Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s book 'The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty' raises some fundamental questions about the movement to end extreme poverty.
It’s a snappy, stinging read which urges the reader to reflect on their own life. Singer argues not only that people in rich countries should help the world’s poor, but that they have a moral obligation to do so.
Singer’s basic argument is that it is morally indefensible for people with a surplus not to help those with less than enough.
He draws on various psychological experiments to demonstrate how choosing material goods over human lives cannot be justified. One of these experiments is the choice between (a) saving a child drowning in a pond but ruining your expensive shoes, or (b) leaving the child to die and saving your shoes (see video above).
Surely the morally right thing to do here is to save the child and sacrifice your shoes, because a human life is of greater value than possessions. How is it, then, that 24,000 children in poor countries die every day from preventable causes, while the average woman in a rich country owns at least US$600 worth of clothes that she hasn’t worn in the past year?
Working from arguments such as this one, Singer presents the case for a substantial overhaul of the current culture of giving.
Singer argues that each of us should give a proportion of our income to humanitarian causes – if we do not give, we do not - and cannot - live a ‘good’ life.
He specifically recommends how much each of us should give, depending on our income. He suggests that the vast majority of taxpayers should give 1% of their income to the movement to end extreme poverty.
When you earn the equivalent of US$105,000 a year or more, you should give 5% of what you earn over this threshold. This rate gradually increases until you give 33.3% of what you earn over an annual salary of US$10 million. Singer himself gives 20-25% of his earnings to overseas development causes.
Singer’s book raises several key questions about aid and development, two of which I identify here:
Is development all about money?
The Life You Can Save concentrates almost exclusively on financial contributions from the public. In that sense, it can be seen as very ‘money-centric’, focusing on the need to donate money to aid organisations, and neglecting the other actions that we at the Global Poverty Project advocate (Learn, talk, volunteer, buy, shout). Is donating money the most important and most effective way to combat poverty?
Who should give – governments or citizens?
As well as concentrating on financial donations, The Life You Can Save overwhelmingly focuses on the money given by ordinary citizens, not national governments or international organisations. It therefore seeks to greatly increase the role of personal giving as opposed to official development assistance (ODA). This point is picked up on by influential economist Paul Collier in his review of the book .
This specific focus begs the question of who the main players are in ending extreme poverty. Does the onus fall on the population at large, or the world’s governments? Or both? And what are the consequences for issues such as international trade regulations if we just focus on personal giving?
What are your views on these issues? Have you read The Life You Can Save – and what did you think of it?