Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something Add to ...

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, by Peter Singer, Random House, 206 pages, $25



There are, among others, two groups inhabiting the world, the absolutely wealthy and the absolutely poor.

The billion people in the former group have more than enough to satisfy their most basic needs. Indeed, most of what they earn is spent in pursuit of the clearly unnecessary: designer shoes, electronics and fancy automobiles.

Everyday the 1.4 billion in the latter group rely on less than what $1.50 can buy in Toronto. They do not have enough to satisfy even their most basic needs. They have no access to basic heath care, clean water or sanitation. Twenty-seven thousand children under 5 from this group die every day from preventable causes.

What do the absolutely rich owe the absolutely poor, morally speaking? If the behaviour and public policy of those in the former group is any indication, the answer is clear: not much. On average, OECD member countries devote 0.46 per cent of GDP to official development assistance. The Canadian government falls below this, offering a paltry 0.29 per cent of GDP.

For more than 35 years, the controversial moral philosopher and Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, has been laying siege to the status quo regarding our treatment of the world's neediest, including animals. His argument begins with the following intuition pump: On your walk to work every morning there is a pond where parents with young children like to enjoy an early morning splash. One day you notice that a young child has slipped into the water and is sure to drown. You have no time to warn anyone. You must save the child yourself. But you have a business meeting to attend for which you are dressed to the nines. If you wade in, you will be late for the meeting and you will certainly ruin your outfit. Most of us believe that it would be wrong to walk away: A life is worth more than inconvenience and an outfit.

Singer argues that the best explanation of this judgment is that we subscribe to a moral principle, according to which, if it is in your power to prevent something very bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable value, then you ought to do it. We can quarrel with this principle in some cases, but its implications are clear for our current treatment of the poor: It's wrong. Most of us are able to prevent very bad things from happening to those in desperate need without sacrificing anything of equally important value, such as our family's well-being. Singer's thought is that if it is wrong not to save the drowning child then it is wrong not to attempt to do more to better the plight of the world's least well off.

This argument is front and centre in Singer's latest effort, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty . But there is more than philosophy this time around. Singer tells us not only why, morally, we ought to give, but how and how much to give. It is a brilliant work of applied philosophy that offers guidance that is both realistic and compelling. It marries Singer's talents as a purveyor of rigorous philosophical argument to a commitment to progressive change.

The first two sections of the book are devoted to defending the moral case and to drawing on recent psychological research explaining why we do not contribute to the relief of misery. The final two sections discuss ways in which aid and development assistance might be made more efficacious and how much we are required to give as individuals.

Many claim that Singer's principle is too demanding. But Singer is realistic and he opts, masterfully, for a policy that human beings such as us, with predilection to partiality, are able to live up to. The hope is that we can find a policy that will produce in practice a "level of giving that will raise the largest possible total, and so have the best consequences." His claim is that for those in the top 10 per cent of income earners, a donation of between 5 and 33 per cent is required, depending on one's income. For others, he is less specific, saying only that we should do more. If this demand is satisfied, then it is possible to end extreme poverty.

This book is important, as it sees that philosophical argument alone is not sufficient to direct people to giving more, that what is required is something that takes into account our psychology and shows us how we might donate our money and time efficiently. It shows, though not as well as possible, that aid to the poor is only part of what is required to make their lives better. We need aid that is less politicized, fewer agricultural subsidies which punish the poor and a culture less devoted to rampant consumption.

What's more, the book shows that it is possible to arrive at a policy for giving that even those who are staunch (and often very misguided) critics of Singer are able to agree with despite their deep theoretical disagreements. It has taken some time for Singer to see the importance of justifying his practical moral pronouncement on poverty in this way. It is a lesson that he has learned and one that those working in the field of practical ethics would do well to absorb.

Anthony Skelton is assistant professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, where he specializes in ethics and its history.

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular