The Life You Can Save

Bioethicist Peter Singer challenges all of us to rethink our ideas about “a good life.”

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty By Peter Singer Random House, 224 pp., $22

Be warned: Reading this book may be dangerous to your definitions of morality, charity, and how to be good. This is why you must read it.

Let’s start with a hypothetical: You’re walking past a shallow pond, where a child is drowning with no one around to help. Would you stop and save the child? Is it wrong not to help the child because you don’t want to ruin your new shoes? Is a life worth more than shoes?

Hold that thought, and look for a moment at that $1.25 bottle of water or soda sitting on your desk, not far from an abundant source of safe tap water. A luxury, no? Contrast that to the fact that 1.4 billion of the world’s poorest people live on that same amount – $1.25 – each day, failing miserably to meet all their human needs for food, shelter, medical care, education, etc.

(Lest you insist that it’s cheaper to live in poor countries, the World Bank has already adjusted that into what it would feel like to live in the US on $1.25 a day.) Imagine doubling a person’s income by forgoing that bottle of water!

Still willing to spend money on a luxury (bottled water) when you could instead save – or at least greatly improve – a real person’s life? And if you choose not to save that life, can you believe you’re truly living a moral life?

Philosopher and author Peter Singer poses these questions in his latest book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. A professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Singer has written dozens of other books, including his best-known, “Animal Liberation,” which helped launch the animal rights movement.

This logically argued, thoroughly convincing book should jump-start a world-charity movement, as it requires each of us to define what it means to live ethically and then challenges us to literally put our money where our mouth is. “At a minimum, I hope the book will persuade you there is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a good life,” he writes.

Singer has studied charitable giving for 30 years, so he knows the resistance:

•Will my cash undercut vital political change?
•How do I find an efficient, honest charity?
•Why should I give if my wealthy neighbors don’t?
•What about the billions in aid that the West has already given?
•Shouldn’t we take care of our own country’s poor, before helping others?

He answers these and other objections, and steers readers toward charities matching their interests. For example, if you want your money to go toward educating girls, you can check the author’s website, follow links, and find an effective charity that does that. (Singer favors Oxfam America, to which he will donate the proceeds from this book’s sales.)

“The Life You Can Save” includes brief profiles of people who already give money and time doctoring, building, and teaching in impoverished areas. One such group, The 50% League, is a collection of wealthy and working-class folks who give half their income to the poor. Sharing these stories is beneficial, says Singer, because the more we hear about others giving, the more likely we are to give as well.

Less heartening, however, are the statistics on how the superwealthy spend their billions. While Singer praises Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, he decries the “moral depravity” of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who not only lags in charitable giving, but embraces a lifestyle that wreaks disproportionate havoc on our environment. In a single hour, Ellison’s $200 million yacht burns as much diesel fuel as does a Volkswagen Jetta in seven years and emits as much nitrogen oxide in that hour as the car emits over 20 years.

Writes Singer: “It’s time we stopped thinking of these ways of spending money as silly and harmless displays of vanity.... We need an ethical culture that takes account of the consequences of what each of us does for the world ... and that judges accordingly.”

Singer concludes with suggested annual percentages for giving: 5 percent of the first $148,000 (gross income), 10 percent of the next $235,000, and up. I’m left wondering if those of us earning less than $100,000 can make a difference donating the measly 1 percent of our income he suggests.

Yet if every American gave at these levels, Singer predicts the charity coffers would swell to $510 billion, even to $1.5 trillion if other nations followed – far exceeding the amount the United Nations needs to reach current targets.

A lofty goal, requiring each of us; so count me in.

Elizabeth A. Brown is a freelance writer living near Hillsborough, N.C

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