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The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

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It is 2021 and the world has experienced unimaginable suffering, death and despair. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on global extreme poverty and harrowing scenes from around the world continue to leave us shocked. As the pandemic rages on, it’s natural to ask: how can I help? Peter Singer – often considered to be the world’s most influential living philosopher– answers this question in The 10th Anniversary Edition of his seminal book, The Life You Can Save. This book will inspire and empower readers to ACT NOW and SAVE LIVES. Moreover, the ebook and the audiobook (narrated by mission–aligned celebrities including Stephen Fry, Kristen Bell, Paul Simon and Michael Schur!) is available to all readers for FREE on The Life You Can Save website.

In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer compellingly lays out the case for why and how we can take action to provide immense benefit to others, at minimal cost to ourselves. Using ethical arguments, illuminating examples, and case studies of charitable giving, he shows that our current response to world poverty is not only insufficient but morally indefensible. And he provides practical recommendations of charities proven to dramatically improve, and even save, the lives of children, women and men living in extreme poverty. The Life You Can Save teaches us to be a part of the solution, helping others as we help ourselves.

206 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Peter Singer

160 books5,515 followers
Peter Singer is sometimes called "the world’s most influential living philosopher" although he thinks that if that is true, it doesn't say much for all the other living philosophers around today. He has also been called the father (or grandfather?) of the modern animal rights movement, even though he doesn't base his philosophical views on rights, either for humans or for animals.

In 2005 Time magazine named Singer one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute ranked him 3rd among Global Thought Leaders for 2013. (He has since slipped to 36th.) He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty. 

Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. In 2011 Time included Animal Liberation on its “All-TIME” list of the 100 best nonfiction books published in English since the magazine began, in 1923. Singer has written, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 50 books, including Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), The Point of View of the Universe (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek), The Most Good You Can Do, Ethics in the Real World and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. His works have appeared in more than 30 languages.

Singer’s book The Life You Can Save, first published in 2009, led him to found a non-profit organization of the same name. In 2019, Singer got back the rights to the book and granted them to the organization, enabling it to make the eBook and audiobook versions available free from its website, www.thelifeyoucansave.org.

Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946, and educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. After teaching in England, the United States and Australia, he has, since 1999, been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He is married, with three daughters and four grandchildren. His recreations include hiking and surfing. In 2012 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest civic honour.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 746 reviews
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews315 followers
September 8, 2013
I chose to read Singer's book because I've often wanted to do more for the world's poor, but I want to do so in an informed way and see to it that my money is going to be used in a meaningful way that does not have politically or religiously motivated strings attached. I've tried to research charities before, but quickly became frustrated with the the lack of solid evidence as to their efficacy that even the most well-known charities couldn't (or wouldn't) provide. So I was already sold on the idea of giving to those in Third World countries, but didn't really know how to do so. I hoped Singer's book would offer me some practical advice as to which organizations to give to and some information regarding the difference these organizations are making.

The first part of the book is dedicated to making the philosophical case for our responsibility as a wealthy, industrialized nation to give to help end worldwide poverty. This part of the book I would give more of a 3 star rating, namely because this was a part of the book that I didn't really need. I was already convinced; I just wanted to know how. However, there are some interesting tidbits that explain our psychological and social aversion to giving, which helps explain why so many of us can turn a blind eye to the world's poor. For example, if we're on our way to work and a small child is drowning in a nearby lake, almost all of us would rush out to save the child. We wouldn't worry about being late to work or about risking our own life; we would simply act because we know a child's life is in danger. And yet 1 in 5 children living in Third World countries die before the age of 5. We know that, but statistics don't move us to act in the same way witnessing one particular child whose face we can see and whose voice we can hear can.

An argument that I found compelling in this part of the book is his case against the "give close to home" idea. While Singer is not advocating that we do nothing for those in our community (indeed, he does argue that we need to be more involved in our communities and give more of our time and resources to volunteering), he does argue that there is a difference between what poor in America looks like and what poor in Ethiopia, Nepal, or the Congo looks like. Whereas 1 in 5 children die before the age of 5 in impoverished countries, 1 in 100 children die of poverty in the U.S. (and, yes, that is definitely too much, but it does show where our money can do the most good). The American poor still have access to education, health care, and social services. 3/4 of their households have a car, air conditioning, and a VCR or DVD player. 97% of them own a color TV. American poverty has its own set of challenges and setbacks, but, as Singer points out, it's not necessarily the kind of poverty that kills as viciously and indiscriminately as it does in the Third World.

The last part of the book is the part that I found most effective for my purposes and, for those of you who are like me and just want some practical advice on how and to whom to give, you might want to skip ahead to this part of the book or you may just want to visit GiveWell.org, a website that reviews the effectiveness of various charities and advises as to which ones are efficiently making a true, quantifiable difference in the lives of the poor. I've already chosen two charities that I'll be giving to: The Fistula Foundation and The Small Enterprise Foundation.

What I found interesting about many of the negative reviews is that the number one reason cited for disliking the book was "it made me feel guilty about not doing more." Well, no shit, Sherlock. And, frankly, you should. I should. We all should. 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day--the Starbucks coffee I drank while reading this is approximately someone's salary for 4 days of work. If I have to skip the occasional Caramel Macchiato or bottled water or pair of shoes to help save a life, it's hardly a sacrifice on my part considering what's at stake.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder
Profile Image for Alex J. O'Connor.
19 reviews4,492 followers
August 11, 2019
Like most of Singer's writings, this has ruined my life all over again, but in the best way possible.

