Summary and book reviews of The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

The Life You Can Save

Acting Now to End World Poverty

By Peter Singer

The Life You Can Save
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2009,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2010,
    240 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Chapter 1
Saving a Child

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

I teach a course called Practical Ethics. When we start talking about ...

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Though Singer's plea is reasoned and calm, The Life You Can Save is rough reading, especially for readers used to "feel good" nonfiction or the narcissistic wallow offered by most self-help titles. The Life You Can Save is definitely a "feel bad" read and that's why it's so good and so important: Pour yourself a glass of tap water and settle down with it for a few hours. You won't escape into fantasy, lose weight, unclutter your closets or boost your self-esteem, but you might be shamed into doing somebody some good.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Dwight Garner

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.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Part plea, part manifesto, part handbook...his solution...is reasonable and rewarding for all.

Kirkus Reviews

Persuasive arguments and disturbing statistics, laced with stories of some generous and selfish people.

The Observer - Paul Collier

As Singer acknowledges, not many people will actually do what he suggests and give away large chunks of their money. Well, if you're not going to, I'm damned if I am. It is to overcome such problems of collective action that we have taxation. The fairest way of providing charity to the bottom billion is if our government taxes all of us and hands the money over.

... The sense of concern for others that constitutes a nation is a precious asset that lifts us far beyond the parochial loyalties of family. Attacking it leads not to the universalism to which the author aspires, in which we identify equally with everyone on Earth, but to the retreat into charity-begins-at-home.

.... The essential bedrock of common belonging is reciprocity; a society is an acceptance that obligations are matched by rights that may roughly balance out, albeit perhaps only over long periods. In contrast, Singer's charity is gratingly asymmetric: we give, they take.

The Guardian - Steven Poole

It does seem in the end that, through his call for universal contributions proportionate to income (on "a sliding scale, like a tax scale"), Singer is just reinventing a tax system - except one that, since its contributions would be voluntary for everyone and not just for the rich, might have even less chance to succeed in doing good.

The Bookseller

Peter Singer's new book presents a logical, compelling argument for the need to end world poverty ... should be read by all of us.

The Financial Times - Tim Hartford

Yet our affluence is so great – just think of the money most of us could save if we drank only tap water – that the hurdle for giving is surely very low. Even if 95 per cent of the money we send to Africa is wasted, £5 to them probably does more good than £100 to us.

The true reason we do not give freely is because of an almost unlimited capacity to put out of our minds the suffering of people we will never meet. One of the effects of Singer’s book is to refocus the reader on that suffering, at least for a while. After I finished the book, I contacted Oxfam to give money. I always knew I didn’t need a new suit; Peter Singer reminded me.

The Australian - Miriam Cosic

Singer, who now divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne University, calculates that if Americans alone gave on a sliding scale of 5-10 per cent of income over $US105,000 ($163,000) -- 5 per cent of the first $43,000, rising to one-third over $10million -- a staggering $471 billion could be raised to aid the world's poor. Consider that a cataract operation costs $30, a fistula operation $450, a life, on one calculation, $1000.

The Globe and Mail - Anthony Skelton

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 Age - Andrew Stephens

Singer gives extraordinary examples of squandered wealth in his book, and questions the sort of philanthropy that might be better directed towards alleviating real suffering. Philanthropy for the arts is, he argues, morally dubious in a world such as this. In 2004, for example, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art spent more than US$45 million on a Duccio di Buoninsegna madonna-and-child painting.

"At $1000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives - a football stadium full of people," he writes bluntly. "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 the Duccio from the flames rather than a child?"

... Singer's book affected me deeply - I doubled my Oxfam contribution to about 3 per cent of my income, and I will work towards 5 per cent (once I clear some debts). I'll hardly notice it, but someone else will.

Author Blurb Raymond C. Offenheiser, president, Oxfam America.
In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer challenges each of us to ask: Am I willing to make poverty history? Skillfully weaving together parable, philosophy, and hard statistics, he tackles the most familiar moral, ethical, and ideological obstacles to building a global culture of philanthropy, and sets the bar for how we as citizens might do our part to empower the world's poor.

Author Blurb Holden Karnofsky, co-founder, GiveWell.
If you think you can’t afford to give money to the needy, I urge you to read this book. If you think you’re already giving enough, and to the right places, still I urge you to read this book. In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer makes a strong case–logical and factual, but also emotional–for why each of us should be doing more for the world’s impoverished. This book will challenge you to be a better person.

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Beyond the Book

Charities That Save Lives

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 27,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes.

The Life You Can Save website has links to relief organizations that Singer has examined for effectiveness and transparency:

  • GiveWell leads the campaign for evaluating the effectiveness of aid organizations – and your donation can go, via GiveWell, to the organization they judge to be most effective.
  • The Fistula Foundation treats the obstetric injury that ruins the lives of young Ethiopian women but can easily be repaired by modern surgical techniques.
  • The Worldwide Fistula Fund provides for the treatment of fistula in poor ...

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