The Life You Can Save

What are our ethical obligations to each other? It's a complicated question. Living in a civilised society implies abiding by a set of shared rules. Some are explicit like laws and contracts, some are implicit like cultural norms, and some are disputed. Whether we have an obligation to care for others, and if so to what extent, often ends up being debated as a political issue, but at its core it's a philosophical question.

Peter Singer's book "The Life You Can Save" addresses the ethical implications of being rich in a world where poverty is rampant from this point of view. It's an uncomfortable topic, at least for me, but an important one. Early in the book he articulates his goal:

My aim is to convince you, the individual reader, that you can and should be doing a lot more to help the poor.

I share this goal, which is the point of this blog post.

Who is rich?

I think making Singer's point land with most people will require a check in on the state of the world. I live in Canada, where life is honestly pretty good for most people, and it's easy to forget that an average Canadian lifestyle is exceedingly luxurious from a global perspective.

Even with an income of $0 per year, a Canadian will have access to world class education and health care, and most likely also clean water, indoor plumbing, a refrigerator, and internet access, which is more than can be said for hundreds of millions people on earth. Earning just minimum wage with full time hours lands a Canadian in the richest 12% of people in the world.

Obviously Canada has loads of problems and I'm not suggesting it should get a pass on any of them. I'm also not suggesting it's easy to be poor in Canada or that we shouldn't be working to alleviate poverty in rich countries. This is just to frame the issue from Singer's perspective, because I think his argument is more salient in the context of global poverty. Seen through this lens, it's easier to understand it as an emergency that needs our attention, rather than something we can worry about later, or not at all.

There is no fundamental difference between us

Peter Singer's argument is essentially that there is no morally relevant difference between us and people living in poverty in far away places, so there is no justification for not caring about them the same way we care about ourselves and people close to us.

There are millions of people every year who suffer or die from diseases that could have been prevented or treated for as little as a few dollars; things like trachoma, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, among others. Singer points out that we regularly spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars saving lives in the developed world, then argues that the suffering of people we don't know must matter at least one-thousandth as much as our own, so there is no justification for ignoring their plight. We don't think twice about spending huge amounts of money on medical treatment for ourselves, and we intuitively prioritise such spending above things like eating out or travelling. It's obvious to us that our health matters more than having or doing more things we don't really need, so shouldn't we also prioritise the alleviation of others' suffering above our own wanting non-essential things?

It's a simple argument, but a sound one. Refuting it requires arguing that our own desire for luxury items is more important than the life of a stranger. Most people intuit this as clearly unethical, even without careful consideration of the formal argument.

We can and should do more to help the poor

Having made his argument, Singer spends the rest of the book discussing what it might look like in practice if we followed through with his recommendations. The point I took away from this section is that most people wouldn't have to change their lifestyles much at all to divert an amount of money toward effective organisations that would make a significant difference in the lives of those in need. There are a lot of gains to be had by optimising our existing habits for efficiency. On the topic of malnutrition and food insecurity, he writes:

The world is not running out of food. The problem is that people in high-income countries have found a way to consume four or five times as much food as would be possible if they were to eat the crops we grow directly.

This is an argument I've heard before. There is enough food on earth to feed everyone, yet millions still subsist on starvation diets because of inefficiency and waste. Singer presents the data to make a convincing argument that there is some low hanging fruit here that could have a massive impact and save thousands if not millions of lives. We wouldn't have to change our own standard of living, just prioritise efficiency and optimise for maximum social benefit instead of the things we do at the moment, like profit and growth.

Psychological insights

Having made the case for why we should give more and demonstrated that it's possible without much impact to our own lives, let alone unreasonable hardship, Singer discusses the psychology of altruism. There are some interesting ways most people think that both explain why we're so often indifferent to far-away suffering and suggest how we might change that.

For example, many studies show that people give more when they believe others are giving more, so we ought to publicise our giving in order to inspire others to join us.