I have been spending a considerable amount of time carefully navigating the implications of this book and considering what moral obligation requires me to give. I have not found (and do not expect to find) a precise answer to this concern, yet, after reading The Life You Can Save, concluding that I should be doing and giving more to help the world's most vulnerable was one of the easiest developments of an ethical conviction that I have ever experienced (second only, perhaps, to my introduction to animal ethics, which was also Singer's doing).
Profile Image for howl of minerva.
81 reviews394 followers
August 14, 2014
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 obstacles. 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. 18,000 children every day die of malnutrition or preventable/treatable conditions. That's about one every 5 seconds. (http://www.childmortality.org/files_v...)

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 (by your Che Guevara T-shirt) – 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.

Objection (freebie, not in the book): Doctors/nurses/paramedics/etc. save lives every day. Surely they’re already doing their bit?

Response: In the developed world, jobs in healthcare are generally prestigious and well-paid. For every position there are tens, sometimes hundreds of applicants. If any one person were to choose to do something else, there would be several people eagerly ready to take their place. In the drowning child scenario (and in many catastrophic situations around the world), there is little or no help available and our personal choices will have a more significant difference on the outcome.

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.

As a point of departure it seems reasonable. This is a rare book that is not only thought-provoking, but action-provoking. I’ve been swayed by Singer’s arguments and have signed his online pledge (thelifeyoucansave.com). The tap-water in Canada is amongst the cleanest in the world.
Profile Image for Casey.
Author 1 book25 followers
February 20, 2013
Although this book provides a heart-felt argument on why you should donate 5-10% of your total income to the world's poorest people, it is sensationalized writing at best and lacks the depth of analysis on:

1. Why the global poor are poor
2. What organizations are currently doing
3. What organizations lack the capability to do
4. What goes wrong with in NGOs
5. Where your money will go if you do donate...

As a student of international development I will be the first to tell you that if you are donating money to an international organization your odds of helping the worlds poorest of the poor are small. There is good being done and there is good to be done, but the reliability of donations is remarkably questionable.

I agree with the basic premise of this book that the world needs to do more for the poorest of the poor and that the richest of the rich could do more, but if it were that easy we would have done it by now. If you are calling for blanket donations, you have to do your homework first. In no part of this book is there a clear suggestion of how your money can be most useful when donated (i.e. what types of organizations to donate).

Overall nice sentimental value, but worthless if you want to critically think about how to help the world's poor.
Profile Image for Mikaellyng.
39 reviews10 followers
March 6, 2019
Probably one of the worst works of Peter Singer. In this book he proposes that we should all donate 5% of out annual income (if we can) or more to organizations such as UNICEF and Oxfam to help with poverty relief. By stressing the individuals social responsibility of ending poverty he essentially totally misses any reasons for why there exists poverty in the first place by granting global capitalism legitimacy. Singer shows the typical data about millions being lifted out of extreme poverty the last 40 years, something which is inherently false as the international poverty line is set extremly low, making it impossible to avoid malnutrition in many poor countries for example. This poverty line has also not been adjusted for inflation as there has been many market crashes which have created more poverty since roughly the 80s onwards making it arbitrary.

Singer doubts that millionaires and companies donates to good causes simply to better their imagery. As we've seen with many of these huge donations in the past it has been done directly to build investment and brand-loyalty etc. Singers main line of "everyone donating what they can" outright denies structural problems, predatory lending to foreign countries and the mechanisms of how large corporations function. Corporations always need to increase profits, something which can only be done by producing something under the average cost or by cheap or free labour. The inherent contradictions here is for Singer non-existent. Although Singer does makes some good moral points on why we should donate, he never seem to realize that ending world poverty and poverty relief are two quite different things. In the book he shys away from politics, with the exceptions of demanding taxes on the super-rich and increasing national spending on foreign aid. He essentially tries to solve an inherently political issue outside the realm of politics.

It is however true that the super-rich holds most of the wealth and that with that wealth we could essentially end poverty but this is in direct contradiction with the super-rich need for profit. The need for profit depends on unemployment and poverty in order to force wages lower in poor countries. Without realizing it, Singer kindaa supports the problem that he himself sets out to fix.
Profile Image for Vegantrav.
813 reviews176 followers
March 29, 2009
This book underscores why Peter Singer is the most influential philosopher living today. He takes his utilitarianism very seriously, and the implications of this philosophy, if followed, would radically change our world for the better. In this book, Singer lays out the case for why those of us in affluent nations should be giving to charity to help the poor worldwide. What is actually most surprising to me is the final section in which he lays out the numbers: if the richest 10% of those in the US (and the equally wealthy worldwide) would give at higher levels than they do now but at levels that do not adversely affect their lifestyles, we could effectively end world poverty. Still, the burden should not fall on the richest 10% alone: most of us not in the top 10% of America's wealthiest (those of us earning less than $102,000 annually) could still easily give far more than we do by simply giving up some of our more frivolous spending. This book provides an excellent case for being more generous and eschewing the oft touted American individualism (what I would actually call selfishness: for a literary example of this selfishness-as-a-virtue, see Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged); rather than looking out only for ourselves, we should be looking to help those less fortunate than us, and Singer's arguments here provide the basic moral and practical reasons for such altruism.
520 reviews37 followers
April 8, 2010
I am not part of the target audience for this book, and neither, I suspect, are you. I'll come to why later...

