Peter Singer and the life you can save

Marc Gunther
Nov 26 · 6 min read

Welcome to the so-called giving season. If you have given to charity, you will soon be inundated with letters and email imploring you to do so again. Giving Tuesday is here! Gifts will be matched! Bad charities will claim to be good! Giving is good, but don’t make any impulsive decisions. Instead, consider the work of the philosopher Peter Singer and in particular his book, The Life You Can Save. Beginning today, a 10th anniversary edition of the book will be given away by an organization called, not coincidentally, The Life You Can Save.

Some background: The book and the organization can be traced back to an essay written by Singer in the fall of 1971 when thousands of people in what is now Bangladesh were dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Their death and suffering was neither inevitable nor unavoidable, Singer wrote in the essay, called Famine, Affluence and Morality.

He argued, first, that is the duty of those of us who are financially comfortable to do what we can to prevent needless death and suffering, and that, second, this moral obligation extends not just to those who we know but to those who are far away.

Singer made the case with a now-famous thought experiment:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

What’s more, he wrote, it should make no difference whether “this is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.”

This a radical argument. If more people felt the urge to help poor people in the developing world, Singer wrote, the affluent would spend less money on themselves, give more away and “our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.” His essay was published in an academic journal and taught at colleges. But not much changed — at least not for a while.

In the last decade or so, though Singer’s ideas have spread. (Yes, he gave a TED talk.) They have, in fact, had an incalculable influence, inspiring a movement called Effective Altruism and persuading people, including some very wealthy people, to donate vast sums of money to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. They have helped spawn an array of charities and meta-charities including The Life You Can Save, Give Well, Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours and Animal Charity Evaluators. Cari Tuna, the wife of Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook, says that reading The Life You Can Save, had a profound influence on their giving. Through their Open Philanthropy Project, Tuna and Moskovitz have given away more than $300 million to vetted nonprofits that work on global health and development. GiveWell estimates that donations it directed have averted more than 77,000 deaths.

Now, Singer’s ideas are about to spread further. The Life You Can Save, which has been led since 2003 by Charlie Bresler, the former president of the Men’s Wearhouse apparel chain, obtained the e-book and audio book rights to The Life You Can Save for a mere $30,000. Starting Tuesday (Dec. 3), it is giving a newly-updated version of the book away.

The book, Singer says in a press release, “distills everything I’ve learned over the years about why we give, or don’t give, and what we should do about it.”

Bill and Melinda Gates, who unlike most billionaires have devoted most of their philanthropy to the global poor, say this about The Life You Can Save:

A persuasive and inspiring work that will change the way you think about philanthropy…Peter Singer challenges every one of us to do more, to be smarter about the ways we go about giving, and shows us that, working together, we can make a profound difference in the lives of the world’s poorest.

Each chapter of the new audiobook is read by a celebrity, among them singer-songwriter Paul Simon and Stephen Fry, the English comedian and actor. Mike Schur, the creator of the NBC comedy The Good Place, which explores issues of ethics and meaning, has written a forward and reads it. A star of the show, Kristen Bell, reads a chapter.

While The Life You Can Save can and should influence everyone’s giving, its impact will be greatest if it reaches wealthy people, many of whom appear reluctant to pursue large-scale philanthropy or unsure about how to do so. Even those wealthy people who say they want to engage in philanthropy donated just 1.2 percent of their assets to charity in 2017, according to The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit philanthropic advisor. Most are accumulating assets faster than they are giving them away.

By phone from his home in Bainbridge Island, WA, Bresler told me: “We want to reach high net worth individuals— not just to raise money, but to raise consciousness about how much good people can do in the developing world.”

So where should you give, if you want to help those most in need? The best places to find effective charities are The Life You Can Save and GiveWell. They will point you to many of the same nonprofits — among them the Against Malaria Foundation and the Malaria Consortium, a Vitamin A supplement program run by Helen Keller International and, my favorite, GiveDirectly.

After conducting many thousands of hours of research, GiveWell just announced its 2019 top charities. All work in poor countries, where the needs are greatest and where donated dollars go further than they do in the U.S. The Against Malaria Foundation, for example, provides funding for bednets treated with insecticides in poor countries, for just about $5 per net. It’s hard to estimate how much it costs to save a life by distributing these bed nets — if you doubt it, take a look at this GiveWell worksheet — but there’s no doubt that the bednets prevent malaria. The disease kills about 400,000 people a year, most of them children under five.

GiveDirectly sends money to the poorest people in the world. It’s a simple and elegant idea. (I’ve supported GiveDirectly since 2015. Last year, I traveled to Rwanda to see its work up close, and reported on it for The New York Times.) Founded by economists, GiveDirectly has conducted extensive studies on the impact of giving money directly to the poor; there’s little doubt that their lives improve even after relatively small cash transfers. Just last week, a new study of Give Directly’s work in Kenya found “that the cash transfers not only benefited recipients; they benefited people in nearby villages too because recipients spent more money, some of which went to their neighbors’ businesses,” as Dylan Matthews reported in Vox.

The bottom line, as Peter Singer wrote nearly half a century ago, is that by sacrificing very little, those of us who are affluent can do a lot of good. (And, by the way, if you earn more than $50,000 a year, you are in the top 2 percent, globally. That makes you affluent.) While Singer writes about the moral obligations of those of us who are comfortable, others, notably effective altruistic Will MacAskill, look at the wealth disparity and sees opportunity. Think about out: Today, perhaps more than ever before, we have the resources and the knowledge to alleviate the suffering of those most in need, and even to save lives. That’s a beautiful thing.

Marc Gunther

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reporting on philanthropy, nonprofits, animal welfare, global poverty and whatever else interests me

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