The Life You Can Save

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has demonstrated awesome gifts for self-promotion and controversy. His The Life You Can Save is mostly uncontroversial, however, while Singer’s skill at self-promotion is admirably harnessed to a thoroughly worthy cause. Around the world, millions of people (especially children) die every year from causes that would be preventable at comparatively low cost if appropriate resources were available to them. Singer’s book is a call to action for Americans to elevate their giving, and it is working. A Web site based on the book records a steady escalation in the amount of funds donated or pledged since its publication. The book is being translated and published all over the world.

Singer confronts many potential objections and obstacles to his project. He feels that most Americans are not hopelessly mired down in the hedonistic pursuit of supposed self-interest. Indeed, research on happiness consistently finds that generous givers tend to be happier. After all, Christian teachings, and those of most other major faiths, strongly advocate for the poor. Singer’s iconoclasm surfaces a bit when he challenges the common conviction that one’s family comes first, but he sensibly concludes that this principle need not be an obstacle to generous giving. (The classroom examples he cites in this context, intended to discomfit his students, seem overdone).

Singer might have done better to stress that much of the expenditure made by the rich on their children may be damaging to those children’s moral and emotional well-being. (Is a Princeton University education, for example, worth its price in comparison to the price of attending nearby Rutgers University?) He does point to the success of the “default option,” where payroll deductions for a favored objective are taken automatically unless an employee explicitly opts out. This example establishes the extent to which Americans’ spending is influenced by the path of least resistence.

Singer raises the question of why most Americans do not support overseas relief more generously, given their apparently generous inclination. One might respond that governmental foreign-aid programs, paid for with taxpayers’ money, have not worked very well. Singer rejoins that the U.S. government spends relatively little on foreign aid, little of that spending goes to the lowest-income countries, and what does go to such countries is often impaired by “buy America” programs and other distractions. He strongly opposes dumping farm surpluses on poor countries, a practice that often harms those countries’ abilities to develop their own food production systems.

Singer could have spoken even more harshly against government-to-government aid programs and shown more systematically why private efforts are more likely to succeed. Among the obstacles to more giving, economists cite lack of information and the transaction costs of giving. The lives of the truly poor are so remote from U.S. experience that most Americans cannot identify with them. Singer acknowledges that generous giving is often forthcoming when the beneficiary has a name and a face and is “someone like us.”

Singer also acknowledges that Americans may be less likely to respond to the needs of others if the only way to do so is by giving money. Money gifts are often the most efficient because they can support a cadre of specialists and can permit expenditures in the locality of need, drawing on the resources of that area (and paying the providers). For Americans with more time than money, volunteer activities such as serving in a food bank or senior center can offer face-to-face contact and sociability with other volunteers. For a man, being a blood donor can bolster a macho sense of self-esteem, partly because of the discomfort being overcome.

Singer effectively marshals evidence about the costs of saving lives. World Health Organization (WHO) programs directed against malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infections, and measles have...

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