I do like the way Singer approaches his books - he starts out by telling you where you're going to end up, and then proceeds to take you to your destination in a clear and concise manner, dealing with likely objections before they arise as he goes - but reading this I thought for a while that we were heading squarely for a two-star rating, partly because of that target audience problem I mentioned at the start. Let me explain...

Singer starts out by stating the case for why it's morally wrong not to give, and give substantially, to those much less fortunate. But frankly, if any of what he says here hasn't already occurred to you, and subsequently seemed obvious and irrefutable, then what have you been thinking about all your life? He then goes on to tackle common objections to this view, which is a good approach, but few of the objections make you think "ooh, I wonder how Singer's going to refute THIS one!" when you read them - most of them are blatantly excuses right from the off. There are some interesting stats about foreign aid thrown in here, but mostly they're aimed at an American audience, which isn't what I'm refering to when I say you're probably not his target reader, I mention it just in case (like me) you aren't American...

Things pick up a bit in part 2, which is probably where I started to shift my opinion into three-star territory. Here Singer relates some of the psychology of giving, some of which may be familiar to you already but overall it's still quite interesting.

Part three, however, is definitely interesting, as Singer sums up attempts to determine how much it costs to save a life. Frankly, I was surprised. Not by how little it costs, but actually the complete opposite. Somehow I'd picked up the idea that donating twenty or thirty pounds or so to Oxfam was there or thereabouts enough to save a life, when in fact you'll see that that's not the case. Donate that much every month for a year or so and that's more like it...

It was when I got to part 4 that I realised just how far I was from being the target of Singer's arguments (although the extent to which he states the bleeding obvious in part 1 is a substantial clue). Here he sets out his guidelines for how much you should be giving based on your income. He considers the superrich, the rich, and the comfortable. How does he define comfortable? Anyone earning more than $105,000 per year. Ooooookay. Anything less than that he doesn't really bother with - there's a sentence or two about giving around one percent of your income, and he keeps banging on about water bottles for us mere mortals, as if he doesn't realise that people refill them with tap water dozens of times before buying a new one, but that's about it.

So there I was at around the halfway point, all ready to recommend that you instead buy something else with many more pages than this and then donate the money you would therefore save overall (by not spending thick-book money on something thin) to charity, when it turned out that Singer was thinking more in terms of yachts and supercars than paperback books and a dollar or two here or there.

And that is what I mean when I say that you're probably not his target audience. Yes, for a successful businessman or lawyer or doctor etc this book is a clear, concise, well reasoned, practical little handbook that ought to convince and may well set off a few light bulbs and therefore deserve four or five stars. For my imagined average user of GoodReads - already well read, thoughtful, probably not that well off (otherwise you'd be too busy drinking champagne and out of crystal goblets to bother reading this stuff) - it's a mildly interesting but largely redundant confirmation of things that you already figured out for yourself a long time ago...

Still, you can't fault his intentions.

Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,394 reviews290 followers
September 22, 2013
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care, and education. Many people are familiar with the statistic that 1 billion people are living on less than one dollar per day. That was the World Bank’s poverty line until 2008, when better data on international price comparisons enabled it to make a more accurate calculation of the amount people need to meet their basic needs. On the basis of this calculation, the World Bank set the poverty line at $1.25 per day. The number of people whose income puts them under this line is … 1.4 billion.

Author Peter Singer thinks and writes about “acting now to end world poverty” from philosophical, ethical and practical points of view. Singer is the challenging author of Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation ; both books have their own histories of stirring up controversy.

Here are some of the questions and issues that The Life You Can Save addresses:
Is it wrong not to help?
Common objections to giving.
Why don’t we give more?
Creating a culture of giving.
How much does it cost to save a life, and how can you tell which charities do it best?

From his other books, I saw Peter Singer as a person who is committed to certain ideas and who does not pull any punches. I trusted that he would “tell it like it is” and that I could find his message persuasive. I wanted to be convinced to donate more of my income and assets to make the world a better place.

I have the example of my father and mother who were very generous with their financial resources. My father still is. For example, when someone who helped my father do chores and repairs around his house found his income reduced, the value of his house “under water” with high mortgage payments, Dad offered $1000 monthly to help with the mortgage until the man’s wife became eligible for social security.

Since I have retired, I have increased my charitable giving to the point where it is 10% of my gross income. Instead of buying a new car or doing some home improvements, I would like to increase my charitable giving. I support local organizations like the Greater Lynchburg Meals on Wheels and the Free Clinic of Central Virginia. I support state organizations like Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Virginia Legal Aid Society. I support national organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Natural Resources Defense Council. I would like to increase my giving to UNICEF and Doctors without Borders and have more of an impact internationally since I know the most severe poverty is outside the U.S.

So I wanted Peter Singer to give me a pep talk! And it worked! I now have a goal of becoming a philanthropist! Can I do that on a gross annual income of $50,000? I have decided based on examples in the book that I can! All things can be done with sufficient exclamation points!

