BY CLARA BOSAK-SCHROEDER
Peter Singer • The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009)
The thesis of Peter Singer’s new book is simple and devastating: (1) We in the developed world have money to spend on luxuries like bottled water and $10 movies. (2) Thousands of people die every day for want of necessities. (3) Aid agencies do more good than harm. (4) It is our moral obligation to give money to aid agencies. Singer first justifies his argument on philosophical grounds, refutes possible objections, and provides thought experiments to help readers realize their own moral intuitions. He then explores typical psychological obstacles to giving, discusses and defends the means and effectiveness of aid agencies, and proposes a universal standard of giving. Through the course of the book Singer also profiles very wealthy people, both those who keep their wealth for themselves and others who have decided to give much of it away.
The Life You Can Save is a clear, cogent, well-written introduction to the the moral dilemma of extreme poverty, but it is not a thorough or satisfying treatment of the subject from a philosophical or even practical point of view. Although Singer discusses “obstacles to giving” at length – not being able to identify with distant suffering is one – these represent only the initial challenges people face when deciding to give; fear of future poverty and social pressures to spend, for example, are much more insidious and difficult obstacles to overcome. This means that Singer has very little to offer the already converted. If you have never thought seriously about extreme poverty or your own relative wealth, this book should shock and incite you. But if you already give to charity, Singer cannot help you overcome your unwillingness to give more.
Singer retreats from his moral high ground in the last part of the book to establish what he considers a realistic standard of giving. His argument here is strong: if our goal is to get people to give more, our standard has to be reasonable (read: low) to be realistic, and Singer’s proposal is remarkably reasonable: he expects people who make over $148,000 a year to give 5% of their first $148,000 and 10% of progressively greater amounts depending on their total income, those who make $105,001-148,000 to give away 5% of their income, and those who make less, 1%. Although he has developed his standard for universal use, Singer makes sure to point out that if everyone in the United States alone complied, the UN Millennium Development Goals could be met many times over. When everyone gives, giving a little can make a big difference.
But while Singer sees this lower public standard as a necessarily incomplete expression of the moral standard he argues for in the beginning of the book, his public position actually undermines his moral one. If the UN Millennium Development Goals can be met so easily, the reader asks, then what does the moral argument, which takes up the bulk of the book, really mean?
The Life You Can Save is a disappointment not because Peter Singer asks too much, but because he asks too little. He has tried in his book to address the first question of global poverty, how we can spend money on luxuries when children are dying for want of necessities, but this question represents only one dimension of our moral quandary as relatively wealthy people. Anyone who has considered poverty at length must go on to ask two follow-up questions: First, how can we spend money on luxuries, even after donating 1% or 5% percent of our income, when other relatively wealthy people have not, and extreme poverty persists? And second, after we have met the absolute minimum needs of our fellow human beings, why don’t we also share with them everything else we consider necessary for ourselves?