The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

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This is the right time to ask yourself: “What should I be doing to help?”

For the first time in history, it is now within our reach to eradicate world poverty and the suffering it brings. Yet around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than many of us pay for bottled water. And though the number of deaths attributable to poverty worldwide has fallen dramatically in the past half-century, nearly ten million children still die unnecessarily each year. The people of the developed world face a profound choice: If we are not to turn our backs on a fifth of the world’s population, we must become part of the solution.

In The Life You Can Save, philosopher Peter Singer, named one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine, uses ethical arguments, provocative thought experiments, illuminating examples, and case studies of charitable giving to show that our current response to world poverty is not only insufficient but ethically indefensible.

Singer contends that we need to change our views of what is involved in living an ethical life. To help us play our part in bringing about that change, he offers a seven-point plan that mixes personal philanthropy (figuring how much to give and how best to give it), local activism (spreading the word in your community), and political awareness (contacting your representatives to ensure that your nation’s foreign aid is really directed to the world’s poorest people).

In The Life You Can Save, Singer makes the irrefutable argument that giving will make a huge difference in the lives of others, without diminishing the quality of our own. This book is an urgent call to action and a hopeful primer on the power of compassion, when mixed with rigorous investigation and careful reasoning, to lift others out of despair.

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews:

  • The Cure For Affluenza
    "It is a very great poverty to decide that a child must die that you might live as you wish" are the words of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. They are also a concise summary of this wonderful book by Peter Singer. If you have ever struggled with the gap between what you can do for other people and what you actually do, you will find this very helpful. It addresses the difficult questions such as "What proportion of my wealth should I direct to charity?" and "Where will it do the most good?" Hopeful new insights for me included the concept that an end to extreme poverty is within our grasp as a global society. The `sacrifices' to achieve this can be surprisingly modest. Reading this book has provided me with a new measure of peace, balance and purpose in my day to day life. Think of it as a prescription for a cure for affluenza....more info
  • amazing clarity
    this book is as powerful as Singer's Animal Liberation decades ago...such simplicity is his message and such strength in his message...a must-read......more info
  • A brilliant work of philosophy that everyone should read!
    In this relatively short book, Professor Singer makes an extremely compelling case for why it is morally obligatory for capable individuals to aid beings that suffer. Those that are familiar with his previous work will recognize his basic arguments on poverty, which he has been expanding upon for over three decades. For those who are unfamiliar with Peter Singer, the argument he expands upon in this book is quoted as follows...

    1.) "Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad."
    2.) "If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so."
    3.) "By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important."
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Conclusion - "Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong."

    This argument is valid, and I think sound, so if one is to reject the conclusion, one MUST reject one (or more) of the premises. If they accept the premises, then they MUST accept the conclusion.

    Professor Singer's logic is solid throughout. His writing is both lucid and entertaining, making this work accessible, absorbing and crucially important to philosophers and philosophical novices alike. This is simply a must read for everyone. ...more info
  • Solid argument about giving, weak on strategies for execution
    The author presents a solid ethical argument for significantly increased charitable giving to combat poverty among the poorest of the poor. One can quibble with some of the simplifications in his key argument, but saving a life or relieving serious suffering through relatively modest sacrifice on one's part is hard to argue with. One of the critics of aid he addresses, William Easterly, responds to his presentation in an article in the Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2009. He makes the key qualification which is the question of efficacy. Singer addresses this but ends up rather glossing over it, especially if we take seriously the idea of scaling up aid at the level he advocates. Since there is an almost total lack of transparency and evaluation of results from even the most reputable international aid agencies, how could we justify a huge increase in their resources in the near term?

    This doesn't mean that individuals shouldn't take seriously their personal responsibility, and even Easterly acknowledges there are many projects (if not agencies) whose effectiveness is demonstrable. But on a macro level Singer doesn't address how vast new amounts of aid would be used effectively.

    Another caveat. There is more variability in individuals' capacity to give than accommodated by Singer's 5%+ plan, but he does acknowledge that his proposal is a guide. Bill Clinton's point about allowing for people to build up a nest egg before major giving makes sense, especially if you emphasize constraining consumption in order to make that happen sooner than later. One way Singer cites to accomplish that is a policy to match one's giving (or in this case saving for later giving) with "discretionary" expenses defined as those going beyond the basic lifestyle permitted by one's income. ( "Basic" expenses for a very wealthy person could be much higher than for a less wealthy person.)

