The Life You Can Save
Peter Singer
Random House, New York 2009


You are walking past a shallow pond and you see a small child has fallen in. No-one else is around. The child is in obvious distress and will drown without your immediate help. You are however, wearing a gorgeous set of clothes you have lusted over for months and have just managed to purchase. You are also running late for work. Do you wade in to help the child – ruining your clothes and being late for work, or do you walk on by?

This is the thought-experiment with which Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, opens his discussion on the ethics of charity. Given this story, the vast majority of people will of course say that they would save the child and would consider it reprehensible to do otherwise or to consider their clothes or lateness for work as serious objections. The underlying premise being that if we can lessen the suffering of an innocent other at minimal cost to ourselves, it is wrong not to do so. The situation can also be thought of in terms of the golden rule – stated in various forms by all the major world religions.

Singer states a simple argument :

First premise : Suffering and death from lack of basic necessities such as food, shelter and medical treatment are bad things.

Second : If you can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Third : By donating to aid agencies you can prevent some bad things.

Conclusion : Not donating to aid agencies is wrong.

If we accept this argument, we are led to some radical conclusions. It is morally wrong to spend money on anything unless it is to prevent something bad happening – or for something nearly as important. From this argument, Singer goes on, buying a bottle of mineral water or a can of soda, when one can get perfectly potable water from a tap is morally unjustifiable as the outcome is not nearly as important as saving a child's life.

Several objections to this line of argument are discussed. Some brief highlights:

    Objection : There is no binding universal moral code. People have a right to their own beliefs and practices.

    Response : Agreed. But as a society we try to stop rape and murder and would not accept that someone has the right to torture animals or children because they believe it is fun. This suggests we are not complete moral relativists.

    Objection : People work hard and have the right to decide what they spend their money on.

    Reponse : Agreed. This is simply one argument for what people should do with their money. People have the right to do whatever they wish with it, but if they chose to flush it down the toilet or bury it rather than to save human lives, we would likely consider it wrong.


Objection : If we did not cause the suffering of others, we have no general moral obligation to alleviate it.

Response : There are many ways in which we can indirectly contribute to the suffering of others, for example in our pollution of the atmosphere, commercial fishing which devastates local communities, or our extraction of oil and minerals from countries whose people do not benefit from them. Nonetheless, even in cases where we have demonstrably done nothing wrong, our moral obligation is not lessened. Thinking back to the child drowning in the pond, the fact that we did not push them in does not lessen our feeling of obligation to help them.


Objection : Philanthropy breeds dependency, undermines real economic and political change and sustains the immoral status-quo.

Response : There are situations such as disaster-relief in which immediate donations are required to save lives. In the longer term, we must be extremely careful in how we give charity. Many charitable organisations these days do not simply give hand-outs but aim to engineer sustainable change in communities. Revolutionary change in global socio-economic and political structures may be desirable, and if one believes that, it would be right to devote serious resources of time, money and energy towards achieving it. Our concerns are practical and pressing. We know that doing nothing will not help. In the absence of revolutionary change, or while such change is being brought about - if we can do something to help, we should.


Objection : It is natural and ingrained by evolution to treat yourself and those close to you, as more important than people very far away, with whom we have no ties.

Response : Agreed. But it does not necessarily follow that it is right to spend extravagantly to purchase luxuries for ourselves, our friends and our families when the money could help relieve serious suffering.


The book goes on to discuss some of the economics of charity in more detail, particularly in terms of governmental donation and ways to measure the efficacy of aid. The organisation GiveWell is plugged as an independent monitor of aid organisations' bang for buck. Of Singer's several striking examples of charitable work, one is the Fred Hollows foundation which provides sight-restoring cataract operations in the third world. Between 1993 and 2003, the foundation restored sight to a million people, at a cost of around $50 a pop.

Another example is the Worldwide Fistula Fund. Childbirth without adequate medical attention (particularly in young or malnourished women who have small pelvises) can be very prolonged. This can cause tears called fistulae between the vagina and the rectum or bladder. Women suffering from such fistulae have a continuous flow of urine or faeces through the vagina and are outcast from their families and communities. The Worldwide Fistula fund provides fistula repair operations for these women and girls. Speaking of Lewis Wall, president of the fund, Singer tells us: « In Liberia the previous summer, he had operated on a sixty-seven year old who had developed a fistula when she was thirty-two and had been living soaked in urine for thirty-five years. It tooks twenty minutes to repair it in surgery. » Ongoing long-term approaches focus on education and prevention, particularly to reduce pregnancy in young girls but in the interim, asks Dr. Wall « What is it worth to give a fourteen-year-old girl back her future and her life ? » Although we cannot answer the question of what it is worth, we can answer the question of how much it costs : about $350.

The last section of the book discusses the bottom line: how much are we willing to give? What is our fair share? A variant of the drowning-child story illustrates the problems with the fair-share question. Imagine that you come across a shallow pond with ten drowning children in it. There are nine other adults around. You leap in and pull out a child, expecting the other adults to do the same. But looking around you see that the other nine have ignored the children and walked on. Having done your fair share, do you now leave – or do you try to save another child?

If rigorously applied, Singer's moral argument would make it impossible for us to spend our money on anything that is not of equal value (or nearly) to saving a child's life. Excepting a few saintly ascetics, this is clearly untenable for the most of us. Fortunately, Singer also recognises it as such. After (qualified) praise of the Bill Gates foundation and scathing denunciation of the uncharitable super-rich – the Larry Ellisons and Paul Allens of the world with their $200m super-yachts, he turns to the likes of me and you. After all, as we have seen, the can of soda and the Patek Philippe watch sit morally in the same super-yacht.


Singer's solution is a scale of regular charitable donation starting at 1% of personal income below US$100,000 per year, 5% between $100-150k and increasing thereafter to a maximum of 33% of income over ~$10m per year. A little arithmetic shows that even a fairly limited subscription to this modest standard would meet the funding requirements of the UN Millennium Development Goals several times over.

Personally, I think the scale is too modest but as a point of departure it seems reasonable. Though perenially a private person, I have been swayed by Singer's arguments and unashamed exhortation to unashamedly exhort and discuss things openly. I therefore (ashamedly) confess to you, that upto now, my charitable donations have consisted of a couple of very modest monthly payments and sporadic lump sums donated in response to specific appeals. I have signed Singer's online pledge to abide by his minimum standard and will aim for at least one bracket above his suggestion. The tap-water around here doesn't taste so bad.


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