Randy Cohen thinks you shouldn’t give to Harvard because they’ve got too much money already. Instead, give to a poorer institution where your donation will do more good.

Just a couple of observations. First, I think there’s a kind of instability in Cohen’s position. He suggests shifting your charity away from Harvard and toward a HBCU or a poor state school. It seems to me that the line of argument that pushes you to give money to SUNY rather than Harvard will also push you to sending the money to OXFAM instead of SUNY. If you’re trying to do the most good, you should save someone’s life rather than buy someone a college degree. Conversely, if you think morality lets you pick your causes, even though that involves doing less good than you could have done, you might think it also lets you pick Harvard over SUNY.

Second, this question of what morality demands, particularly when it comes to aiding others, and whether it leaves room for individual projects and parochial loyalties (beat Yale!*) is a big issue in moral theory. One version of the worry: if we follow the “do the most good” thought wherever it leads, we end up having really robust obligations that don’t leave room for our projects and commitments, e.g. friendships, hobbies, and so on. Or, in another version, the “do the most good” thought leaves us alienated or estranged from our projects because of the way it prompts us to think of their value from the impartial point of view. Once I start following Cohen’s reasoning here, in other words, there’s no way to indulge my love of dear old Alma Mater. Yet the reasoning is powerful insofar as it’s better to save someone from a horrible and unjust death rather than to endow a chalkboard.

*I went to State.