Tuesday April 14th, 2009

Redefining the Least You Can Do

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer
Random House, 224 pp., $22.00

It’s easy to feel squeamish when reading The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer’s persuasive case for getting the rich world to do more to help the poor one. “Do you have a bottle of water or a can of soda on the table beside you as you read this book?” he begins, in the accessible and slightly confrontational tone he’ll sustain for the next 175 pages. “Around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than you paid for that drink.”
In the midst of our moaning about lean times, Singer, an Australian practical ethicist with a taste for austerity, reminds us of our good fortune. Anyone who can buy a drink when potable water is readily available enjoys comforts unknown to the one in four people who make up the world’s extreme poor. In America, 97% of those classified by the census bureau as poor own a color television. Meanwhile, 27,000 children in the developing world die from avoidable causes every day. Clearly, Singer argues, we need to rethink our obligations to the world’s neediest. 
But charity is a complicated business. The more daunting the problem — the greater the suffering, the more remote the victims — the more powerless we feel to make a difference. When attempting to grasp something as yawningly vast as world poverty, our own humble efforts to help can seem absurd, like spitting into a well. Even Mother Teresa faltered occasionally: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” It seems enough to care for ourselves, our neighbors, our local poor.
That is, unless we consider ourselves ethical people. Singer argues that “it may not be possible to consider ourselves to be living a morally good life unless we give a great deal more” than we ever thought possible to those most in need. That 18 million people die unnecessarily each year is a “moral stain on a world as rich as this one.” With disarming elegance, he appeals to our reason — not just our tuggable heart strings — to convince us of what we seem to know instinctively already: that it’s our duty “to lessen the serious suffering of innocent others, even at some cost” to ourselves.
Consider this hypothetical situation posed in the first chapter: On your way to work you pass a pond, in which you see a toddler flailing about. No one else is around, and without your help the child seems likely to drown. But wading into the water will ruin your new shoes, muddy up your suit and probably make you late for work. What should you do? 
Whenever Singer offers this question to his students at Princeton, the response is unanimous: how could anyone think about shoes when a child is glug-glugging his last? Yet 10 million children under five years old die from poverty-related causes each year, according to UNICEF. Donating money could save lives, but Americans give only seven cents of every $100 of income to foreign aid. We “all spend money on things we don’t really need,” Singer writes, “whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible 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?”
Singer laces logical arguments with moral conviction. Yet he occasionally seems to be beaming these messages from Planet Killjoy, a place where pleasures are suspect and duties crippling (one imagines saltines as the snack of choice). Routine purchases, such as movie tickets or a restaurant meal, are cast as ominous, almost unethical. He sets up awkward zero-sum relationships between our own frivolous desires and the more dire needs of people in developing countries. “If you have a spare $450,” Singer writes, “it won’t be easy to find anything that you need nearly as much as a fourteen-year-old girl with a fistula needs an operation.” And a mere $50 would pay for a sight-restoring procedure for someone with a blinding cataract.
Singer sniffs that the $45 million the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently paid for a small Madonna and Child painting by Duccio would cover 900,000 such cataract surgeries. “How can a painting compare with that?” he asks. “If the museum was on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child? And that’s just one child.” It’s easy to imagine Singer at the grocery store, converting all possible purchases into fractions of fistula operations.
He praises Bill Gates for his altruism, yet takes him to task for the decadence of his 50,000-square-foot, 135-millon-dollar home (”He could give more, and it’s to be hoped that he still will”). He views philanthropy for the arts as “morally dubious,” and laments the quirks of human nature that keep us from being as generous as we should be. One particularly fascinating example involves Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old girl who fell into a dry well in 1987. Her story was broadcast live on television for days, and anxious donors sent in so much money that Jessica reportedly has a million-dollar trust fund. Yet during those same two-and-a-half days, about 67,500 children died from poverty-related causes. Evidently “we will spend far more to rescue an identifiable victim than we will to save a ’statistical life’,” he explains.
Singer has offered a convincing case for donating more to foreign aid. He recites unnerving statistics for the distribution of wealth (2% of the world’s people own half of it; the richest 10% own 85% of it) and patiently rebuts typical arguments against foreign assistance (e,g., “America gives plenty already”; actually, less than 1% of government spending goes to foreign aid). The book is strongest when Singer provokes us into redefining the moral principles we feel we should act on. But he sounds hazier when he tries to consider the effectiveness of different charities, or when he claims we have the ability to eradicate world poverty.
After proposing all sorts of life-changing, self-abnegating attitudes on philanthropy, Singer concludes with a more realistic approach: donate 5% of your annual income if you’re financially comfortable, and rather more if you’re rich. Already, 2,740 people have pledged to meet this standard on his website. I think I’ll join them.

Emily Bobrow is editor of More Intelligent Life, and a contributor to the Books and Arts section of The Economist.

Books mentioned in this review:

The Life You Can Save