Singer is a controversial philosopher. He supports a utilitarian world view: you determine what is best by determining what creates the most good for the most people. I always thought that was an over simplification, but it does sound good on the face of it, doesn’t it? But I have a hard time reconciling Singer’s view that the sanctity of life is highly overrated with this book. In his book Practical Ethics he more or less supports euthanasia for defective infants. He has taken a lot of shit for that. He has been controversial in other ways as well. I usually like to evaluate the “whole person” to make decisions about how much credence and credibility to give to a person. I have some trouble with Singer since I think he has some weak links to go with his brilliance.

But there are real and serious dilemmas for the conscientious person who wants to help.
The real dilemma for most of us, is whether it is wrong and unnatural to reject our children’s pleas for the latest expensive computer games, to spurn designer-labeled kids’ clothing, and to send them to the local (entirely adequate but not outstanding) public schools. The savings you gain by taking the less-expensive option in each case will allow you will allow you to donate sums toward saving the lives of strangers. But do your obligations to your own children override your obligations to strangers, no matter how great their need or suffering?

Peter Singer introduces us to people who have made decisions that many, if not most, of us would consider impossible.
Sometimes in Haiti, Farmer will hike for hours to see patients far from any roads. He insists on doing this because to say that it takes too much time and effort to visit these patients is, in his view, to say that their lives matter less than the lives of others. Flying from the peasant huts and their malnourished babies in Haiti to Miami, just 700 miles away, with its well-dressed people talking about their efforts to lose weight, Farmer gets angry over the contrast between developing countries and the developed world. What troubles him most is what troubled him all those years ago about the American doctor who was about the leave Haiti: “How people can not care, erase, not remember.”

Now you might want to say, “If you are going to quote the entire book, why don’t you just tell me to read the book myself?” Well, I certainly urge you to do that but here is just one more thought:
…the conflict that Farmer and Kravinsky feel so acutely, between being an ideal parent and acting on the idea that all human life is of equal value, is real and irresolvable. The two will always be in tension. No principle of obligation is going to be widely accepted unless it recognizes that parents will and should love their own children more than the children of strangers, and, for that reason, will meet the basic needs of their children before they meet the needs of strangers. But this doesn’t mean that parents are justified in providing luxuries for their children ahead of basic needs of others.

I think that this is the kind of book where you are probably going to be receptive to the message if you decide to read it. I could quote more but I am going to resist. I strongly urge you to read this book if you have a goal of making the world a better place. Peter Singer does not mince words and you may not like or agree with all of them, but they give me pause and make me want to do more for the stranger.

I think this book is going to make a difference in my life. That makes it a five star book for me.
Profile Image for Zarina.
72 reviews2 followers
August 5, 2019
Why is this over 4 stars??????????????????????????? It was fine, mostly because Singer put himself in a position where I don't have much to disagree with and not because it changed my life in any way. The whole theme of the book was "Please if you are rich then give like 5% of your money to poor people. Please! You will help people and feel good about it and it won't even affect you that much because you already have so much money!", said in a hundred different ways, supported by some mildly interesting psychological studies anyone will have read about in an introductory psych course.

His target reader is the individual with an income of over 100k in the West who either wants to help the world and doesn't know exactly how, or who needs some convincing that their money is needed to help the poor. It's hard to say this book is "bad", or that it doesn't achieve its flimsy purpose. His approach on the level of many individuals making many individual contributions can only be a net positive for the world: at worst they'll ignore the book, at best they'll choose to donate more than they would have if they hadn't read it.

Annoyingly, he explicitly says he is "not arguing here for higher taxation or any other coercive means of increasing aid." Why not?????? Because apparently the role of government in aid is "separate" from the argument he's making, which he says is to convince the individual reader. Honestly I think this is stupid—he spends an ample amount of time shitting on how billionaires like Larry Ellison spend their money on extravagant luxuries that pollute the Earth, even says that we should "judge them accordingly", but doesn't want to go so far as to argue for higher taxes. He's the kind of author that'll spend more time convincing a thousand people to go vegan to offset Larry's yacht emissions, when really all we need to do is take the yacht away from Larry.

Analysis of why people live in poverty is also extremely lacking in this book. Instead of delegitimizing the ideology that keeps so many people very poor and so few people very rich, Singer's band-aid solution is to literally calculate exactly how much money poor people need to get out of poverty, and have the very rich each exercise their free will and happily choose to donate a little bit more and make up that sum. This is somehow more utopian than any communist literature I've ever read. The worst part is that he does recognize some of the reasons that have driven developing nations into poverty—the West exploits their natural resources and their labour, supports their dictators, and takes away their ability to reinvest their wealth into developing their own countries—but he never once argues that we should just....stop doing those things. It's almost a disservice to the poor to not address the system that keeps them that way.

Maybe this book will convince some people to donate their money, but I'm just annoyed and feel like it's full of misguided energy. If you're some seedy businessman or like, some corporate lawyer with the metaphorical blood under your fingernails, maybe this book will help you repent??? Otherwise, if you're already convinced of the ethics of giving, don't spend your money on this book—just donate it to literally any good cause.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,195 reviews
January 7, 2020
So I heard an interview with Singer on the Ezra Klein show and liked the premise and the idea of a free book so I grabbed it. It is certainly a very easy, quick read and worth the time and thought. I really like his moral position about why people should give more. However, as I've been recently reading so much stuff on race and class in America I'm not as convinced about saving the world's population.