    Also, Singer doesn't make clear that income should include all income - investment and earned, taxable and non-taxable, as from retirement accounts. If accumulated wealth isn't taken into account, then earned income would be "taxed" unfairly relative to unearned income or non-income producing assets that nevertheless represent means of the potential donor.

    Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is the survey of research showing why people do or do not give more - the importance of perceptions about giving, the role of our emotions and "connectedness" to the recipient, and social or reference group attitudes. The findings help peel away rationalizations, inhibitions and just plain misunderstanding that impede clear thinking about philanthropic commitment. That alone is a considerable service Singer performs for us and alone worth the read....more info
  • Another cogent and timely argument from Singer
    In high school philosophy, we read Singer's brief article that has been called the "Singer Solution to Poverty," (actually entitled "Famine, Affluence, and Morality"). I first read it in 2001 but he authored it in 1971. It changed the way I think of poverty.

    "The Life You Can Save" is an extrapolation of the above-mentioned argument, and a response to the critics who dismissed his 1971 argument as unfair, unrealistic or simply unnecessary.

    His credentials: Singer has been lecturing, writing and researching world poverty for more than 30 years, and, as with his 30-year study and defense of animal rights, Singer is able to convince most any reasonable critic that his positions have unassailable merit.

    You can simplify this book's thesis by saying that if you fail to share the part of your income that is beyond what you need for a comfortable life, then that failure to share is a moral wrongdoing. In other words, if you can meet all of your shelter, food, education, transportation and other practical needs with $200 weekly, then any additional dollars you make above $200 should be given to responsible charities like Oxfam or to low-interest micro-lending institutions like Yunus's Grameen Bank.

    So, whom do you share your money with? With what Singer calls the "extreme poor"-- those with little access to food or clean water, health care, education, protection from guerrilla warfare, etc. (Check out sites like Give Well and Charity Navigator to help determine which groups make the most of your money.) This is in contrast to Europe's and North America's "relative poor" who are hard-off, but still usually have shelter and clean water/food.

    One way I like to describe his thesis is as a `redefinition of luxury.' We may think mostly of sports cars, jewelry, iPods, plasma TVs and the like as the only luxuries, but as Singer points out, if you're drinking bottled water while you read this even though you have access to clean tap water then you are spending money on at least one thing you don't need.

    That said, no one, not Singer or anyone else, would argue that money solves all problems. What does help is a cultural mind-shift. If we consume fewer luxuries, we are better off, and if we share our extra wealth with organizations that feed, shelter and medicate the poor, then we are also better off, globally. In this case, money can help get things going, but it's not a panacea; our actions will change the world, not just our cash.

    Of course, you can spend locally as well. I prefer to donate time and labor to causes like homelessness and such, because your money gets stretched much farther in Haiti or Cameroon through Oxfam than it does in the U.S. I also think it's worth considering that U.S. shelters do get some gov't assistance from HUD and other sources, whereas a village in Belize probably doesn't get any grants at all.

    It's important to understand that this isn't a guilt-focused book. If I teach my children that they ought to refrain from littering, I am not trying to guilt-trip them into environmental stewardship. It's an examination of the consequences of our actions and non-actions.

    If, eventually, we agree to accept a lesser degree of entertainment and comfort in order to "make poverty history," then nearly everyone will enjoy a greater quality of life.

    Examples: Think of the multibillion-dollar monument New York wants to build to memorialize 9/11 victims, or war monuments or on parades and athletic events. Or the billions we spend sending rockets and satellites to outer space. Or the $5 billion spent on the 2008 election cycle. Is it possible that money for monuments, fountains, statues, public art sculptures, trips to Mars, the Moon, elections, luxurious political and celebrity parties, etc. could better be spent taking care of our world's poor?

