books generosity poverty

The life you can save, by Peter Singer

Peter Singer has worked out how to end poverty, several times over. If 90% of us in the West gave away just 1% of our incomes, and on a sliding scale, the richest 10% give away between 5% and a third, you’d have a pot of $1.5 trillion. That’s enough to meet the Millennium Development Goals eight times.

Could we afford 1%? Undoubtedly. Could the top 0.01% give away a third of their billions? Yes. So why haven’t we ended poverty yet? For an average gift of around $200 per person per year in the rich world, poverty would be swept away. So why don’t we give more?

These the questions Singer tackles in The Life You Can Save: Acting now to end world poverty. He begins with the simple moral challenge that if you were walking past a pond and saw a child drowning, you would save them. It may not be as direct, he argues, but extreme poverty presents us with the same moral imperative. Every day we buy things we don’t need, when for the price of a bottle of water we could save a life. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?”

Peter Singer is an ethicist and philosopher. His gift is to ask provocative questions – the kind that are penetrating, even borderline offensive in their implications. An extreme example was his suggestion earlier this year that perhaps humanity should make itself extinct for the good of the planet. Cue much spluttering indignation, but in explaining why it’s a crazy thing to say, you are forced to defend why life is worth living. And in so doing, you make Singer’s point for him.

The Life you can Save presents a handful of these kinds of questions. Singer lines up moral arguments that you couldn’t disagree with, and before you know it you’ve argued yourself into something you don’t want to say, saying it’s wrong to save for retirement, or that it’s wrong to love your own children more than other people’s. It’s very clever, if you like that kind of intellectual trickery, and I imagine Singer makes a great professor at Princeton. If you just thought you were reading a book about aid and giving, you might find it rather frustrating.

There’s more here besides moral philosophy however. There are chapters on the psychology of giving, an analysis of how much it actually costs to save a life, and who does it best. There’s a great section on how to encourage a culture of giving, including the quite brilliant suggestion of ‘opt-out’ philanthropy. Apparently employees at Bear Stearns were obliged to give away 4% of their salaries as a company policy, and employees took great pride in that. What if “major corporations, universities, and other employers were to deduct 1% of each employee’s salary,” Singer muses, to give to ending poverty, unless people opted out? It would make giving normal, and charity would be central to the way we use the money we earn.

The book ends with less bold suggestions. Having profiled people who model a radical approach to generosity, the concluding compromise feels soft pedaled. I won’t give you all the details, but you can find out more about it at the website, where there’s a pledge to take and more information.

I’d also like to have seen a little historical background. The rights and wrongs of giving to the poor have been debated since time immemorial, with various religious and secular, legal and voluntary obligations. The Jewish tithing laws and Islam’s Zakat are both attempts at answering the same question that Singer is asking. Jesus famously advocated selling everything you own and giving it to the poor – something only a handful of Christians have actually tried since. The Buddhist concept of Dana is all about cultivating an attitude of unconditional generosity. Perhaps Singer wanted to start from scratch, but engaging with these traditions would have have the book more depth. There is something deeply human about the need to give. Overlay it with individualism and competition if you will, we seem to know at an instinctive level that giving is a hallmark of a good person.

As usual with these kinds of books, the people who most need to read it won’t, but it’s still a probing enquiry into what we value and a challenging call to give more and give smarter.


  1. All well and good for people who would save a drowning child at little or not cost/risk to themselves but many esp in the US would not do that. Many US conservatives and Libertarians will for instance oppose abortion to save a life but won’t do the same once its born. I’ve even argued with a US atheist Pro-Life Libertarian and he won’t be budged on it.

    If you cannot get them to change over drowning child how the hell are we supposed to get them to share resources or think in terms of climate justice?

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