The Life You Can Save

1. Why Should We Give?

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. The Life You Can Save, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Singer, Peter, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2009, pp. xiv+221, (paperback).

Peter Singer speaking at a Veritas Forum event on MIT's campus

Peter Singer published The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty in 2009. It remains a seminal text in the argument for our duty to eliminate extreme global poverty. He gained international notoriety for his defence of animal rights and was the founder of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His reputation as a philosopher and ethicist is international in its reach.

In spite of his training as a professional philosopher, this book, as with many of his other works, is down to earth and written in a language easily digested by non-philosophers. However, this does not detract from the force of his arguments and, in fact, makes them accessible to a significantly broader readership. This book is a prime example of the effective use of reason in debating moral issues and is a welcome change from the emotionally supercharged outpourings and arcane logic we sometimes read. With 10 chapters and at a little under 200 pages of text, it can easily be digested over a few afternoons.

Singer's argument is mainly focused on persuading us as individuals to give more to eradicate extreme poverty. He does offer some suggestions on what organizations and governments can do to help, but even here, his modus operandi in moving institutions to do more is through us as individuals lobbying for change.

Singer divides his book into four key sections. In the first section, he develops his argument for why we should give more and considers some common objections. He then goes on in the next section to outline some of the psychological barriers to giving more and how aid organizations and we as individuals can overcome these barriers. In the third section, Singer considers the economics of aid, the political barriers to increasing the effectiveness of aid and efforts in measuring its effectiveness. In the final section, he addresses the conflict between filial affection and giving more to strangers, shares his proposal for how much we ought to give after considering various views and concludes by articulating his personal seven-point action plan for helping to eliminate world poverty.

Singer's book contains many startling statistics that by their starkness immediately shock us out of our complacency. For example, he informs us that 8.8 million children globally under the age of five died in 2008 [p. xi]. In the same year, 1.4 billion people lived below the poverty line on less than US$1.25 per day [p. 8]. And yes, that figure is adjusted for the equivalent purchasing power of someone living in the United States. He contrasts the depth of this misery with the level of affluence that is common in western societies today. By one estimate, Singer reports, US citizens throw out $100 billion worth of perfectly good food each year [p. 12].

Book cover: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

Given this extreme bifurcation between our wasteful extravagance on one hand and the levels of abject poverty experienced in poor countries on the other, Singer presents us with a scenario popular in discussions about ethics [p. 1]. If you could save a child from drowning in a pond with very little inconvenience on your part, would you feel a moral obligation to do so? Of course, the answer is yes. Singer supplements this argument for giving much more with other more realistic scenarios and ends with a logical argument from reasonable premises to the conclusion that each of us should be doing a lot more to help those much less fortunate than ourselves.

The conclusion that we should be giving much more is shocking in its implications for some. In Chapter 3, I think Singer does an admirable job in addressing common objections to increasing the level of our aid. He succinctly answers such objections as that we have a right to spend our earned income as we wish, that our only obligation is not to harm, that philanthropy undermines the impetus for political change, and others. He considers eight objections in total clearly and concisely and without denigrating or ridiculing the objectors.

After Singer has established that we ought to give much more, he turns his attention in Chapter 4 to the question of why we don't. Reviewing a number of psychological studies in moral psychology, Singer identifies a number of factors that dampen our desire to give more. For Singer, these are the natural tendency to favour our own interests, the identifiable victim effect, parochialism, futility thinking, the bystander effect, our sense of unfair contribution and the subliminal effects of thinking about money.

As an antidote to these natural inhibitors, in Chapter 5, Singer suggests ways we can change the prevailing cultural attitudes in our society to one of giving. His ideas include individuals publicising their giving in order to encourage others to do likewise, aid institutions linking each donation to a specific individual, major organizations implementing an opt-out scheme for employee donations to charities and challenging the societal notion that we always act from self-interest. These are all worthwhile proposals and ones that we can all contribute to making happen.

If we are going to commit our resources to saving lives, we want to utilize our contributions in the most effective way possible. We want to help as many people as we can with the money and time we donate. In Chapter 6, Singer tackles the vexing challenge of working out how much it costs to save a life and how we can evaluate the effectiveness of the various aid agencies. After examining various methods of evaluation and a variety of programs, Singer concludes that it costs in the vicinity of $200 to $2000 to save a life in a poor country [p. 111]. A surprising conclusion that Singer comes to is that the common notion that an aid agency's administrative expense ratio is a useful measure of its effectiveness can be very misleading [p. 89f].

I was pleased to read that microcredit loans, which my partner and I give regularly through Kiva, are effective at reducing poverty and increasing self-reliance. Other cost-benefits that Singer reports that are worthy of mention here are A$60 to restore the sight of a blind person [p. 108] and $450 to repair a fistula [p. 110]. For each person treated, these are both literally life-changing procedures that can be done for little more than the cost of annual gym membership.

Now that we know the cost of saving a life in a poor country, Singer examines the arguments put up by aid critics that we should not be giving more.  He offers suggestions on how countries can improve the effectiveness of the aid they give and points to some highly successful aid programs. That aid programs can perform better, Singer argues, is no excuse for not giving more to alleviate extreme poverty.

Copyright © 2015

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