The Life You Can Save | Peter Singer

Summary of: The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty
By: Peter Singer


Imagine a world where poverty doesn’t need to exist and where every individual has the opportunity to thrive without the burden of basic necessities. In ‘The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty’, philosopher Peter Singer addresses the moral imperatives behind our actions and inactions regarding extreme poverty globally. This engaging book summary will explore critical issues surrounding wealth distribution, effective altruism, and the moral obligations we hold to help others. Discover insights into how our charitable decisions are influenced by psychological biases and how we can create a culture of giving to make a profound impact on people’s lives.

The Disturbing Truth About Poverty

When we’re faced with a moral dilemma, our actions don’t always align with our values. As Peter Singer’s introductory ethics course teaches, our willingness to save a drowning child contrasts strikingly with our unwillingness to help the millions of people who die from preventable diseases due to extreme poverty. While humanity has made strides in reducing poverty, 736 million people still live on less than $1.90 a day. Poverty remains the primary driver of premature deaths, a fact exemplified by the one in 13 children in highly impoverished countries like Sierra Leone who die before age five. The wealth gap is stark, with approximately half of all people being middle-class or above and 2,000 billionaires in the world. However, if we know we can lessen poverty, why haven’t we gotten to zero? The answer to that question is elaborated in the next part.

The Ethics of Donating

Every year, numerous children lose their lives because of malaria. Yet, we can help by donating $200 to the Against Malaria Foundation to protect 180 children from mosquito netting. However, it begs the question, can we do more? This book summary argues that not giving beyond our basic needs is ethically wrong. The logic is based on three premises – suffering and death are horrible, preventing this suffering is essential, and we can help without sacrificing our needs. This conclusion challenges us to reconsider our everyday behaviors, like vacations or buying technology, as ethically dubious. It’s not a new idea; religious traditions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism teach that giving to the poor is a moral obligation. However, many ignore or argue this obligation away.

The Psychology of Charitable Decisions

In times of crisis, people’s altruistic instincts are often not guided by reason, as they tend to prioritize helping a specific, identifiable person over multiple anonymous ones. The decisions we make about when and how to help are influenced by feelings of emotional attachment and futility. Researchers have shown that giving aid could save the same number of people regardless of the camp’s total inhabitants, but people are more likely to give when they feel their action has a significant impact. However, these biases do not excuse us from our moral imperative to give – instead, we need to overcome them to make more ethically consistent decisions.

Cultivating Generosity

The book advocates creating a culture of giving as an effective strategy to increase charitable donations. It explores the concept of reference groups and cites examples of organized giving communities and automatic donation schemes that make charitable giving a norm. The key message is that we can transform our culture to make giving a habit rather than an exception.

Effective Charity Solutions

GiveWell, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and funding the most cost-effective charities, reveals that administrative costs are not the best way to evaluate charities. It is better to assess a foundation’s work in terms of cost per person helped. By donating to charities that directly and effectively help the least fortunate, we have a greater chance to save as many people as possible. GiveWell provides a curated list of cost-effective interventions that help an astounding number of people; examples include Helen Keller International, which distributes lifesaving vitamin A supplements for just a dollar per person, and the Fistula Foundation, which provides women with lifesaving obstetric care for just a few hundred dollars. By carefully screening charities based on their actual efficiency, we can ensure our donations go to organizations that make a positive impact.

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