The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer (Review)
March 10, 2009             The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer. Random House, 194 pp, $22.

            Five hundred years ago, slavery was the most natural thing in the world. So was the torture of criminal suspects, convicts, and heretics. So was the virtual ownership - and regular physical chastisement - of women by their fathers or husbands. Most of us (I hope) now abhor these things, but anyone time-traveling back to that era who informed a slaveowner, torturer, or wife-beater that his behavior was shameful would have been met with incomprehension, perhaps even indignation.

            If someone traveled back from the twenty-sixth century to 2009, what would he or she upbraid us for? In what respects would our behavior seem shameful to her, as slavery and torture seem abhorrent to us? If you don't know already, you will after reading Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save. Much of this valuable little book is devoted to detailing how much suffering there is among the world's poor, how easily it could be remedied by the world's non-poor, and how little the latter can be bothered. Our twenty-sixth-century visitor would give us an earful.

            Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton, is probably as much of a celebrity as a philosophy professor can be in unphilosophical 21st-century America. His 1975 book, Animal Liberation, launched the animal-rights movement, and several of his subsequent books on applied ethics have been bestsellers. Singer is, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, a radical utilitarian, a useful busybody who challenges metaphysical and theological rationalizations of human pain. In particular, he is notorious for contending that human life, although precious, is not sacred; hence the legitimacy, in most circumstances, of abortion and, in extreme circumstances, of infanticide. What matters is to minimize unnecessary suffering.

            Preventing unnecessary suffering among the global poor is hardly controversial, of course; just the opposite. And yet, compared with abortion or infanticide, Americans are not very excited about foreign humanitarian aid. We are also not very well-informed about it. Ninety-five percent of Americans think the United States is more generous with aid than other rich countries, when the opposite is true by a large margin. Most Americans think that between 15 and 20 percent of federal spending goes for such aid; the correct figure is less than one percent. Most Americans think their country does too much to help the global poor and should only dedicate 5 to 10 percent of government spending to this purpose - which, as I've just noted, is five to ten times more than we actually do spend on it. Measured against national income, the percentages are even lower. For every hundred dollars of America's national income, our government spends 18 cents on foreign humanitarian assistance and individuals spend another seven cents.

            But why should Americans give more? Does foreign aid do any good? Much of it, Singer acknowledges, does not. A good deal is simply stolen by corrupt foreign elites or squandered on poorly conceived mega-projects. And many economists object that aid does not help poor people nearly as much as economic growth.

            Nevertheless, Singer makes a convincing case that money wisely spent can save many lives. Smallpox killed several hundred million people in the twentieth century, but  thanks to the World Health Organization, an agency of the UN, it will not kill anyone in the twenty-first. Measles, river blindness, malaria, and diarrhea, all easily treated and prevented, still kill millions every year, but there has been progress. Some of the most affecting pages in The Life You Can Save describe the low-tech, low-cost programs that have rescued many thousands of women and children from lives blighted by cleft palates and obstetric fistulas and have restored sight to a million people blinded by cataracts. All this through simple surgical procedures costing between $50 and $400. So little money, apparently, can do so much good.

    Singer has heartening stories to tell about some of the exemplary people who've made a difference. A few are famous, like Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor who moved to rural Haiti and was the subject of a New Yorker profile. Most are not: they are obstetricians and ophthalmologists who visited poor countries and could not forget what they saw; or they are hedge fund employees or real estate developers or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on whom it dawned one day that there must be more to life. He also "outs" a few of the super-rich who spend unconscionable amounts on luxury consumption - "hyper-consumption" would be more accurate. With admirable restraint, Singer refrains from calling for the expropriation and disemboweling of such people, a fate they undoubtedly deserve.

            Instead, he asks what the rest of us can do, and why we don't. We don't because inertia is easier than initiative. However generous we are, if it takes some effort to give and no effort not to give, we probably won't give. This is the insight underlying a well-received recent book, Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. They suggest (and Singer agrees) that, when possible, giving be made the default option: that is, one would have to opt out rather than opt in. This system works extremely well for organ donation; and if one percent, or even less, were deducted from most people's paychecks (unless they opted out) and donated to a non-profit organization of the employee's choice, it could begin to make a dent on global poverty.

    For those willing to do more than this bare minimum, Singer has worked out a detailed chart specifying how much everyone at every income level should give each year in order to make possible a minimally decent life for all our fellow humans. To simplify: his proposal comes to 5 percent of gross income for the non-poor but non-affluent (ie, most of us), 10 percent for the affluent, 15 percent for the rich, and 20 to 25 percent for the super-rich. Is this unrealistic? Maybe. But if we don't, our 26th-century descendants will be heartily ashamed of us.




George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and What Are Intellectuals Good For?