The good, and the weird, features of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save

‘How much should each of us give to help the world’s poor?’, asks the moral philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Life You Can Save. It’s a cracking book, with some great insights about poverty, effective solutions and the weirdness inside us all (ie, behavioural economics). Nonetheless, there were three respects in which I found the book peculiar.

First, the American-ness. ‘We Americans this’, ‘a survey of American found that’, ‘the average American this’, ‘American radio stations that’, ‘the New York Times the other’, and so on. Surely defeating global poverty will require people in all developed nations, not just in one, and so it’s kind of odd to alienate / ignore everybody else. Though he probably is addressing people in all developed nations, because Singer doesn’t refer to us at all (except as comparators to the US), it rather sounds as though we don’t count, or our giving is irrelevant or something. And that’s particularly weird coming from somebody who is himself not American and who, the very first page tells us, doesn’t live in America. Still, maybe his publisher decided that the main audience was in the US.

He should have fought them off, because the American-centricity of the language seriously undermines his work. Singer laments (rightly) the low levels of international giving by US individuals and by the US state, and it seems not unreasonable to imagine that this is partly because people in the US are simply less aware of the existence of other countries, or less familiar with their situations than one might hope. Indeed, Singer (rightly) explores how people give to causes with which they feel they have a connection, which feel proximate to them, and which they can envisage. By talking to his US audience as though they are the sole nation who exist, or at least who matter, surely he is perpetuating the isolationism which creates / reinforces the very problem he is trying to solve.

Professor Singer, if you read this, please explain. I’m hugely interested, not because I want to understand publishers but because your quest is such an important one.

Second, why did he publish it commercially? The front cover has a stamp saying “URGENT, URGENT, URGENT Acting Now to End World Poverty”, and the back cover claims that “For the first time in history, it is within our reach to eradicate world poverty”. Crickey – so we need to get the message of this book into as many hands and heads as possible, and pretty pronto. For which, commercial publishing at £14.99 a copy isn’t obviously the best route. When Professor David Mackay felt a similar urgency – to debunk the myth that our current attempts to produce ‘clean’ energy would meet our energy needs – he wrote a marvellous book and dishes it out for free, so as to minimise the barriers to people reading it.

Again, Professor Singer, please explain. If commercial publishing is, by your analysis, the best way to disseminate a message, then all those of us who are on missions to spread messages need to know that.

And third, the answer at which Peter Singer arrives is that we should all give 5% of our incomes, with a bit extra if you earn a lot. Five? It does seem kind of weird that after 164 pages of detail about how much poverty there is, about how we can solve it using these natty effective interventions we’ve now discovered, about wealth disparity, behavioural economics, blah blah, Singer seems to give up, saying that ‘oh that’s all jolly tricky’ and picks from the air a low number – no less than half what is in the Bible. Surely if we have a unique opportunity to “eradicate world poverty”, surely we should all dig deep for a while and nail it. The book is a peculiarly complex way of defending a pretty mild conclusion.

However, you can’t beat this book for its tour of the relevant bits of behavioural economics – that fascinating offshoot of the dismal science. We’d rather help one person than help ten. If somebody else isn’t helping, rather than thinking we should help (precisely because they’re not) we’ll decide that we shouldn’t help either. If we so much as see a dollar sign (or, if you don’t happen to be in the US, a pound sign, or yen sign, or Rand sign…), we become more less likely to give.

Fundraisers and charities need to know and use these insights. Even if they’re not in America.

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One Response to The good, and the weird, features of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save

  1. Pingback: Bad Book: Why Philanthropy Matters | Giving Evidence

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