    A final thought: you don't need to buy this $14 book either. Better to rent it from your library and give the $14 to an impoverished person. Or if you do buy it, share it with at least 10 other people before donating it to a library that doesn't have it.
    ...more info
  • Compelling Critical Thought for the Reasonable and the Emotional
    Dr. Singer has a knack for finding ways to engage others in reasoned, principled, critical thought on difficult moral issues without resorting to name calling, arrogance, or emotional tantrum. Dr. Singer uses concrete language to share an argument in favor of acting to end world poverty. He offers his best summary of the evidence in favor of his argument. He outlines possible counter arguments. He shares further evidence to challenge these counter arguments. Then, he wraps things up by offering is own thoughts on how a reasonable, ethical person might choose to put his principles into daily practice. He doesn't demand. He simply shares his arguments and offers evidence. He leaves it up to me to decide how I mght act (if at all) to end world poverty. What more could I ask for? I wanted to read a work of philosophy that would engage me in reasoned reflection. Dr. Singer's book gave me exactly what I wanted. ...more info
  • You'll never look at bottled water the same
    In this splendid little book about poverty, Peter Singer does a magnificent job of summarizing all the pertinent issues surrounding poverty and hunger in very simple, understandable, and practical terms. I wasn't sure what to expect when I decided to read it. My fear was that it would try to bash me over the head with guilt and pity. But I am happy to report that Singer does no such thing and that the book is far more sophisticated than that.

    The book begins with an overview of the problem both in terms of the extent of poverty and its effects and the juxtaposition of the fabulous wealth enjoyed by many other people. It then moves on to a fascinating discussion about human nature and psychology to help the reader understand how and why the present situation came to be. Then it's on to more practical topics such as which charities do a good job and which do not; and finally the nitty gritty discussion of how much people should give to good causes.

