Posts filed under ‘Singer Peter’

Peter Singer — The Life You Can Save

Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975), is a well-known guru of “applied ethics”, though perhaps an equally accurate term for it would be “secular preaching”. In this compact and fiercely argued piece of pop philosophy, Singer turns his attention to Third World poverty.


Singer starts off in typically aggressive fashion, arguing that it is wrong not to give as much of your income as you can to development charities. He then argues that Western nations, America in particular, don’t give very much to such charities. He discusses how we could persuade people to give more, which charities are pound-for-pound most effective, and how small donations make a big difference in the Third World.

In the final chapters, he goes into turbo-preaching mode. He tells us how our lives need to change to meet his demands. He presents a complex sliding scale, where the well-off give 5% of their income, and the superrich give a third. He openly admits this is a compromise: we ought to give far more. He then slams celebrities who fail to meet his standard, such as Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire who has given a mere $900m to charity.


Singer is a famous utilitarian, and there is lots of utilitarianism behind the scenes here. The basic argument is roughly that, if something is bad (i.e. a person suffering from poverty), and you can prevent it by sacrificing something less important (i.e. your disposable income), it is wrong not to do so.

The difficulty, even if you accept utilitarianism, is that weighing up benefits versus costs like this is notoriously tricky. Singer flags up a problem for his own position: if Warren Buffett had given away his first $1m, he would never have been able to give away the $30bn he has now pledged. So by reinvesting rather than donating his $1m he “saved lives” — thousands of them.

Singer uses the phrase “saving a life” loosely, as referring to the alleviation of a person’s suffering as a consequence of the work of development charities. On this definition, it’s impossible to tell what will “save” more lives: giving now, or investing your money so that you can do more later. We never know the consequences in advance when we donate now or invest for later, so we never know in advance which option will do most for the greater good.

Because of this, the phrase “saving a life” is inappropriate. It’s emotive. It makes you think that giving money to the world’s poor is something equivalent to diving into a pond to save a drowning child — a comparison Singer actually makes. But you’re not diving into a pond: you’re sponsoring a particular long-term cause from a distance. There’s no shame in holding on to your money in the short-term, and there’s no shame in using your money to sponsor another cause instead.

I agree broadly with Singer’s sentiment. The problem of poverty is troubling. Of course it is.  But I don’t like his “naming and shaming” strategy, and there’s a question mark over his basic argument. And there is another more practical problem for Singer: his view implies that no one should buy this book. How can you justify buying a hardback when children in Africa are starving?

February 24, 2009 at 10:27 am 7 comments