Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

There is a book making the rounds of media reviewers right now called "The Life You Can Save." I would review it, but it seems that a lot more eloquent people than me are reviewing it now. Perhaps we'll do an online discussion group on it here soon?

Here is an excerpt from what Dwight Garner of the New York Times about it yesterday:

"Mr. Singer is far from the world’s only serious thinker about poverty, but with “The Life You Can Save” he becomes, instantly, its most readable and lapel-grabbing one. This book is part rational argument, part stinging manifesto, part handbook. It’s a volume that suggests, given that 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year in developing countries, that there is a “moral stain on a world as rich as this one.” We are not doing enough to help our fellow mortals.

Human beings have an intuitive belief that we should help others in need, Mr. Singer writes, “at least when we can see them and when we are the only person in a position to save them.” But we need to go beyond these intuitions, Mr. Singer declares. And so, early in “The Life You Can Save,” he proposes the following logical argument, one I’ll quote in full:

“First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

Second premise: 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.

Third premise: 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.”

To reject this argument, Mr. Singer writes, “you need to find a flaw in the reasoning.”

It’s pretty tempting to try to toss Mr. Singer’s argument back in his face. The counterarguments well up in your mind: The economy is tanking. Charity begins at home. I work hard for my money. Charity breeds dependency. Some charity groups waste too much money on overhead. And doesn’t everyone hate a do-gooder? (In a 2008 Reuters poll, Madonna was voted the least-liked celebrity do-gooder. Mr. Singer strongly defends her.)

Mr. Singer convincingly dismisses these counterarguments, and his logical conclusion above is well-nigh irrefutable. Helping the world’s poor will bring “meaning and purpose” to our lives, he suggests, through financial adjustments that will mostly “make no difference to your well-being.” "

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