Yes, America is a wealthy country and yes we built this wealth in large part by shitting on under developed poor countries. BUT I am not completely convinced by Singer's argument that parochial giving is bad. There are plenty of poor Americans that are dying and starving and homeless. I like his model and think it makes a lot of sense for the top 1% (or 5% or 10%) to redistribute here and bring up the bottom. We don't have to work at reparations per say, but equalizing opportunity with better public education systems EVERYWHERE (not just in the suburbs) and increasing minimum wage and access to jobs that allow people to provide for themselves is more important for me than thinking about saving lives in far off places.

He frequently mentions that "in high income countries, when it comes to improving people's health, the low-hanging fruit has all been picked". However, improving people's lives is different than saving them and I would propose that increasing educational attainment and opportunity for the American underclass (after all there are still a lot of people in America living on less than $2/day) would result in more productive global members than increasing the population in poorer countries. I am not saying that American lives are worth more, just that the options and potential upside is probably greater. Efficiency is not just about saving the maximum number of people, it is increasing the likelihood that those people will in turn do more than simply survive.

I was also not entirely convinced by his "just forget about over population" argument. While I am not advocating for death, I feel like there is so much to do here and so much inequality in America that we need to focus on redistribution of our own assets before we start to send them off globally.

I really enjoyed his systemic arguments and the analysis of the different charities. I have heard of Givewell.com and am glad to have evidence based analysis form which to make decisions. And his list of reasons to give money to the poor (as in actual cash) meshes with my understanding and support for UBI as a way to redistribute to America's poor: "does not reduce the amount that adults work, but does reduce child labor; raises school attendance; increases economic autonomy; increases women's decision-making power; leads to greater diversity in diet; stimulates more use of health services".

Overall it is a very worthwhile read and will increase the amount of giving I do this year.
Profile Image for Susan.
125 reviews
March 31, 2022
This book will likely make you feel crappy for not donating more to charities, but it’s definitely worth bearing it because if it sparks you to take an action, you could save lives. It introduced me to many charitable causes I hadn’t considered before, and even better, told me about GiveWell, which is pretty convenient!
Profile Image for Rory.
881 reviews29 followers
July 6, 2011
I'm not sure what I expected out of this book. Probably an articulate, super-strong inspiration to give money to charity...and instruction on how and where to give it so that my meager offerings would do the most "good." But instead I just felt guilty and shamed after reading the first few chapters, and frustrated after skimming the rest.

That's actually how Singer wants you to feel, believes everyone should feel--that it's a basic measure of humanity to give a significant portion of your disposable income (and he calls the reader out on how much actually IS disposable) to some of the very needy people in the world. But...well, but nothing, I guess. It just wasn't the kick in the butt for me that maybe it was for others.
Profile Image for bethany.
42 reviews
February 12, 2015
A summary: "You spent money to read this book and you probably drink soda or water occasionally, so you're murdering children. Now I'm going to throw a million statistics in your face to show you that I'm right and you're living your life wrong. Here's how much you need to donate. Do it or you're a bad person (did I mention you murder children?).The end."

Really don't understand why this got so many positive reviews when the entire book was literally demanding people donate more money. I think everyone knows that it's good to donate, I didn't enjoy being yelled at by this narrative.
Profile Image for Caroline.
156 reviews
November 15, 2020
made some good points that i ... sorta already learned from NBC’s the good place oop. perhaps that is why i found it... a little recursive???

ALSO i found myself repeatedly a little put off by the palpable eurocentrism running through the book. i understand its intellectual goal—that we should work to level wealth inequality across the world—but I found that this consideration of global poverty missed colonialism completely (the underlying cause of much poverty) and instead affirmed white savior-ship
Profile Image for Ptichka_schebetunya.
159 reviews15 followers
April 12, 2021
В книге описаны различные социальные проблемы и НКО, помогающие с ними бороться. Эта часть была для меня интересной.

Довольно пугающе было узнать, что деятельность бОльшинства НКО не приносит реальной пользы. Я вижу это в реальности, будучи волонтером в нескольких организациях. Но думала, что это-частный случай. А не система.

Рассуждения автора о том, сколько денег нужно отдавать обеспеченным людям, чтобы побороть нищету, довольно наивны и не подкреплены никаками доказательствами.

Я очень не люблю рассуждения в духе "сколько ангелов уместятся на острие иголки", поэтому его таблички с подробнейшими подсчетами крайне раздражали. Судя по всему, считать чужие деньги любят даже ученые:)

Еще нищие люди, то есть те, которым нужно помогать, представлены автором как объекты, а не субъекты. Почему-то нигде не высказывается мысль, что и они могут себе помочь. Например, объединить усилия и решать проблемы сообща.

Не затронул автор и вопрос злоупотреблений в НКО. А они есть, и их количество велико. Например, случай с "Oxfam", сотрудники которой сексуально эксплуатировали женщин, которых на бумаге защищали.
(Вот тут подробней: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4763027...)

Если убрать морально-этическую (и уголовную) составляющую из этого дела, то экономическая составляющая довольно удручающа: мы спонсируем насильников и только увеличиваем страдания несчастных людей.
Попы-насильники и садисты-воспитатели в детских домах существует не только в книгах и кино.

