand how best to encourage people to help those in need.

The problem comes with the insipid Gawker article, assuming that charity is a zero-sum game and cynically using a popular feel-good moment to garner pageviews. What if Batkid’s family or he himself saw that headline? What if he believes that other kids died so that he could have one happy day?

What if the people who donated to Make-a-Wish saw that headline? Previously, they donated to charity and got a surge of good feeling. Research suggests that that good feeling can lead to more charitable giving (though, ironically, me advertising that fact may lead to a decrease in giving according to the same paper). That Gawker headline will turn that happiness into shame. Great job.

I hesitated to even post about this because I hate playing into cynical bids for page views, but I’ve seen that Gawker article shared on social media with accompanying “Amens,” and I have to step up to say: bullshit. How many children died so that you could have a new flatscreen? How many died so that you could have one Starbucks coffee per day for a year? How many died because you donated to an animal shelter? How many died because you made your friend happy with a nice dinner out? How many died because you made a sick child happy with a dream-come-true?

The answer to all these questions is zero (speaking economically, and not taking into account child labor when it comes to picking coffee beans or manufacturing electronics, of course). Let’s encourage people to donate what they can to good causes, and let’s do it without making charity into a competition with winners and losers.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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26 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I work for a denominational relief and development fund. I wasn’t aware of the Gawker article until someone passed along your article. I think you’re right on. An ethic of generosity and a belief in abundance should compel us to think how we can make the dreams of all children, be they poor, or terminally ill, or abused, or just in need of a confidence boost, come true, not pit people with needs against others in need. There is enough. Let’s make it happen.

  2. I don’t read Singer’s article as suggesting that Bat Kid killed anyone, and I would imagine his point (that if someone mainly donates to the Make a Wish Foundation, they might want to consider if there’s a charity with more far-reaching consequences they can donate to next time) isn’t that controversial.

    Even the Gawker article didn’t really differ from Singer’s message except for the shitty headline. Did anyone see a major difference in the body of the Gawker article that the original didn’t say? (I guess that shows that Gawker adds little value and just thrives on awful clickbait headlines).

  3. Amen to this, Rebecca. I hate it when people denigrate others for doing something good but is not the good thing the hater thinks deserves the most attention. The fact is, people have a finite amount of money and time, and there are (effectively) an infinite amount of problems. People help where they can, and if enough people help with enough problems, something good can come of it. Furthermore, the idea that if money hadn’t gone to thing A it could be used for thing B is a child’s interpretation of how economics actually works. Give me a break.

  4. Instead of writing about people dying in Africa, the Gawker writers sat on their asses complaining about a silly charity. How many lives were lost while they were typing? Did they denounce any of those deaths? Did they even notice them? No. Clearly this is a good thing in their minds. They must be in favor of dead Africans. This article is blatantly advocating genocide!

    By not directly fighting an arbitrary evil I’ve chosen to see in the world, even charitable actions become the of worst crimes. This is how we do morality.

    (Please note they also didn’t say anything bad about Hitler, so they’re probably also Nazis.)

  5. I don’t think this article is being entirely fair. Yes, I’d agree that people who decide to donate directly to the Make a Wish foundation probably did because of it’s purpose, not because they spun a roulette wheel and it landed on Make a Wish.

    But what about corporate sponsors? What about fundraising drives by third parties? What about product promotions that then donate some of that money to Make A wish. Can you really argue in all these cases, it received money purely because it was Make a Wish, rather than being a charity? If it didn’t exist, I’m willing to bet that another charity would have taken its place.

    What I really think Make a Wish should do is dedicate at least some of its money to more concrete objectives… I don’t know, like making a skate park in a disadvantaged area, school scholarships etc. There are plenty of things that can be done within the idea of ‘make a wish’ that aren’t quite so short sighted. Maybe this lobbying will do that.

  6. I think I’m gonna be more concerned about money being spent on things which does active harm before being concerned about money being spent in a manner which makes a sick kid feel better.

  7. How many people died because Peter Singer became a philosopher instead of a physician? Or perhaps, would Peter Singer’s time have been more ethically spent writing about the trillions of dollars spent on the military rather than the comparatively miniscule amount involved in personal charitable giving?*

    I agree that Singer’s article isn’t “particularly bad,” and it’s certainly useful to help people think about the real effects of their charitable giving. But I also think Singer-style utilitarianism tends to be quite popular among secularists, without recognition that it can lead to some strange places, like this one. (Most of my friends seem to think utilitarianism or relativism are the only possible stances on ethics for a secular person.) Under other ethical theories, such as the “ethics of care” developed by Carol Gilligan and other feminist theorists, it’s much easier to see giving to Batkid as a simple good, and I think Rebecca’s argument is suggestive of a different ethical framework than pure utilitarianism.

    Anyway, I just think it’s really interesting to think about various approaches to ethics as a skeptic and a secularist, and the different conclusions they can lead us to on questions like this!

