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

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A good deal is simply stolen by corrupt foreign elites or squandered on poorly conceived mega-projects.

Peter Singer - The Life You Can Save | Point of Inquiry

And many economists object that aid does not help poor people nearly as much as economic growth. Nevertheless, Singer makes a convincing case that money wisely spent can save many lives. Smallpox killed several hundred million people in the 20th century, but thanks to the World Health Organization, an agency of the UN, it will not kill anyone in the 21st.

Measles, river blindness, malaria, and diarrhea, all easily treated and prevented, still strike millions every year, but there has been progress. Some of the most affecting pages in The Life You Can Save describe the low-tech, low-cost programs that have restored sight to a million people blinded by cataracts and have rescued many thousands of women and children from lives blighted by cleft palates or obstetric fistulas.

So little money, apparently, can do so much good.

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A few are famous, like Paul Farmer, the Harvard doctor who moved to rural Haiti and was the subject of a New Yorker profile. Most are not: They are obstetricians and ophthalmologists who visited poor countries and could not forget what they saw; or they are hedge fund employees or real estate developers or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on whom it dawned one day that there must be more to life.

With admirable restraint, Singer refrains from calling for the expropriation and disemboweling of such people, a fate they undoubtedly deserve. This is the insight underlying a well-received recent book, Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. They suggest and Singer agrees that, when possible, giving be made the default option: that is, one would have to opt out rather than opt in.

For those willing to do more than this bare minimum, Singer has worked out a detailed chart specifying how much everyone at every income level should give each year in order to make possible a minimally decent life for all our fellow humans. Singer argues that it is obvious that an adult ought to save a child from drowning unless that individual is risking something as valuable as the child's life. Singer points out that as many as 27, children die every day from poverty that could be easily and cheaply helped by existing charities see also List of preventable causes of death.

Singer says that many of his readers enjoy at least one luxury that is less valuable than a child's life. He says his readers ought to sacrifice such a luxury e. Singer spends time clarifying that people have a right to spend money any way they want, but says that fact does not change the way one ought to spend it.

The author also notes that some people may be indifferent to the impact they could have, but says this consideration also fails to change how people ought to act.

Singer's central thesis is that, a given individual may be able to point to others doing nothing, but that individual still ought to do as much as they can. The title of the book comes from the fact that Singer addresses readers directly, asking them what they will do about "the life you can save".

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Singer says that citizens of richer nations do not donate as much as they could. The author says the reasons are not philosophical, but due to psychological considerations including cognitive dissonance , diffusion of responsibility and the evolutionary history of human ancestors. For instance, according to Singer, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that humans are rationalizing creatures, making it difficult to change their minds on topics e. Singer contends that humans are highly capable of establishing social circles where giving is the norm, and he offers Bill Gates 's "Giving Pledge" as an example.

Singer expresses the hope that an entire culture of giving can develop, allowing individuals to fully admit to themselves how selfish certain individuals have become with their money. Singer says there is a common misconception that all charities are inefficient or corrupt. He endorses GiveWell , a charity evaluator , as a way to identify the most reliable, effective charities. Singer then describes some common causes of death and suffering in poor countries along with the costs of their solutions.

Singer emphasizes that there are many costs involved with putting these solutions into practice. Singer says the earth has limited resources, but says this is a weak argument against donating.


According to Singer, education and development actually lead to lower birth rates and decrease the risks of overpopulation. It is just one or two steps along the evolutionary tree from Nudge, the political bestseller on the art of guiding and nudging individual behaviour toward sensible lifestyle choices, rather than fines and punishments.

Singer's is a Nudge solution: if millions of people each give a small percentage of their income toward the care of desperately poor children, we could shrink the problem of world poverty to something more manageable. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for food, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare and education.

Peter Singer - The Life You Can Save

The number of people whose income puts them under this line is now 1. So why has this not happened? There are many reasons.