The Life You Can Save 1

I finally got my hands on a copy of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty, courtesy of the DC city library, and have been working my way through it. Like most of what Singer writes, it’s extremely clear and accessible, filled with facts as much as philosophical arguments.

Chapter 1
begins with what the late philosopher Robert Nozick would call an intuition-pump: a thought-experiment designed to prompt a certain moral response. Singer asks us to imagine passing by a shallow pond and seeing a drowning child in it. If we can save the child at very little cost to ourselves (muddy shoes, a ruined suit, being late to work say), isn’t that the right thing to do? Moreover, wouldn’t be be guilty of a serious wrong if we didn’t wade in and save the child?

But this, Singer maintains, is analogous to the situation we (that is, we in the rich parts of the world) are in with respect to people elsewhere in the world who live in extreme poverty. We routinely spend money on things that are, by any reasonable definition, luxuries, especially when you consider the situation of extremely poor people living on the equivalent of $1.25 per day.

And he’s not just talking about the ultra-rich here. He’s talking about those of us who routinely spend money on bottled water, iTunes downloads, nice vacations, dinners out, and so on. The money we spend on these luxuries could be going to help desperately poor people elsewhere in the world without any significant blow to our well-being. So, aren’t we just as guilty as we would be if we refused to pull the drowning child out of the pond?

In chapter 2, Singer provides a more formal version of the argument:

1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

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.

3. By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong. (See pp. 15-16.)

Singer points out (correctly, I think) that premises 1 and 2 of this argument are pretty difficult to object to. Premise 3 looks like the most controversial, and Singer will spend much of the book defending the notion that giving to aid agencies can make a difference. But, bracketing that issue for the moment, it looks like a pretty solid argument based on fairly uncontroversial premises.

But this deceptively innocuous argument, Singer says, would have radical implications for how we live our lives. It would require us, at a minimum, to consider giving away much of what we now spend on luxuries (as defined above; we’re not just talking about giving up our private jets and jewel-encrusted Rolexes here) to agencies dedicated to helping people living in extreme poverty.

Chapter 2 concludes with a review of traditional religious attitudes to giving charity. Traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim authorities, Singer says, are united in insisting on the duty of charity. To cite one example, St. Thomas Aquinas maintained that “whatever we have in ‘superabundance’–that is, above and beyond what will reasonably satisfy our own needs and those of our family, for the present and foreseeable future–‘is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance'” (p. 20).

In chapter 3, Singer considers some common objections to the argument above. Not all of these are equally compelling (e.g., an appeal to relativism, that there’s no universal moral code for everyone), but he does consider a serious challenge from libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson. Narveson says

We are certainly responsible for evils we inflict on others, no matter where, and we owe those people compensation … Nevertheless, I have seen no plausible argument that we owe something, as a matter general duty, to those to whom we have done nothing wrong. (quoted on p. 28, ellipses in Singer’s text)

Singer has a two-part response to this. First, he appeals to the general implausibility of libertarianism as a political philosophy which would require abolishing “all state-supported welfare schemes for those who can’t get a job or are ill or disabled, and all state-funded health care for the aged and for those who are too poor to pay for their own health insurance” (pp. 28-9). Even many libertarians balk at such conclusions and thus, implicitly at least, reject the principle that we owe nothing to those whom we haven’t previously wronged.

But even if you do accept that principle, Singer says, there is still ample reason to believe that we have obligations to the world’s poor because we have wronged them in various ways. Singer offers the examples of overfishing by Europe, China, and Russia in African coastal waters, which has devastated the livelihood of subsistence fishermen; the extraction of oil and minerals from poor countries, which, at best, enriches a tiny minority and essentially constitutes stealing those nation’s wealth; and the rich nations’ use of our shared atmosphere as a carbon sink, leading to global warming that will disproportionately harm very poor people. Even by the strictest libertarian standards, rich nations have committed aggression in various forms against the world’s poor.

Singer also debunks some other common myths about aid, including that the U.S. is excessively generous with foreign aid. Interestingly, surveys find that people frequently support cutting foreign aid, but they also drastically overestimate how much the U.S. actually gives in aid. For instance, one survey found that a majority of people think the U.S. gives too much in aid. However, the median respondent estimate of what the U.S. gives was 20% of the federal budget! (The actual figure is about 1%.) Meanwhile, the median preferred amount was 10%, ten times the actual amount!

Singer considers other objections, but toward the end of the chapter bumps up against what he sees as a crucial issue: it just seems to go against human nature to extend our circle of concern beyond our immediate family and personal relations, community, and perhaps our nation. Singer takes up this question of “human nature” in part 2, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

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One thought on “The Life You Can Save 1”

  1. In a grad seminar on public policy and ethics, I use Singer’s original early 1970s article where the chapter 2 argument above was originally advanced. Simply as a quick note – the sticking point in class discussions tends to turn on the qualification, “…without sacrificing anything nearly as important” or, in the original article, “…without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.” Unless we’re willing to allow an external adjudicator to determine what is of comparable moral importance for each or all of us, the notion will be determined by the contexts of our own lives and our own judgments made within those contexts. Even while it’s likely in most cases of the relatively affluent that following the maxim leads to a less extravagant and wasteful life, it’s not necessarily the case that it’s a much less extravagant life. The supposedly radical implications don’t necessarily follow. The problem ends up akin to that of determining the Aristotelean virtuous mean for each individual.

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