В целом, книга неплохая, хоть и спорная. Читать авторов, с мнением которых ты не согласен, тоже полезно:)
Profile Image for Worthless Bum.
43 reviews28 followers
April 22, 2009
This most recent work by my favorite philosopher is something of an expanded and up to date version of the ideas expressed in his seminal 1972 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality". The idea being, people in wealthy countries give pitifully small amounts of money to those in abject poverty in the third world - people who are so poor that their lives are in jeopardy - and thus they should give much more generously. Singer employs the familiar "Pond" thought experiment in adducing his argument, as well as the "Bugatti" thought experiment used in Peter Unger's "Living High and Letting Die", which was itself inspired by Singer's aforementioned essay.

I was already familiar with Singer's views concerning the ethics of world hunger through his previous books and essays, so I was already well aware of his argument and the objections to them, which he clearly lays out in the first section of the book.

Singer then goes into some detail describing the psychological difficulties posed by having very altruistic expections for charitable donations. He then addresses the epistemic difficulty of determining which charities are the most efficient, and thus, which are most worthy of our donations. The different types of aid are looked at and compared. This is, of course, an empirical matter requiriing close attention and scrutiny.

Singer finishes up the book by asking how much people should really give, and comes up with a standard by which people of different income brackets donate different percentages based on how much they earn.
Profile Image for Sarah.
596 reviews
July 26, 2017
This was the book I needed to read after my trip to Ecuador. Raises difficult ethical questions and prompts one to pay attention of the effectiveness of their donations. "I recommend that instead of worrying about how much you would have to do in order to live a fully ethical life, you do something that is significantly more than you have been doing so far. Then see how that feels. You may find it more rewarding than you imagined possible."
September 18, 2019
Cumple su papel estupendamente. Lo estoy usando en clase con los chavales para que entiendan de manera concreta qué es la ética. Es uno de los libros que he puesto en el departamento que pueden servir como introducción a la filosofía (ya que no necesita formación para comprenderlo y reflexionar). Los primeros capítulos están genial, luego se desinfla un poco.
9 reviews
September 24, 2021
Brilliant book. Thought provoking and many brilliant arguments. Peter Singer and the team at The Life You Can Save do incredible goods for the world. Makes me proud to be someone taking “The Pledge” and donating monthly to the 90/10 LYCS fund.
10 reviews1 follower
April 15, 2021
Let's start with the child in the pond argument. You're walking across a pond, in which you see a child in distress. It will most certainly drown if you do not immediately help it. However, you are running late for work. You have also purchased and happen to be wearing a set of very expensive clothes at the moment.

Most people, when they come across this argument, will agree that an innocent child's life is worth more than possibly running late for an important meeting or any expensive clothes. And that they would immediately rush to save the child.

What about the millions of children who may not be in front of us, but we know that they need our help, they might die due to preventable diseases, lack of medicine, mosquito nets, clean drinking water, things that we take for granted. They live in extreme poverty in third world countries.

Singer argues that it would be a lot more efficient to spend our money donating to the people affected by extreme poverty. In the same amount of money spent, there is a higher life saved to money spent ratio. He has his facts and research about how much it would take to possibly save one life in some place with extreme poverty like Ghana vs the United States. And also about how different the lives are for someone one would consider poor in the United States vs poor in Ghana.

As for doing charity, the argument that Singer shares is perfectly logical:
Human suffering is bad.
If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing something nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
We can prevent this suffering by donating to the agencies which help alleviate suffering.
Therefore, not contributing what we can to these agencies is wrong.

There are a few arguments against this. The most important one being that we have worked hard to accumulate our wealth and we should be able to enjoy it. We need to understand that we have what we do because of privilege: we were accidentally born in a well to do family with a shelter over our head, running water, food, medicine and education.

There is another argument shared by Singer, that any money which we spend on something that is not useful, should not be spent by us at all. Instead, we must spend all our lives trying to help as many people as possible - when you have saved one life, do you stop at just one? Is the second child's life not worth the same amount, given we're still able to afford that, shouldn't we do that? Anyway, what is the least that we can do?

To help, Singer and a few more people have researched on what are the most efficient charities, and he also explains how this is measured. He tells you in great detail about them. There's an updated list on his website: https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/

Singer tells you what you can do as an individual who is not super rich. What sort of charities we must donate to (the most efficient ones), what percent of our salaries we should donate (5 percent is a good start). That our money is better spent in prevention of diseases and betterment of society in general.

Personally for me, this is a school of thought that I can really get into. This has helped me re-evaluate what I do to help other people and plan it more effectively. I am looking forward to reading more of Singer and his ethical philosophy.
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
711 reviews53 followers
December 16, 2017
A very quick read and a compelling argument. Singer argues that middle-to-upper-class people in developed countries (and upper class people in developing countries) have a moral obligation to give significantly more than we do to help the poorest people in the developing world. Although it is easy (and fair) to argue over exactly how much should be required of us, Singer pretty convincingly argues that, using any reasonable standard, the number should be much higher than it currently is. Singer's "reasonable standard" is essentially that, at minimum, we should be giving as long as it doesn't make a significant difference to our quality of life. Although many Americans do give a reasonable amount to charity, very little of it is directed to the poorest people in the world (with most going to our own religious, educational, and cultural institutions). The reason for focusing on the global poor is not merely that they have a worse quality of life than the poor in our own countries (although that is true), but also that interventions can be made much more cheaply for them, so that any given amount can go much farther in alleviating human suffering.

