The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty by Peter Singer

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Princeton professor Peter Singer’s book will transform the way you think about giving. Through a compelling moral argument, Singer shows us why and how we can all do more to help alleviate unnecessary suffering and death in this world.

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Key Takeaways

Singer’s argument for donating more to aid agencies

  1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad
  2. If it’s in your power to prevent something bad 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
  4. Conclusion – Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong

A warning about moral relativism

If you apply moral relativism in some cases, it needs to be applied in all cases.

How consumption harms developing countries

By consuming products in developed countries, we may be causing harm in developing countries. For example, commercial fishing that takes over an area to supply the large demand for fish in a developed country may destroy the local fishing markets by pricing out locals or by destroying the environment with overfishing.

Human nature that stops us from giving more

  • Identifiable victim: When we hear the story of a single individual who is suffering, we are more likely to give than if we heard a story of 8 or more individuals suffering. The story of one person tugs on our emotions in a stronger way, whereas we are less moved by the story of many suffering.
  • Parochialism: We are more likely to give to people in our close circle. This developed as a survival mechanism of looking out for our kin.
  • Futility: We are more likely to give when our giving saves a larger % of people. If we are told that we can only save a small fraction of people suffering, we feel that our efforts are futile, even though we are still helping people.
  • Diffusion of responsibility: This is the bystander effect.
  • Sense of fairness: fairness is evolutionarily useful – it signals that we are willing to cooperate with others to get better outcomes. When we feel like we are doing more than our fair share (e.g., more than friends or some other comparison group), we feel that the situation is unfair and are less likely to continue giving more.
  • Money: When money enters a conversation, it is a divisive force that makes us less generous. And when we have money, we have less need to rely on others, so we may be less willing to help others.

Evolution and morality

Singer correctly points out that evolution has no moral direction. Evolution optimizes for survival, not giving. Evolution explains why we’re more likely to give to those close to us versus strangers in extreme need who are located far away. But just because these evolutionary forces make us less likely to give in certain contexts, they do not morally justify those feelings and the lack of giving morally.

The effect of seeing others give

People give more when they think others are giving. So if someone is flaunting how charitable they are, we should not berate them for putting it in our face. They inspire others to give by showing that giving is something to do. So even if you disagree with their tactics, overall they are still giving and encouraging others to do so.

Nudging people to give

There are many ways we can nudge people to give more, especially at the corporate level. For example, companies could have a mandatory % of salary that goes toward good causes automatically deducted from your paycheck. Or they could give mandatory time off to do charitable work. These systems will work well as is already proven by companies who have nudged people to save for retirement through automatic enrollment in 401(k) programs.

Assessing where you are

In order to know where you are going, your first need to know where you stand. Life is a balance across different areas, and one way to think about life is to divide it into Health, Work, Love, and Play. Health is most important because without health, you cannot enjoy the other areas of life in the same way.

Cost of saving a life

Depending on the charity and cause, it costs anywhere from $200-2,000 to save a life. At the lower end, that’s the equivalent of 40 lattes.

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