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Review: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

Jean Kazez on an impassioned plea to give more

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty
by Peter Singer
(UK: Picador, US: Random House)
£14.99/$22 (hb)

It’s not easy being an uncompromising philosopher who wants to change the world. Peter Singer has been arguing for 35 years that well-off people aren’t just very nice to do something about extreme poverty, but morally obligated to give, and give in large amounts. His 1971 article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” declared we ought to give to the point of marginal utility – the point at which, if we gave any more, we’d make ourselves as badly off as the people we’re trying to help. That’s immensely thought-provoking, but it’s not going to convince Joe Public.

Singer took a turn for the practical and persuasive in two New York Times Magazine articles published in 1999 and 2006. The Life You Can Save goes even further in the direction of realism. It starts with the staggering statistics. Once it was easy to remember: 1 billion people around the world live on less than a dollar a day. In 2008 the poverty line changed to $1.25 a day, and now there are 1.4 billion people living on less than that. Ten million children die every year due to poverty-related causes.

The argument for extreme giving is just what it was in 1971. Premise 1: suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. Premise 2: if it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so. Premise 3: you can do just that by donating to aid agencies. Conclusion: contribute, and then contribute some more.

What’s different about this book is that Singer confronts the features of human psychology that make us reluctant to give. They don’t give us an excuse, but they do have to be understood and worked around. Research shows that donors will give more if they’re told about one child in need, rather than two or eight, let alone a billion; and it’s better not to mention the bigger picture of which the child’s problems are a part. We’re more likely to help if we’re the only one in a position to help; failing that, we’ll help more if we perceive others as helping too. If we countenance the big picture at all, we want to make a big difference; we don’t want our donation to be just a drop in the proverbial bucket.

Wisely, Singer puts enough real life detail in this book to fill quite a few “Save the Children” appeals. There are also suggestions about how to get around the perception that others aren’t giving. We ought to talk openly about our donations, he suggests, violating the taboo that says charity ought to be discreet. If openness makes us wonder about the purity of our motives, so what? The point was not to be pure, but to prevent death and suffering. Groups like the “50% club”, which promise half their income to aid agencies, make high levels of giving the norm within small communities.

How much should we give? Strictly speaking, still to the point of marginal utility. It’s not totally impossible, as Singer demonstrates with profiles of some extraordinary people. Paul Farmer, the amazing doctor portrayed in the great book Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, does just about that. Even his own daughter barely takes priority over other people’s children. A radical Singer acolyte? Hardly. Farmer just takes seriously the Christian dictate to love your neighbour as yourself. “I can’t,” says Farmer, “but I’m gonna keep on trying.”

Singer knows that for many, a demanding message is likely to backfire. Though brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition that extols charity, we love our iPods and SUVs and vacations much too much. The last chapter tones it down. A great deal could be accomplished if the wealthiest 10% of Americans gave at graduated rates starting around 5%. That, then, is Singer’s modest prescription, but he dispenses it with a clear warning that this is only what he thinks we might be willing to do, not all he thinks we should do. It makes you wonder about the meaning of saying “give X”, if it’s not to say “X is what you owe”. Perhaps it’s to create a “new normal” that could solve the global poverty problem, if not make us all perfectly good.

Singer seems particularly genuine when he lets loose a bit, even at the risk of offending some of his affluent readers. He writes a great couple of pages about the ludicrous yacht collection owned by Microsoft co-founder and not-so-impressive philanthropist Paul Allen. He also asks great questions about arts funding. In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York spent $45 million on a small painting of a Madonna and child. For that amount of money you could buy 900,000 sight-restoring cataract operations in a developing country, or perhaps save 45,000 lives. “How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that?”

The deep philosophical question of the book is about such comparisons, and the obligations they give rise to. But Singer doesn’t want us to get tied up in knots. Give much more, he seems to say. Just do it.

Jean Kazez is the author of (Blackwell).


One comment for “Review: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer”

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    Posted by David Barton | August 31, 2010, 7:50 pm