Reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save in the year of the plague
December 11, 2020
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In 2009, the philosopher Peter Singer published a book called The Life You Can Save, which contained a restatement of one of his most famous arguments: that you should help people, if it’s not exceptionally costly to you.

His original argument, which he introduced in a paper published in 1972, goes like this: Imagine you’re on your way to an important meeting, when suddenly you see a child drowning in a pond you’re walking by. You could save them, but doing so would ruin your suit. Ought you, morally, to save the child?

Almost everyone says yes. But Singer contends that our world already presents opportunities to save lives that are about as straightforward and low cost as his hypothetical. They aren’t right in front of us; the children who die if we ignore them are mostly far away, born to families we might never meet. But if you don’t think that matters (and Singer doesn’t), then shouldn’t we be, well, saving them?

It’s a compelling argument, precisely because it’s not all that complicated. Singer is a utilitarian — a school of philosophy that holds that actions should be evaluated based on their consequences, and that you ought to do whatever maximizes overall utility or well-being — but he doesn’t expect his readers to share that worldview. Instead, he argues, they just need to be people who would rather save a life than not.

Singer’s thought experiment has been provoking people for decades, but The Life You Can Save was more than thought-provoking: it got people to act. The book played a powerful role in birthing the effective altruist movement, built around the principle that charities should take a rigorous approach to doing as much good as possible. It inspired major donors to give more effectively. And it inspired thousands of people to take the Life You Can Save pledge, to give what they can afford to save lives elsewhere.

This year, Singer and his publisher released The Life You Can Save for free as both an ebook and an audiobook. Its rerelease in these formats (following an update in 2019) seems like a good occasion to reflect on the book’s far-reaching influence. Very few authors can claim to have seeded actual movements. Singer, who is also the author of the seminal 1975 book Animal Liberation that helped launch the animal rights movement, can now say it twice.

Revisiting The Life You Can Save offered more than just a refresher course on Singer’s argument — it felt like rediscovering first principles. Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place and one of the book’s major fans, writes in the preface to the 2019 edition, “At its core, Singer’s book asks us to consider a very simple truth: a life is a life, no matter where that life lives. A human being over there is no less valuable than a human being over here.”

It can be intimidating and demoralizing, Schur admits, to read an argument that we should do much more than we’re doing for other people. But he says there’s another way to look at it: Read the book and “you will have, bouncing around in your head, the thought that there may be something simple you can do to help.”

The Life You Can Save, summarized

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, and one of the major public intellectuals of our time. Over the years, he has pushed for animal rights, made the case for utilitarianism, and advocated for more — and more effective — giving. He has also been at times a controversial figure in modern ethics, alienating many in the disability community with what they’ve called his simplistic and horrifying takes on intellectual disabilities.

Since the early 1970s, one of his primary fixations has been getting the population of rich countries to think about the global poor. He did that first in a 1972 essay inspired by the plight of Bengali war refugees, where he laid out the drowning child argument for the first time.

Though that essay introduced Singer’s core idea, The Life You Can Save gave it its fullest expression. I first read the book in 2011, when I was 17, and found it bracingly straightforward: People are dying, we know how to fix that, we just have to donate money and tell everyone else to do so as well. And while as an adult it’s obvious that many of the details of how to fix the world are more complicated than that, the simple core remains, and speaks loudly and clearly to the sort of people who become effective altruists: The world could be better, and you can make it that way.

The Life You Can Save starts almost identically to that 1972 essay. After presenting the opening hypothetical, Singer then presents some non-hypotheticals: the story of the death of a girl in China who was hit by a car, of a boy in Ghana who died of measles. “If you’re like most people, you are probably saying to yourself right now: ‘I wouldn’t have walked past that child. I would have stopped to help.’ Perhaps you would have; but remember that, as we have already seen, 5.4 million children under 5 years old died in 2017, with a majority of those deaths being from preventable or treatable causes.” (This snippet is from the 2019 edition.)

The basic challenge has hardly changed since 1972. What has changed — dramatically — is how much we know about what can be done for the global poor. There are now more global health charities that do extensive tracking of their work, making it more straightforward than ever to know exactly how far your dollar goes. There’s the effective altruism movement — tens of thousands of people worldwide who’ve pledged money or committed their efforts to doing good in the world as effectively as possible.

That means that the book — especially the 2019 edition, updated with new statistics on charitable effectiveness that make its message even more convincing — at last has a strong answer to some of the major objections to charity, namely that it doesn’t actually work. A lot of people certainly agree that if they could significantly improve or save a life for a few thousand dollars, they should do that, but they have a sense that international charity is flawed, corrupt, imperialist, or ultimately counterproductive. And certainly some of it is — but “charity” is not a monolith but a number of specific interventions, many of them known to work well.