    * I imagine Singer probably has written about military spending; my point is that since the difference in amount spent and moral effect is so huge, according to his (and Gawker’s) logic he should probably spend ALL his time writing about that.

    1. I was going to say something similar to this about the ethical system that Singer subscribes to being problematic. I usually give a big eyeroll to consequentialism/utilitarianism, and was going to bring up Gilligan as well (love her!).

      1. I only just recently learned about Gilligan and ethics of care, but I’ve been excited to read more about it, as it seems to address a lot of the problems I have with consequentialism/utilitarianism. I think utilitarianism can be a useful decision-making strategy in some cases, but generally speaking moral judgments aren’t math (much as I love math). I believe causing harm, relieving suffering, and giving pleasure have different moral implications, which may vary depending on my relationships, while utilitarianism treats them all on the same footing in all contexts. I haven’t fully explored it yet, but ethics of care seems to be more harmonious with this perspective.

        Will, if you ever happen to feel moved to write about cultural relativism and normative ethics from an anthropologist’s perspective (or maybe I mean from the perspective of a person who makes moral judgments who also is an anthropologist), I would be very interested in reading that. Or maybe you’ve written something on that topic and I missed it?

        1. biogeo: I have a post along those lines on my list of things to write about when I find enough time to give it the attention it needs. =)

          delphi_ote: lol u mad? (What a strangely defensive response to me saying I find consequentialism annoying!)

          1. Cool, I’ll look forward to it!

            On a perhaps somewhat related note, I have a book sitting on my shelf called “Beyond Relativism: Comparability in Cultural Anthropology,” by Robert C. Hunt of Brandeis University, which I haven’t managed to get around to. Do you know it and have an opinion about it? I don’t think it’s about moral relativism per se, but the concept of cultural relativism seems to intersect with that (to a non-anthropologist, anyway), so it seemed interesting when I picked it up at the used bookstore.

  8. Even limiting Singer’s arguments to charitable giving, it’s nonsense, because it presumes that charities which directly save the lives of children are the only worthy ones. Money given to a battered women’s shelter, to Reading Is Fundamental, to providing homeless men with food on Thanksgiving, to providing education to girls in developing nations – all of these things murder children, because you could have given that money to buy mosquito nets or repair fistulas instead.
    Yes, Singer is “thought-provoking”. He’s also an extremely simplistic thinker who constructs thought experiments with logic holes you could use to swaddle a Jetliner, and who seems to have an awful lot of trouble practicing what he preaches.

  9. Also, who cares about the kid, it made ME feel better. Okay, maybe I care about the kid too but that production made me feel better about humanity as a whole. Maybe it convinced me to give more to other charities or maybe it stopped me from punching the jerk at work that day, thereby losing my job, ending up on employment and draining the government’s coffers. It was pretty much a warm and fuzzy win all around. And I bet that feeling was amplified a bunch in SF proper. In contrast, I now want to punch Gawker…

    1. Bingo. I hate this sort of philosophical zero-sum gaming because pretty much any ephemerial spending could be criticized as not being the “best” possible use of funds. Why invest in art when you could invest in science? Why invest in research when you could invest in hard goods? Etc.

  10. Interesting. I’ve always felt extremely uncomfortable about the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It seemed like an outrageous misdirection of goodwill, and yet to say out loud that I would never donate to it meant that people thought I was cruelly anti-child (I’m not!).
    But it is true that people give to charities because it makes them feel good, and feeling good is (usually) a positive thing for the world, often resulting in people behaving better towards each other in general.
    The charities I support don’t make me feel good, I have to admit. They make me feel like I’m adding a drop of help into an ocean of injustice and misery. That’s obviously my issue, and I shouldn’t criticize others who can feel good by doing some little act of kindness.

  11. I actually did some reading on Peter Singer’s philosophy a few years ago.

    What struck me about the way he and his colleagues approached ethical questions was:

    a. The situations considered were oversimplified. For example, the trollycar situation, where you have a choice of taking some action which will kill one person, or doing nothing and everyone in the trollycar dies. The philosophers assume that there are only the two choices, and that you _know_ exactly what the outcome of each will be. In real life, there are always other options, including ones you haven’t thought of, and the consequences of any action are uncertain, and normal people consciously or unconsciously factor that in.

    b. Philosophers such as Peter Singer don’t seem to consider the consequences of adopting their recommended ethical thinking as general policies. One issue which Peter Singer got a lot of flack for was his argument that some infants should be euthanized because their lives were likely to be miserable. Most of us non-philosophers see this as immoral, not because we all believe that every infant will have a happy life, but because we don’t want other people (philosophers of ethics in particular!) deciding whether our own life is worth living or not, and we see this as a logical outgrowth of Mr. Singer’s philosophy.

    c. When non-philosophers who are posed with such simplified situations (or real-life situations) don’t make the choices that the philosophers think is the “rational” one, the philosophers dismiss them as “irrational” and stupid, rather than trying to figure out what good reasons the non-philosophers might have for their choices. This strikes me as arrogant (and stupid!.)