Singer acknowledges that this is difficult. For one, it's sort of taboo to talk about money in most western cultures. People consider financial information, including how much they give, private information. It also appears to contradict the teachings of some ancient and very influential philosophers. Maimonides classifies anonymous giving as the highest form of altruism, and Jesus echos that wisdom in the New Testament. I believe there's something worth paying attention to in both of those traditions, but helping the least among us is a teaching absolutely central to both Judaism and Christianity. If being public about our giving will accomplish that then there's something to reconcile between these two apparently contradictory teachings. That's a topic for another day, but I wanted to flag it here because it's adjacent to other areas I think a lot about. Singer is aware that it's a big ask and is uncomfortable for many people raised in Judeo-Christian societies, but he essentially dismisses this concern, arguing that our discomfort is our own problem and not a justification for selfishness. I have to agree with him.

He also mentions some other well documented and by now well known phenomena, like how people give more when they feel a personal connection to the beneficiaries of their generosity, or how people give more when it's automated as a monthly withdrawal or fixed percentage of income. These are useful insights that many charities have applied to influence people to give more, and can be useful in our own conversations about removing barriers to giving.

Improving aid

Not many of us are in a position to meaningfully impact government policy, but Singer does discuss some issues with the way foreign aid is currently allocated and spent. It's an interesting lesson in bureaucracy, but ultimately my impression is that there's not a whole lot an average citizen can do, other than campaign and vote for reform in the long run.

The main issue with aid at the moment appears to be that it's become politicised, like so many other government-run programmes. One example he gives is agricultural subsidies – wealthy farmers in developed nations are regularly subsidised with tax payer money, meaning they can sell their harvest for cheaper than peasant farmers in low income countries. Aid often comes with strings attached, like requiring that the money be spent on these artificially cheap agricultural products, which often must also be delivered by national carriers. In many countries foreign aid is effectively a roundabout way to subsidise national interests, which needless to say is all kinds of inefficient and bad.

Singer reckons there are large gains to be had in optimising government spending on foreign aid, whilst acknowledging it's an area fraught with political and economic side effects and out of reach for many ordinary people. Regardless, it's worth having on your radar as an issue to consider when choosing who to vote for. De-politicising aid could lead to it being given to the organisations that will do the most good in beneficiary countries, rather than the ones that will deliver the biggest political gains domestically. That would be a huge win, so even though it's a large and complicated goal, it's still one worth pursuing.

What would it take to end this emergency?

The book wraps up with a realistic plan to implement Singer's recommendations. He makes a compelling case that we could collectively donate enough money to end world poverty without any noticeable impact to our standard of living. He proposes a sliding scale, similar to the progressive tax systems of many developed countries, where the amount one gives is a percentage of total income, albeit with a much higher floor than taxes. For example he suggests someone earning $80,000 per year donate just 1% of their income, or about $65 per month. To find out what the top altruism researchers in the world estimate you should donate in order to have an impact that saves lives, you can enter your own salary into their calculator. The percentage increases with income, but it honestly seems quite reasonable to me. Near the end of the book he argues

ending large-scale extreme poverty would be completely achievable, without imposing hardship on anyone.

That's based on some calculations that would have millionaires and billionaires donating large proportions of their income (not necessarily total wealth) and everyone else donating at least a small percentage of their income.

I'm curious what factors other than a simple lack of cash prevent the alleviation of suffering and eradication of world poverty. It appears as though there are enough benevolent billionaires in the world that if it were a simple matter of raising funds, we could have done it by now. I think that's a question worth investigating, but I don't think leaving it unanswered for now takes anything away from Singer's argument that we all can and should be doing at least something to help the poor.

He's right that we're living in the midst of an emergency. About 15,000 children die every day from diseases that we can afford to prevent or treat. That would be an intolerable situation if it were happening in our own countries, and once we accept that the anonymity and distance of those people really carries no weight in the decision to do something about their suffering or not, the urgency really starts to sink in.

This was my attempt to cover the main arguments of "The Life You Can Save", and hopefully to convince you that Peter Singer is right. We should all be donating money to help to end the entirely avoidable suffering of our fellow humans.

For a list of the charities that are most effective at doing that, see Give Well, or the "Best Charities" list on the book's own website. Many of the top charities are based in the USA or UK, so if you're in Canada like me, you can make tax-advantaged donations to these organisations through RC Forward to maximize your impact. For a deeper dive or clarification of anything I wrote about here, the book is available for free as an e-book or audiobook. I'm beginning to evaluate the changes I need to make in my own life, and hope you'll do the same.