Review of Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save

Posted on May 29, 2009 by ELCA World Hunger

singer-book-791556I just finished reading Peter Singer’s new book, The Life You Can Save. The book is engaging and accessible and argues persuasively not only why we should give but also how much is reasonable for us to give.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 4, which explored six psychological factors in giving. The studies he cites there make intuitive sense–one is less likely to give outside of their own group (parochialism), if they are simply given statistics (by the way, have you perused our Good Gifts Catalog lately?), or if the responsibility is diffuse. Our sense of fairness (who is shouldering the aid load) and the fear that our efforts are futile (expressed recently in Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid) can also inhibit giving.
The study I found most fascinating was the effect money has on helping. Quoting Karl Marx, who described money as “the universal agent of separation,” Singer describes a study in which one group of subjects was primed in various ways to think about money (through word puzzles, visual prompts, and so on) then asked to perform various tasks. A second group did not have the money prompts. The “money group” took longer to ask for help, left a greater distance between chairs when asked to discuss things in a small group, and were more likely to choose solitary leisure activities. At the end of the experiment both groups were asked to donate some of the money they had been paid for their participation. The “money group” gave less. I’m not sure what to do with this, but it is intriguing.
I found other parts of the book worthwhile, particularly his discussion on what we are morally obligated to give (the sliding scale idea sounds more or less right to me; see the book’s accompanying website for a calculator: I also enjoyed chapters six and seven on how to evaluate the effectiveness of an aid organization (it’s difficult to do!). I found his argument against folks like William Easterly and the afroementioned Dambisa Moyo to be compelling as well. How can we say that infusion of aid won’t work when we’ve never really tried it?

On to a few of my problems. First, I think that Singer is far too materialistic in his understanding of “saving” a life (which, by the way, is a phrase I find quite problematic). I finished the book with the impression that, for Singer, saving a life only involves providing food and shelter. The emotional and spiritual health of a person is not considered. This was especially clear when Singer held up as models Paul Farmer and Zell Kravinsky who both strive not to love their own children more than any other child. The emotional health and well being of their children is somewhat immaterial–they have food and shelter so they are set. Singer really had no argument against this, other than it is difficult for typical human beings to live this way. I would argue that especially strong care and affection that one has for his or her own children is both natural and necessary.

All in all I enjoyed the book and encourage you to spend some time with it. For those of you in the Chicago area, a group will gather to discuss the book on June 11 at 7:30pm at United Lutheran Church in Oak Park (409 Greenfield Street). I invite you to join us for what promises to be a lively dialogue!

David Creech