Book Review: The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

BY Peter Singer, Text Publishing , Melbourne; 2009.
Reviewed by Dr. Michael Liffman, Director, Asia-Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy, Swinburne University.

Peter Singer’s latest book should be one of his least controversial – and, paradoxically, therefore one of his most important.

Singer’s ideas inevitably excite heated debate, largely because, notwithstanding their extraordinary lucidity, logic and respect for facts, they rest on premises – the priority of avoiding suffering, the interests of animals, the rejection of the sanctity of human life, the lack of any higher spiritual order – which many find challenging, emotionally as much as intellectually, and react against in a deeply visceral way. In contrast, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty is based on a fundamental premise which no ethical or religious system could find fault with. It is virtuous to be generous. This is followed by as second similarly incontestable premise: many of us can afford to be more generous than we are.

Of course, Singer does not leave the case at that level of simplicity. He tackles head on the arguments and rationalisations that people (and governments, and business) then offer for not giving as much as they might, and here his argument is characteristically informed and sophisticated. We – and our governments – are in fact generous enough; donated money does not reach the poor; those close to us have a greater claim on our care than those with whom we have less connection; why should some give if others won’t; aid needs to be directed at changing systems rather than helping individuals: these and other similar propositions are examined and incisively challenged in the rest of the book.

Singer also looks at the psychology of generosity. Particularly interesting is Singer’s discussion of ‘default generosity.’ Singer cites the differing rates of organ donation in the seemingly similar counties of Austria and Germany – 100% as against almost 12% – observing that the reason lies in the simple fact that Austria requires people to opt out of donating whereas Germans are required to opt in. Similar dynamics operate with such mechanisms as workplace giving. Underlying this is the reality that an act of generosity is more likely when an individual must act decisively in order to avoid being generous, than where the individual must act decisively in order to be generous.

Singer concludes by suggesting a realistic standard for how much can be asked of people, proportionate to their income, and asserting that widespread observance of this standard would come close to eliminating world poverty. He proposes a progressive scale, starting at 1 percent of annual income for those who are middle class and earn less than $105,000 a year, and rising to 33.3 percent for those earning more than $10-million. He describes this (very reasonably, it seems to me) as “not overly demanding.” In a strange way, my first reading of this book led me to feel that, as always, Singer was being bold. But, I reflected, what is bold in making a case that every old-time Sunday school teacher would feel comfortable proposing? The boldness was, I concluded, that a leading intellectual would choose to promote such a manifestly obvious idea. Can a heavyweight thinker not find a more morally and intellectually challenging case to take on?

The reality, of course, is that despite its truth, the case Singer makes is resisted, or perhaps avoided, infinitely more often than it is accepted. Singer has made that evasion far more difficult. This is why I believe this book may be his most influential yet.

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