    1. That is very similar to the way that the economists behave.

      Back before there were computer systems, an economist called Pareto pointed out that system A is better than system B if everyone is better off in system A than in system B. Or in modern terminology System A is Pareto optimal.

      It is of course obvious that there are many economic improvements that are not Pareto optimal: Taxing the Koch brothers and making them obey EPA requirements is worse for them but improves the lives of millions. But it is quite common for an economist to make an argument in which Pareto optimal and optimal are considered to be the same thing. Which is of course a huge bias to the status quo and the already rich.

    2. Not sure I agree with your points b and c, but point a is spot on. The trolley question in particular has annoyed me, because so much has been extrapolated from it about intrinsic human ethics, yet I see one obvious confounding factor nobody ever talks about. Switching the tracks is plausible and easy to imagine. Pull the lever, and the train goes another way. A fat person stopping a TRAIN, on the other hand, is completely absurd. A fat guy IN A CAR probably wouldn’t not stop a train.

      Maybe we have trouble imagining murdering someone for a plan we think is unlikely to work. Before extrapolating out to the roots of our evolutionarly derived morals and the fabric of society, maybe ask about a plausible second ethical dilemma.

  12. Rebecca is basically spot-on, and the Gawker article is horrendous, truly morally awful. But Singer’s piece really isn’t so bad:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/heartwarming-causes-are-nice-but-lets-give-to-charity-with-our-heads/2013/12/19/43469ae0-6731-11e3-a0b9-249bbb34602c_story.html?hpid=z3

    Here’s what he actually says:

    “You’d have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old — and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease — doesn’t warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions. Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do. According to Make-A-Wish, the average cost of realizing the wish of a child with a life-threatening illness is $7,500. That sum, if donated to the Against Malaria Foundation and used to provide bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions, could save the lives of at least two or three children (and that’s a conservative estimate).”

    That’s completely unobjectionable, in my view. He’s not arguing that donating to Bat killed anyone. He continues:

    “It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid? If Miles’s parents had been offered that choice — Batkid for a day or a cure for their son’s leukemia — they surely would have chosen the cure. … the unknown and unknowable children who will be infected with malaria without bed nets just don’t grab our emotions like the kid with leukemia we can watch on TV. That is a flaw in our emotional make-up, one that developed over millions of years when we could help only people we could see in front of us. It is not justification for ignoring the needs of distant strangers.”

    He never argues that donating to the Batkid project killed anyone. He’s arguing that if we can donate in a way that saves lives, we should probably spend our donating money that way.

    Now, maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s overly simplistic, but it’s at least reasonable and not evil.

    1. But people donate to charities for many other reasons than to save lives. He is presuming that the net total of lives saved is the only measure of a charity’s worth, but that’s not the case for everyone. I would say that most people give to charities that they can personally relate to and that do the most good based on their own personal calculation of what’s important. For me personally, charities that help people who are suffering live lives with less suffering and charities that help animals come out highest on my value assessment. It just so happens that I place living a life with less suffering at a higher value than “not dying” and I place helping animals high because most of their problems are caused by us and they have no ability to stop it or help themselves. Likewise, all the facts in the world are not going to take a person a way from a charity they feel a strong personal connection to. If someone’s child died of a terminal illness and they want to give all their money and time to Make a Wish, then you can throw all the facts and “logic” at them that you wish, they are not going to switch over and I think that’s okay. For them the choice of charity is one that has a lot of personal benefits for them – helping ease their own pain. Scoffing at that choice as irrational seems a little uncouth to me.

  13. I’ve never understood why people take Pete Singer seriously. Granted, he’s a clever guy and a good writer with a gift for making his ideas vivid and easily comprehensible to all us lumpen, but when you get past the prettiness of his words and grok what he’s actually saying, it’s completely daffy. When he’s not advocating for the murder of disabled children, he promotes “speciesism” (sp?) the completely ludicrous notion that we discriminate against animals when we eat them. He’s the living embodiment of reductio ad absurdum.

    There’s lots to be said about the relative cocoon in which North Americans dwell, where we focus on the pathos of one terminally ill child while children in sub-saharan Africa are dying every minute of easily-preventable causes. But surely a writer as clever as Pete Singer could make the point without pitting one against the other.

    PS: when I first read the title, I briefly confused Batkid with Bat Boy, the hero of Weekly World News. I thought, was there something about Bat Boy going on a rampage that needed debunking?

    1. I think that bed nets only cost ~$5, but lots of people have to use them before a life is saved because not using bed nets is not 100% fatal. If not using bed nets for a year was 0.1% fatal, then $7500 would buy 1500 bed nets and “save” 1.5 lives (if used for a year).

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