At the risk of oversimplifying — and The Life You Can Save is perpetually courting the risk of oversimplifying, because the core argument that we shouldn’t let people die if we can save them is in fact simple, and Singer prefers to present it that way — malaria prevention saves lives. Giving people money means they don’t go hungry. Sure, there are bad charities, but there are plenty of good ones, and we know more than ever which ones those are.

What stood out in my rereading of The Life You Can Save is its stubbornness. Singer has over the decades seen dozens of counterarguments: The version in the book today, he writes, “distills everything I’ve learned over the years about why we give, or don’t give, and what we should do about it.” Whole sections are devoted to presenting objections you might have, from “this is too demanding” to “I quite reasonably care more about people close to home than people far away” to “wouldn’t it destroy the global economy if everyone took you seriously” — and finds that the book’s core logic holds anyway.

If it is too demanding to give away a lot of your money, Singer argues, then give away some of your money. Surely it is not too demanding to give away any of your money, privileged as we are by living in the richest society in human history. If everyone cared about ending global poverty, we could do it comfortably with lots of money left over, so doing that would not destroy the global economy. And while people do care about those close to them, it seems importantly unprincipled to let a child die in pain, far away, when you agree that you would have saved them had they been dying in pain nearer by.

At times, this relentlessness can make The Life You Can Save irritating. But it ultimately renders the book refreshing. Singer trusts that if his audience really thinks about it, they’ll do something. I end up walking away from the book hoping I don’t disappoint him.

A decade-later retrospective

Over just the 10 years between the first edition of the book in 2009 and the 2019 anniversary edition, a great deal changed.

In 2009, the book told readers that, in the most recent year for which data was available, 9.7 million children died preventably before they reached their fifth birthday.

In 2019, 5.4 million children died preventably. That’s considerable progress. Since the 1970s, extreme poverty has more than halved, and while the exact scope of the gains depends on how we measure them, there’s no disputing that people are living longer, healthier, safer lives than ever before.

At the same time — and not unrelatedly — we know more about how to help them. The biggest change between the first edition and the second, Singer told me, was that “we’ve learned more about fighting global poverty.”

In 2009, Singer was left mostly speculating about which among the popular aid interventions of the time was most promising. The movement to rigorously test the answer to that question was just getting off the ground. We should probably not give money directly to the global poor, Singer argued in the first edition of the book, instead urging that we donate to health and education programs to help them more effectively. Since then, data has come in that has changed his mind on direct cash transfers. “GiveDirectly has changed my attitude to giving money to the poor. It clearly does have positive effects,” he told DevEx.

Singer’s book inspired real changes in the charity sector, too — many of them reflected in the second edition. Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, were reportedly influenced by the books, and have since committed billions of dollars to effective charity, through GiveWell (featured in the first edition of the book), its sister organization the Open Philanthropy Project, the effective-charity incubator Evidence Action, and others. (In past years, I have donated money to GiveWell and Evidence Action.)

In many ways, The Life You Can Save is a straightforward success story. Singer made his case for helping people, and thousands of people listened, changing the global development world and promoting the growth of new charities that are even better at helping people.

But in 2020, that success story should be — at least slightly — qualified. The year-over-year decline in global poverty will reverse this year because the coronavirus has caused economic disruptions worldwide.

Compounding that is the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that many of us feel after such a trying period. We’ve all made very real sacrifices this year for our own safety, the safety of our families, and the safety of others. It feels almost unfair to ask for anything more. Beyond that, there may be the matter of morale. For those who have been giving regularly, it was encouraging to participate in a movement to drive down global poverty and needless death year after year after year. 2020 has been the opposite of encouraging. Instead of getting better, many things got worse.

But the core message of The Life You Can Save actually matches some of the lessons of 2020. When you can save someone’s life with steps that might not be easy but are not overly burdensome, you should do so. The challenges we face might feel overwhelming, but the steps we can take are quite concrete and simple. If wearing a mask saves lives, you should wear a mask. If donating $50 or $100 or $500 or 10 percent of your income — whatever you can reasonably give — to the poorest people in the world saves lives, you should do that if you can afford it. You don’t need a grand theory of how you’ll solve the whole problem to save a life. You can do it when the whole world is on your side, and when the whole world is ignorant and ignoring you.

Here’s where the stubbornness of The Life You Can Save ceases to feel like a shortcoming of the book, and starts to feel like its greatest virtue. In many ways, the worst thing about 2020 has been the helplessness. And The Life You Can Save is a book that persistently, repeatedly, point by point refutes all our justifications for helplessness. There are problems that seem so vast and confusing that we may want to believe they couldn’t possibly be our problems. But the challenges that the world’s poorest face — infectious disease, malnutrition, extreme poverty — are easy to beat if the organizations fighting them have the resources they need. And we have the power to help in that fight.

The Life You Can Save is intimidating because it argues you should help people. But it is empowering because it argues that you can help people. At the end of a year shaped by forces beyond our control, that epiphany is a gift.

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