    I found the entire book to be highly enlightening and informative. Never did the author resort to cheap tricks by trying to simply tug at the reader's heart strings. Instead, it is a level-headed, rational discussion that made me much more likely to take action at least on a personal level to contribute to the solutions to poverty around the world. And for the rest of my life I'm sure I will think twice before I spend my money on something as wasteful as a bottle of water or any other consumer item that is so utterly unnecessary....more info
  • Now is the Time
    Professor Singer marshalls facts and figures from the World Bank along with ancient teachings from Abrahamic religions to lead his readers to a well documented conclusion that now is the time to end world hunger. For the first time in human history, this religious ideal of taking seriously what it means to love your neighbor as yourself,can be implemented to end the needless deaths and suffering of extreme poverty on this planet. The future of a humane humanity is finally within our grasp, if we are only compassionate enough and self-reflective enough to bring it about. ...more info
  • Interesting Philosophy Assuming It Remains Voluntary
    This is a fascinating challenge to Americans. And so long as the suggestions for helping save the rest of the world are strictly voluntary, this book is helpful and commendable. What bothered me about it was that I had the distinct feeling that Singer would like to see Americans required to give up some of their lifestyle choices so that the wasted money could then go to the third world. Singer's seeming reverence for Karl Marx's theory that money is "the universal agent of separation"("Money alienates us from our true human nature and from our fellow human beings.") and is therefore bad for the community probably made me feel that Singer was more of a socialist than he claimed in an radio interview I heard before buying this book. Two of the examples of wasteful lifestyle spending that Singer says need to be changed include throwing money away on bottled water instead of drinking tap water and spending several dollars on a cup of coffee instead of brewing your own coffee for only pennies. Other unnecessary things Americans need to shed are most of their faddish wardrobes. This is definitely not a pro-spring water bottlers, pro-coffee shops or pro-
    fashion industry tome. On one page he suggests that Americans should worry less about saving money for retirement accounts and instead send more money overseas to the third world.
    As a Princeton Professor and expert on Bioethics, Singer is an excellent writer, does a terrific job of presenting his logical arguments, and can probably rationalize and spin almost any subject. He would make a wonderful lawyer with his ability to build a case on either side of an issue. For example, some of his other well-known theories include the government terminating the unborn and even handicapped children up to toddler age. Likewise, he supports the idea of a government's right to terminate health care for the elderly in order to speed along nature's natural course and avoid the huge costs in treasure and emotion that often prolongs the life of the terminally ill.
    In this book he particularly encourages sending money to OxFam and UNICEF. I'm not a big
    believer in the United Nations being able to efficiently accomplish even the simplest of tasks. Much of the billions of dollars sent to the Far East after the massive tusami disappeared in route. The bigger the institution handling the delivery of services to the poor of the world, the greater the opportunity for others to grab the cash or supplies. The best charities are indeed the smaller private ones such as Oxfam. Singer devotes a lot of time to this subject and admits how difficult it is to determine how much good any single charity actually does--even for the charity. Not surprisingly, one of the most productive programs is "microfinancing" which is a purely capitalist idea. Another very productive program is well drilling. Supplying safe drinking water to a village saves both lives and valuable time that can then be devoted to things like education. Individuals wishing to contribute more to aid the poor and sick need to carefully check out their charities. Too many charities are only fronts for wholesale theft. He also points out that even if there is no proof that any particular charity project is working, if the donators can afford it, it may still be worth supporting just in case it does work. I disagreed strongly with that theory. Donate the money to those charities who definitely make a difference if you can pinpoint them.
    Judging from this book, Singer is indeed sincere in his beliefs that the wealthier nations of the world can do much more for the less fortunate. He's right, but accomplishing that is much easier said than done.
    Singer is a brilliant man and even a cynic like me finds merit in some of his theories especially the ones put forth in this book. However, an adult being allowed to legally commit suicide is one thing. Having doctors and government make that decision is something else. This is one guy this reviewer would not like to see anywhere near the government's retirement, tax or health care systems. Obviously you can greatly cut the cost of medical care by aborting or killing every handicapped baby or toddler. Ditto for rationing the life saving health care to the elderly and that would also contribute to saving the Social Security System. Why keep supporting unproductive people who are no longer working and contributing to society with their money and labor? How long after that happens to the elderly do the standards change to apply to younger unproductive workers?
    Singer's just mentioned opinions about euthanasia and infanticide seem 180 degrees different from his opinions stated in this book. In this tome, Singer makes the point that all human life is equal and that parents
    in the USA should not value their own children over any other child growing up in the third and fourth world.
    He attempts to shame the citizens of wealthier nations into giving a "Fair Share" of their wealth (the 50% club, 10%, 5%, 1%, " formula," or as much as humanly possible and even one kidney donated to a stranger depending on the individual donors ability) because our children are no more important than the poorest child on the planet. He is constantly drawing pictures of the heroic parent who sacrifice their own children in order to save many others. He wants the village saved at the cost of the individual, although he does point out that in communes "like the Israeli kibbutzim" where kids and their parents were separated, it didn't work and parents were reunited with their children and the nuclear family restored. He uses the "selfless" actions of Abraham and King Agamemnon to illustrate the need to sacrifice one's children for the greater good (as dictated by their individual gods). I suppose that if one is regularly in two-way conversations with God, that's logical?
    This volume is definitely worth reading and studying, but it's also a little scary. The reason I read this book was because of the radio interview I heard with the author and like Saul Alinsky's "Rules For Radicals" this book may provide a peek into the philosophy of our new President. Hopefully President Obama doesn't condone Singer's more radical philosophies although some of his actions would strongly suggest otherwise. Obama's most (in)famous vote in the Illinois Legislature was for infanticide. The only legislation bearing his name from during his short time as a U.S. Senator was to have the USA taxpayers annually send a percentage of the nation's Gross National Product to the third world to fight poverty and disease--this above and in addition to the current Foreign Aid Programs. That would continue forever. Never mind that in order to send this money to the third world, the U.S. taxpayers would have to borrow the money to send overseas. Never mind that most foreign aid sent to the third world ends up in the pockets of corrupt government officials or the middle-men in the transfer. Many of the world's poorest nations have governments who simply don't want to help many of their citizens either for political, tribal or religious reasons. Some of Mr. Singer's theories also seem much too Utopian to actually work. His aid-to-poverty highway project seems littered with good intentions.
    This is an interesting read because Dr. Singer is a very influential advocate of infanticide, euthanasia and animal rights among other subjects. He was named one of the Most Influential 100 Men in the World by "Time" Magazine. One does have to read between the lines of this book. Much is hinted at, but not spelled out. One has to know something about Mr. Singer's other beliefs to detect some of those ideas bubbling up between the lines. But so long as his ideas about fighting world-wide poverty and disease remain voluntary and not required by law, Singer philosophies are worth studying and following on an individual basis. The need is certainly there and all too real. It seems logical that anyone following some of the suggestions in this "guide book to giving" would certainly make a difference to the survival and health of the poorest of the poor.
    ...more info
  • oddly flawed book with its heart in the right place
    Singer's goal in this book is undoubtedly worthy: helping the poor is a great thing to do, and as usual he musters arguments ranging from the philosophical to the economic to urge people to reconsider how they live and where they put their money. As I read it, tho', I found it hard to get past his decision to pit "Americans" (as a whole, all of us, who should give) against those who live in extreme poverty (who are the putative recipients, altho' that wavers a bit as the book goes on). Singer explains that even poor people in America aren't really poor, since some of them own cars (ignoring the fact that lack of public transport makes this an absolute necessity for the working poor in many cities, Detroit being an obvious example), and I was stunned by his off-hand assertions that "All Americans have access to health care" (check out Frontline's 'Sick Across America' for a different viewpoint) and that all Americans can safely drink out of the tap (check out Frontline, again, on the Potomac & endocrine disruptors). He condemns Americans for being the most generous nation in terms of individual contributions to charity, pointing out that much of it stays in America rather than reaching those in extreme poverty in other countries, and criticizes the fact that Americans gave more to Katrina victims than to victims of the tsunami, despite the fact that the Katrina folks "had the federal government to help them." This antagonistic approach was offputting to me, and, frankly, a little weird. Does he really think we have universal health care? Is he that blind to the health conditions of America's poor? How is it wrong to give to someone in your own community who is hungry, or whose kids are hungry-- even if they own a car--rather than to Singer's chosen target group? It was an odd focus for the book, and since he doesn't reveal until the end that the "Americans" he's actually talking about are the six-figure salary folks, I just kept asking mental questions about whether he had ever left Princeton long enough to talk to some of the American poor. Yes, they make more than $1.25 a day. But if he's right that alleviating poverty is a good, than why is it better to do it for some people than others?

