Wednesday, July 14, 2010

the life you can save

there are few books i've read that have truly left a deep and profound impression on me. one such book is the life you can save by peter singer.

on the way to work, if you saw a child drowning in a pond, would you jump in to save him or her--even at the risk of ruining your new shoes and being late to work? if you knew that a child's life was in danger, would you do what you could to save her or him, even if it meant sacrificing personal time, money, or resources? i think it's safe to say that most people would say "yes" without hesitation.

then why do most people do nothing knowing full well that children in extreme poverty at home or abroad are at potential risk from dying of malaria, malnutrition, drinking contaminated water, and a plethora of easily preventable diseases?

what if the child was drowning in a pond in africa?

peter singer makes the convincing case that we all have a moral obligation to help people out of poverty and that if we have the money to buy things that we don't really need (i.e. that bottle of water, that cup of coffee, or my personal favorite--that extra skateboard), then we have disposable income that can be used to effective safe lives and drastically improve the quality of life for poor people in the developing world.

he rightfully criticizes official aid as woefully inadequate and targeted often times due to political concerns rather than actual need (only a small fraction of foreign aid actually makes it to poor countries).

singer advocates that as a baseline, we should each set aside 5% of our income for aid agencies to alleviate poverty and save lives. he writes of people who have dedicated their lives to others and some philanthropists who have given 50% or more of their income to help the poor. he points to give well as a source for finding particularly effective organizations to which you can donate, among them partners in health and population services international.

for those interested in aid, development, and making this world a better place, i highly recommend the book. you can take the pledge to give at

singer questions how we spend money in general--a huge waste of resources is spent needless on trivial, ultimately pointless expenses while people are literally dying every day.
almost 10 million children die a year from easily preventable deaths. that's 27,000 deaths a day.
this happens while money is wasted on vacation homes, expensive cars, etc. he argues that using money to help others less fortunate is a much more urgent categorical imperative than to frivolously spend it on ourselves.

He writes:

...philanthropy fro the arts or for cultural activities is, in a wolrd like this one, morally dubious. in 2004 new york's metropolitan museum of art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small madonna and child painted by the medieval italian master duccio. in buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see. but if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing country, that means there are 900,000 people who can't see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost. at $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given $100,000 women another chance at a decent life. at $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives--a football stadium of people. how can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that? if the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save a duccio from the flames, rather than a child? and that's just one child. i a world in which more-pressing needs had already been met, philanthropy for the arts would be a noble act. sadly, we don't live in such a world.

singer's seven point plan to eliminate world poverty includes the following steps:

1. visit and pledge to meet the giving standard based on your income.

2. check out some of the links on the website, or do your own research, and decide to which organization or organizations you can give.

3. take your income from your last tax return, and work out how much the standard requires you to give. decide how you want to give it--in regularly monthly installments, quarterly, or just once a year, whatever suits you best. then do it!

4. tell others what you have done. spread the word in any way you can: talk, text, e-mail, blog, use whatever online connections you have. try to avoid being self-righteous or preachy, because you're probably no saint, either, but let people know that they, too, can be part of the solution.

5. if you are employed by a corporation or institution, ask it to consider giving its employees a nudge in the right direction by setting up a scheme that will, unless they choose to opt out, donate 1 percent of their pretax earnings to a charity helping the world's poorest people.

6. contact your national political representatives and tell them you want your country's foreign aid to be directed only to the world's poorest people.

7. now you've made a difference to some people living in extreme poverty. (even if you can't see them or know whom you have helped.) plus, you've demonstrated that human beings can be moved by moral argument. feel good about being part of the solution.

singer asked one of his friends what had driven him to spend his life working for others. he replied.
i guess basically one wants to feel that one's life has amounted to more than just consuming products and generating garbage. i think that one likes to look back and say that one's done the best one can to make this a better place for others. you can look at it from this point of view: what greater motivation can there be than doing whatever one possibly can to reduce pain and suffering?

1 comment:

  1. Good review Alex. I just might have to pick this up and read it for my retreat this year. Thanks.