The life you can save

Many people in the USA and Australia think that their governments spend too much on foreign aid. A survey quoted by Peter Singer in his book The life you can save (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009) indicates that most people in the USA think that their government spends 15-20% of the budget on foreign aid, and that a figure around 5% would be more realistic. In fact, the current figure in both the USA and Australia is less than 1%, and a high proportion of that is tied to projects which ensure that the funds return to the donor country through the purchase of goods, services and expertise.

This is a life-changing book. I was wary of approaching Singer’s work, mainly because some of his well publicised opinions about abortion, euthanasia and animal rights are, IMHO incompatible with Christian faith. In this book, however, I believe Singer is spot on. He presents a case that is completely in agreement with the Christian understanding that it is incumbent upon us all as human beings to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the poor and suffering, and that it is simply immoral to walk by without lifting a finger to help those who are in desperate need.

The starting point of the book is a hypothetical dilemma:

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

Of course, every ethical person would save the child. But Singer’s challenge is to recognise that there are children dying, and in danger of dying, in circumstances much more real than this hypothetical example, and it is up to each one of us to respond. He cites research which will make most people uncomfortable; showing that the presence of one other person near that pond who does not respond to the child would make more than half of the population also fail to respond. We are generally quick to respond to the need of one person who we can see, especially if there is no-one else who is around to do so, but when we cannot see the person in need, or when there is more than one person in need, or when there are others we can identify who could help and are not, many of us would be much less likely to respond.

Singer spends some time in his book discussing the theoretical ethics of all this, asking “why is it so?”, but he devotes much more time and effort to encouraging his readers to do something about it. If it is unethical to walk away from the drowning child, it is no less unethical to walk away from the starving millions of the world. Political action, personal action, and direct giving are all ways in which every one of us can contribute and make a difference.

Singer has a formula which he suggests as a way of working out how each of us can realistically do something in response to the needs of the world. The details can be found on his website here. Basically, for those of us on a modest income (eg up to $100,000) he suggests giving at least 1% of our income. For those on higher incomes there is a sliding scale. Singer points out that in both Australia and the USA there are individuals who are mega-rich, for whom giving away 50% of their income, or even 50% of theor assets, would make little difference to their lifestyle, but could make a huge difference to millions of those in need. Singer also suggests some organisations that really make a difference, and for whom even a relatively small donation of $50-100 can enable to save a life. Here are a few suggestions, and there are more on his website.

This is a great book. Worth reading, worth buying as a gift, worth leaving on the bus (or the boardroom table) for someone else to read. And Singer’s ideas are worthy of serious consideration in your own life. It’s already made a difference in mine.

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2 Responses to The life you can save

  1. Nigel says:

    You can make a difference right now. Click on the link at the bottom of this page, learn more about the work of the Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund, and send them a donation.

  2. The problem I have is how quick some authors will tell us how to spend other people’s money. Like the government should take citizens money and use it for this cause or another. Governments spend money to further political goals hardly ever altruistic ones.

    I am not rich nor do I begrudge the rich. I would like to encourage them to support worthy goals but if they gave 50% of their money away it would have some effect in reducing the capital available for markets to tap into for growth. I think we should be very careful in telling the rich what they should do with their money.

    OK I am done playing “devil’s advocate”. Thanks for provoking some thought.

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