Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Life You Can Save

I was at my local library a few weeks ago when a title in the “New Releases” section caught my eye. The book was entitled The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, by Peter Singer. I was intrigued, so I brought it home, and devoured it over the course of just a couple of evenings.

The book is…troublesome. Especially from the viewpoint of having just recently finished reading Atlas Shrugged, which was the definitive free-market, virtue of self-interest tale of the 20th century, I did find this book over the top, and outright insulting in a lot of ways. It devotes quite a few chapters to ragging on our extravagant lifestyle, right down to the little things like bottled water. The author makes extended metaphors and philosophical slippery slope arguments which allow him to all but outright accuse the average person of mass murder for not giving more.

More interesting as the book moves on, the author explores the psychology of giving, studies on human behavior, what tugs our heartstrings and what does not. Moreover, he spends considerable time examining the charitable opportunities out there (unsurprisingly, most of them in Africa), which I had never heard of but were absolutely fascinating, such as Population Services International and the Campaign to End Fistula. The book also talks about microloans, which have interested me for some time, and I have renewed my determination to participate in this.

Toward the end of the book, the author lays out his plan for ending poverty, complete with a general guideline of what percentage of their income the more fortunate should be willing to give. This does seem to be targeted toward the more affluent readers, beginning with those who are significantly rich, and using a tiered guideline down to those who make $100,000 per year or more. No specific parameters are outlined for those earning less than that (though it is interesting to note that, according to the author’s statistics, it is the poorest among us who currently give the largest percentage of their income to charity.)

As I said, it’s a tough read. It is particularly difficult to get through the early chapters of the book without feeling personally attacked and defensive. Make of it what you will, but I would still recommend it. Whether it changes your life, in a big way or a small way, or whether you disagree with his philosophy…it did make me step back and examine my life, and as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


  1. It was David Hume that said "Giving alms to a beggar is naturally praised because it seems to carry relief to the distressed and indigent: But when we observe the encouragement thence arising to idleness and debauchery, we regard this species of charity rather as a weakness than a virtue." In quoting Hume, here, I don't advocate abandoning those in poverty, but rather to help them through education, training and financial (and motivational) aid in helping them to find employment or to start their own farms or businesses. In this way they leave poverty forever, rather than depending upon the kindness of others. Or as the ancient Chinese Philosopher Lau Tzu (the founder of Taoism)said "Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime."

  2. True enough, John Galt. (Who IS John Galt?) :D

    Interestingly, Population Services International's focus is on the simple things that are direly needed in third-world countries: condoms, mosquito nettings, water purifying kits, oral rehydration and anti-diarrheal products...and what caught my eye in the book was that PSI sells these products (albeit at often lower prices than the cost of manufacture) rather than giving them out, in part because people were more likely to use these things properly when they'd paid for them.

    Person-to-person microloan organizations such as Kiva (and I have, since my original posting, begun participating in this), report a 98-99% repayment rate, despite being unsecured loans to the very poor. Folks don't always want a handout...but without collateral or the credit history necessary to get a loan from a standard banking institution, even amounts of a few hundred dollars that could expand their business and help them out of poverty remain out of their reach.

    Fair trade, also, is a favorite cause of mine - after attending a free showing of Black Gold, I started giving a couple hours of my time each week to my local free trade store, and I try to buy free trade when I can.

    Not to say I haven't been known to drop a few dollars in the Salvation Army bucket, donate my old goods to the local Free Store, or contribute to a canned food drive now and again. Sometimes people really do benefit from short-term charity to get over a rough patch, though there are always those who abuse the system. But I agree wholeheartedly, I have a special place in my heart for those giving opportunities that offer more than just the next day's piece of fish. That 'handup, not a handout', as we often say.

  3. Whups, fair trade store, not free trade - that's a whole 'nuther ball of wax! Methinks my proofing skills would benefit from another cup of coffee... :)

  4. I see you think globally and act globally. Whereas many of us think globally and act locally. I noted in your original post that you have just read "Atlas Shrugged". I see an interesting analogy in this. As a philosopher, Rand supported what she called the "virtue of selfishness." This doesn't mean we can do whatever we want, but that the goal of human life is to attain happiness. To attain true happiness for the individual (the highest good for Rand), one must exercise Reason. We gain self-esteem from acting in accordance with our Reason for the purpose of ataining happiness. Following your Socratic advice to "examine one's life", I find that, for me, my actions are in keeping with Rand's philosophy. I find that my charitable works are selfishly done to attain happiness for me. When I support the local kitchen that feeds the homeless, take blankets to the shelter at the beginning of winter, or buy toys for the seasonal toy drives, I do so not out of a Christian guilt, or from a purely altruistic desire to do good. I actually do these things because it pleases me to help others. So I am practicing Rand's "virtue of selfishness."

  5. Definitely something I've thought about myself. I've never felt, and never will, that charity should be compulsory. I do the things I do because it's who I am, and it feels good. I know your feeling of wanting to do it for yourself (though I'm sure those folks you've helped appreciate it pretty darned much too!)

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I'm not a 100% fan of Atlas Shrugged. Rand's view of her characters and the world they inhabit is starkly black and white. She wields her message like a sledgehammer, and tells in roughly 1100 pages a story she could have told in half that, in a book that one can, in a pinch, use as a doorstop or for hand-to-hand combat. Dagny is a pretty thinly veiled Mary Sue, and frankly I started skimming a little when Galt gave a three-hundred page filibuster near the climax of the book. Hoo boy.

    But such is life. I'm no Objectivist, though I'm certainly far closer to Rand than Marx. Despite its flaws I was absolutely hooked to the very end, and the chapter telling the fate of the Twentieth Century Motor Company was, by itself, a great cautionary tale.

    Also - poor Eddie got a raw deal, it broke my heart. They should totally have let him into Galt's Super Secret Club for Cool Kids. ;)