    Moreover, Singer roundly condemns Western governments for a lot of choices, including some that are a little questionable. True, for example, Western governments benefit off mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo... but that does not mean they alone are responsible for the depths of poverty there. Money is pouring into the DRC as well as Western govts. from the mining, but it's all ending up in the hands of the govt. and corrupt administrators. See Tim Butcher's wonderful Blood River for a far better informed and more nuanced understanding of the problem than Singer offers: as Butcher says, putting more money into the DRC won't lift any African (not in the govt.) out of poverty unless the system within the country changes. Singer doesn't deal with any aspect of this, however: that so many people in extreme poverty are there partly because of choices made by their govts, countrymen, and, in the case of young girls suffering from fistulas, families. He doesn't explain how giving up your retirement to pour money into such countries will actually help fix these problems. And in his many analyses of why Americans give at home rather than abroad, he never once touches on the fact that many people understand that giving locally lets them see where the money goes, rather than helping buy a satellite dish for another govt official in Kinshasa.

    Finally, I was mystified by his impression that Social Security appears from thin air; he seems to be one of those folks who believes that you get the actual money back that you paid in, rather than it being a rolling system where today's workers are supporting today's retirees. (He'll be getting a pension from Princeton, so he's set.) He thus cheerfully asserts that saving for retirement rather than giving it away today to help people in other countries is wrong, without asking who will then pay for the retirement (the retiree's children? the system? if the retirees' children, then won't they be giving money to an American that they should be spending on the extreme poor overseas?) and gives an example of one of his ideals, a man who gave away his cash and lives off SSecurity (and now qualifies for Medicaid etc.) Should people be giving money to overseas aid and then letting the system support them? Again, that's not a question that seems to interest Singer.

    From the reviews here, you can see how many people found this book a compelling wake-up call. I think I might have been more open if he had been less antagonistic, and if he had considered that American poverty is poverty too, rather than condemning the entire population in a big lump group. As it was, I wish he'd mixed his philosophy with a little more nuance and, when it comes to things like health care, actual information. I had to keep reminding myself when I read this that he is, by all accounts, a brilliant man. Those in poverty need an advocate-- but, I think, a better reasoned book than this one.
    ...more info
  • All or Nothing Thinking
    Peter Singer's arguments are ones that are important to consider. But he falls into this all or nothing way of thinking about ending poverty in the world. There has to be a more holistic way of looking at these issues than Singer proposes. I think that the seemingly more simple options have more complexity than he thinks. I am very much aware of the "luxuries" that my life has and I think through them very carefully wanting to be socially aware in what I do have. However Peter Singer seems to have this all or nothing way of thinking about things that seem to encourage people to be martyrs for the sake of ending world poverty. The thing is martyrs may be passionate, but they are never healthy....more info


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