Singer's discussion of the relevant considerations is both straightforward and fascinating. One of the biggest takeaways for me is that, really within the last 20 years or so, it has become much more feasible for us to verify that money given is truly (a) getting where it's meant to go, and (b) having a meaningful positive impact on people's lives. This is due to the enhanced level of analysis and transparency championed most prominently by GiveWell, as well as by the proliferation of randomized controlled trials championed by organizations such as Innovations for Poverty Action. Our current cultural ideas about giving are inherited from (say) the 18th through 20th centuries, when this type of verification was not possible. The reasonable result of this information shortage was a focus on giving "close to home" and "in the community," where it was easier to verify impact. A less obvious corollary is that this local focus effectively lowers the equilibrium expected level of giving, because the gap in life circumstances between the rich and the poor in a single community, along with the associated effectiveness multiplier, is by and large going to be much smaller than the gap between the global rich and global poor. (Singer allows that it may be reasonable for us to value our own well-being more highly than that of others, but not by very large multiples.) In addition, issues of desert (whatever one may think of them overall) are much less plausibly raised in a global context than in a local context--one can hardly argue that someone in a developing country who lacks access to clean drinking water just isn't working hard enough.

Indeed, Singer's focus in this book is less on changing individual minds (though that is important), and more on shaping the cultural mores around giving so that a higher level is expected of the well-off. I think he takes an admirably pragmatic view on this matter. One problem with the moral issue he raises is that the obligation can feel practically unlimited, and therefore overwhelming--I could give away virtually all of the money I make and still be very much better off than the people it would be going to help. Singer recognizes that ultimately the "right" level is something that each of us will have to decide individually. Instead, he proposes a societal standard that is significantly higher than the status quo, yet low enough that it is difficult to argue credibly that it's too high. (In other words, it's difficult to argue that the amounts he proposes would meaningfully lower the givers' well-being--in fact, given what we know about the psychology of giving, it's quite plausible to argue that they would raise it.) It's roughly as follows (using marginal brackets as with taxes, such that an increase in gross income across a bracket boundary never results in a decrease in take-home income):
-0% of income if you're below the poverty line, then
-a sliding scale of 1% to 5% of your income between the poverty line and about $100k, then
-5% up to $150k, then
-10% up to about $400k
-and several higher brackets above that

Note that all the way up to $400k, which covers the vast majority of people I know (maybe everyone??), this standard is less stringent than the traditional "tithe" standard--the key distinction being that it is much more specifically targeted toward effectively alleviating the maximum amount of human suffering. Singer based his standard brackets on a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation of the total amount needed to end extreme poverty (as articulated in the UN development goals), spread across the wealthy population of the planet, with some judgment to set the brackets at levels that seemed reasonable.

While it's easy to pick at any one premise of Singer's argument, I find it pretty difficult to argue with his general conclusion. For myself, I plan to at least meet Singer's standard for my own income for this year, as well as to try and "backfill" some of what I would have given if I had been meeting it since starting to work. I'll see what that feels like, and think about whether I should set a higher personal standard.

I encourage others reading this to do the same, especially if your income is in the 6-figure range (or more!). If my paraphrase isn't totally compelling, pick up Singer's book and read it in a weekend. You can check out his website (thelifeyoucansave.org) to find a list of 10-20 organizations that meet his standards of (a) working on behalf of the poorest people in the world, and (b) having produced strong evidence of their effectiveness. Some of them really do save lives; others do non-life-saving things that can nonetheless have a profound impact on quality of life, such as surgery for blindness or for obstetric fistulas. At the beginning of reading about this general topic, I was really focused on just how much it costs to actually save a life. It's obviously very difficult to estimate this precisely, but the order of magnitude for the most cost effective interventions (e.g. against malaria) is somewhere north of $1k and south of $10k. But the more I read about it, the less I focused on that specific outcome. Some of the quality-of-life interventions are hugely important and much more easy to price out--for example, something like $350 pays for a cataract surgery. If you gave $3500 (about what Singer recommends for a gross income of $90k), you could know with pretty high certainty that your gift restored sight to 10 people. To me that is even more compelling than a statistical one-ish life saved (although that is also pretty cool too!).
Profile Image for Oskar Mortensen.
12 reviews1 follower
October 24, 2020
The Life You Can Save, er ligeså provokerende som den er overbevisende, den er simpelthen et must-read. Peter Singer kan virke ekstrem i visse henseender, men det afsporer på ingen måde læseren fra Singers egentlige budskab om, at vi alle er moralsk forpligtigede til at bidrage til bekæmpelsen af global fattigfordom i gennem effektiv velgørenhed.
Profile Image for Kirsten Angeles.
63 reviews
December 17, 2020
I just binged this both through the audiobook and the e-book and I have to say that this might be one of my favorite books of 2020, if not all time. Singer really magnified giving, why we ought to give, and how we can do so most effectively. I’m already acquainted with the ideas of effective altruism, so I really didn’t expect how much I would still grapple with the ideas Singer presented. He presented everything with a clear logical flow, and it really ties up the idea of EA being a pair of the brain and the heart. Was also fun listening to Kristen Bell and Stephen Fry, who narrated a couple chapters of the audiobook. ^_^ I highly recommend this, so let me know if you check it out!
193 reviews
July 23, 2009
I feel bad giving this only three stars, because Peter Singer is my idol. And when I read the article it's based on in the NY Times, I was deeply affected by it. It prompted Jason and I to decide to increase our donations from 1% to 5% of our income once we pay off our student loans this year. But I don't think the book adds that much to the article, except length. Certainly not clarity. I was looking forward to a discussion of the most effective ways to improve the lives of the world's poor, and instead I got case studies of people who were moved to start their own charities. I don't think that the book was organized well (it meandered a lot), and I don't think he synthesized the ideas into concise points.

That said, I did come away with some good ideas. When we increase our donations, we're going to focus much more heavily on foreign aid rather than domestic, and look for charities that help people become self-sufficient by building infrastructure (wells, toilets, schools, hospitals) and giving microloans. And we're going to look at places like GiveWell, that analyze charities' effectiveness, rather than Charity Navigator, which looks more at the percentage of administrative costs. I also found some encouraging facts. I didn't realize that the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day) has dropped from 1.9 billion in 1981 to 1.4 billion today. And, since 1960, the number of children who die each year before the age of five has been reduced from 20 million to below 10 million. And that's with huge population growth in that time, too. It's nice to feel like we're not just throwing our money into a black hole--we can help.
Profile Image for Sallie Dunn.
556 reviews37 followers
July 8, 2020
This is a hard book to “rate”. It’s basically an appeal to open your heart (and your wallet) to the plight of the world’s most economically disadvantaged people. One story after another of people who are living on under $2 a day. They are hungry, they are malnourished, they are dying of malaria, and their prospects for a better life are bleak. We, the citizens of first world countries, are not doing out share to lift these people out of their disheartening circumstances. I found the appendix at the end quite interesting. Peter Singer has an actual formula based on annual income of how much you should donate to vetted organizations that are the most cost effective to really improving lives. I will say this: if you can finish this book and not donate you must be really hard hearted and selfish.
Profile Image for Becky Caiger.
16 reviews2 followers
July 17, 2021
I am holding out so much faith for Charlie white here because this book became so tedious at time I thought my eyeballs were gonna turn inside out
But it would be stupid to say there isn’t enough philosophy in here because it’s literally full of lots of weird questions about how we behave towards one another, it’s just frustrating how sometimes Peter just doesn’t follow through with much explanation of the philosophical debate but it’s fine I’ll be fine
October 1, 2020
In this illuminating book, moral philosopher Peter Singer examines the responsibility that people living in affluent nations have to act to end the hunger, decease and extreme poverty that still exists in parts of the world today. Rather than presenting us with haunting images of starving children or long descriptions of the evils of poverty, Singer makes use of provocative thought experiments and philosophical reasoning to develop a rational argument that we ought to give more, significantly more, to those in need.

Singer posits that if we were to come upon a drowning child and we had the opportunity to intervene, without significant cost to ourselves, we would have a moral obligation to save that child. Virtually everyone would support this proposition and the reason for this, according to Singer, is that every decent person agrees with the notion that if it’s within our power to save lives without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is in fact wrong not to do so.

But in reality, we are clearly not applying this ethic in our daily lives. In fact, as Singer argues, we are constantly, whether consciously or not, placing a higher value on trivial pleasures and material things than on the value of human beings in need. Whenever we buy the newest phone or an expensive pair of sunglasses, we are effectively saying that those objects are more important to us than the lives which we could have saved or the suffering we could have prevented with that same amount of money by donating to effective charities.

Singer argues that if we are to live a morally consistent life we ought to recognize that this is the kind of moral dilemma with which we are faced every single day and that if we would feel obliged to save the drowning child, for the reasons mentioned earlier, we should apply the exact same reasoning to children dying far away from us.

This is of course a view which has radical implications for our daily lives. Essentially it entails that we ought to keep giving to those in need until we reach a point at which, by giving any further, we could honestly say that we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the life of a child.

To illustrate the counterintuitive implications of this argument, let’s suppose you donated most of the money in your bank account and on top of that worked tirelessly as a volunteer for a charity for a full year. Come the end of the year wouldn’t you be perfectly justified in celebrating your good deed with a glass of champagne? No, says Singer. You would still have to face the choice of whether that bottle of champagne is worth more to you than the good you could do by donating that extra money to charity.

When we fail to apply this ethic in our daily lives, it is, according to Singer, a consequence of a host of cultural, biological, and psychological reasons that make us unable to look at the pain and suffering of ‘unidentifiable victims’ with the same importance as we would look at the pain and suffering of people whom we can see or know. Though understandable, this is, on Singers view, a failure of ethical thinking which is, at bottom, the ability to see things from others perspective and recognise that their experience is just as real as that of yourself or your children.

Singer does recognize the difficulty of operating under a moral standard which makes so large demands of people, which is why he, at the end of the book, suggests a much more moderate standard for giving. But even if the argument put forward by Singer might seem impossible to implement in practice it can still be true in a moral sense and striving for that standard might nevertheless be useful even if the standard can never be fully reached.

On top of this rich philosophical content, Singer discusses the efficacy of various forms of governmental and non- governmental aid, the nature of affluence and poverty and much more.

The Life You Can Save was easily one of the most eye opening and provocative books I have ever read. It is especially refreshing how Singer doesn’t simply talk about the failures of ‘society’, ‘the rich’ or ‘structures’ but instead focuses on the moral obligations of the individual and the impact we can have through our everyday choices. Needless to say this book will give you a lot to think about.
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