The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

11 minutes read

Recently, I have become increasingly interested in the Effective Altruism movement, and how it is advocating for a reboot in how we perceive our lives, careers, and general existence with regards to certain frameworks and “goals” that are etched deep in our society. The Effective Altruism (EA) movement advocates for living life in a much more “grounded” manner, while ensuring that we donate and contribute towards helping others out as much as possible. It is an interesting philosophical movement, and although at times the general discussions that are taking place in the community can often feel too Western focused, there are a number of very interesting viewpoints that have been discussed in the community.

I first read about Peter Singer’s seminal book the Expanding Circle, and about how it proposed the radical idea that over the course of history, our “empathy lens” has gradually expanded, first including people and groups who were previously considered to be part of “the others”, and then slowly shifting to a more humane outlook on all sentient beings. I can’t clearly recall in which book I first read about the Expanding Circle. Nevertheless, the idea got me hooked,and I have been meaning to read one of his works for quite a while now.

For those unaware about Singer, he is a famous philosopher who approaches long standing and at-times controversial moral arguments and debates them from a utilitarian perspective. By not grounding his ideas from any cultural, spiritual or religious bearing, but rather arguing about what’s “moral” and “ethical” from a purely logical point of view, Singer is able to render an interesting lens to his ideas, which also forces the readers to challenge some of their own ingrained biases related to morality and ethics. The Life You Can Save is engrained into the basic arguments of the EA community, and is a rallying cry from Singer for us to radically shift how we consider our roles in saving lives of other people across the world.

Singer starts off by describing the main arguments for why we should be concerned about saving other people’s lives and improving their living conditions, and why it is a morally and ethically indefensible position to adopt a “to each his own” opinion of not being responsible for saving lives. The crux of Singer’s argument is as follows:

You should try and save other people’s lives up to the point where it requires you to sacrifice something as important and critical as another human being’s life.

This position might sound a bit too extreme and suffocating in its “moral outreach”, but Singer uses a clever thought experiment to support it. Suppose that you have just bought an expensive suit and shoes for work, after painstakingly saving money from your salary for the past several months. On the day when you wear this suit for the first time, you are unfortunately running late for work ( interesting how all these thought experiments usually put a person in the least desirable situations). On your way to work, you spot a little kid wading in a small pond, except that kid is not really wading, and you sense something wrong; the kid is barely keeping afloat, and is about to drown. In this situation, with you wearing your expensive suit for the first time and already running for late, would you potentially ruin your suit for good and save the kid’s life, or is it really not your concern? Let’s add a small twist to this experiment. Now, you are not alone seeing the kid drowning, and there are other passerbys around you too. This time, can you safely ignore the kid and run for work, leaving the responsibility of saving the kid to the other people who have also witnessed the kid’s plight?

It sure sounds like an interesting thought experiment, except the fact that a very similar incident actually occured in England. A young kid drowned while trying to save his sister, and two onlooking policemen failed to jump into the pond to save him. The reason given by the policemen? They weren’t “trained” for such a scenario occurring in their job. Try and keep your moral outrage at this incident under check, while you honestly reflect and try to gauge what your own response to the situation would have been.

After setting the base argument that one should try to save as many lives as long as the sacrifice required for it is less than the importance of another human’s life, Singer goes into an explanation on why the world is lagging far behind in a collective effort of saving as many lives as possible. He identifies six main reasons as the cause of this moral indifference towards the sufferings of billions of people across the world.

  1. The Identifiable Victim

    Ever wondered why almost all appeals for donations are accompanied by a tearjerker story of some helpless individual and how his situation would be improved by a single donation? After all, shouldn’t the bare facts related to the abject state of living of millions of people around the world be a solid reason to convince us to donate to charity? Apparently not. A number of seminal studies in behavioral psychology have concluded that we are more responsive to stories that tug our emotions rather than processing equally, if not more depressing facts about the general inequality that exists in the world. This perhaps explains why we can conveniently tune out to the morally outrageous fact of more than 2 billion people living on less than $1.5 dollars a day. It also explains why we can more easily picture the difference between 10 hungry people and a hundred 100 people, but our brain cannot render an accurate scale of differentiating between a 1000 hungry people and a 1000000(that was a million, in case you are trying to count the number of zeros here,which proves my point about the limitations of our brain in quickly grasping large quantities). It therefore should not surprise us that while millions go to bed hungry every night, we are unable to fathom their combined misery.

  2. Parochialism

    A lot of people are against the idea of donating to people living in far flung areas, instead believing that it is our foremost duty to help the downtrodden in our own immediate communities. While it is true that the needs of our immediate relatives and neighbours should be addressed first, it leads to another morally shaky argument about valuing some lives more than the others, which is made even more uncomfortable by the fact that for the vast majority of us, our donations do not come from a fixed pie ( contrary to how we would like to think about it). Due to the exchange rate difference and the low cost of living in some of the poorest countries in the world, it is quite possible for most of us to also contribute regularly to helping out the most marginalised communities in the world, while at the same time also taking care of people in our families and neighbourhoods who need assistance. What it would require from us, however, would be to alter some of our spendings. Fancy those $150 shoes at Amazon? How about donating that amount to ensure that kids in a school in Sub Saharan Africa are treated of intestinal worms, which contribute adversely to their health and mental capabilities? Singer argues that there is a reason based in evolution on why we give more preference to people from our own immediate “tribe”, which is simply that from an evolutionary perspective, it made sense for species to care for their own members first to ensure their survival. However, as Singer repeatedly claims, evolution often provides reasons for different scenarios, but it does not necessarily guarantee that those reasons are morally defensible.

  3. Futility Thinking

    It is quite easy to feel helpless and depressed at the sheer scale of the sufferings of billions of people across the globe. While it is also true that even if we work towards eradicating poverty all our lives, there will be a very negligible dent made in the problem (if any dent is to be made at all), using this line of argument to not work towards poverty eradication at all does not make sense. Our combined donations might be nothing more than a mere drops in the ocean, but those drops still represent real people. Improving even a handful of those lives does not reduce the size of the core problem, but in itself, it is not a strong reason to halt our efforts and not improve the lives of the few people who would benefit.

  4. The Bystander Effect

    Ever heard about that famous incident in the USA when a woman was being beaten to death in broad daylight, and a number of bystanders did not intervene to save her? Although subsequent researches hinted that the number of alleged witnesses reported in this case was exaggerated by the media, the “bystander effect” has been proven by a number of psychological experiments. In short, our behaviour is altered in the presence of other people, when we expect someone else to “take responsibility” for a specific action. By repeating passing the onus to the next person, everyone absolves themselves of the responsibility of doing what’s required.

  5. A Sense of Fairness

    Humans tend to behave in irrational ways when they perceive that they aren’t being treated “fairly”, or when others are not fulfilling their due share of reponsibility. An interesting study was conducted in which people they were divided into teams of two. One person could decide on how to divide a sum of money with another person, while the other person could either accept or reject the proposed offer. The catch was that the participants did not know each other’s identities, and in case the offer was rejected, they would not get any money. What the researchers observed was that people were more likely to accept offers in which the money was equally divided between the participants, and were more likely to “punish” the other person and reject offers in which they were offered a smaller sum of money. The “rational” approach would have been for a person to accept all offers, since a little money > no money (at least rationally). This helps to explain why a lot of people are not keen on altering their lifestyles dramatically in order to donate greater amounts of money, since they see it as unfair that a lot of people still indulge in wasteful habits and tastes.

  6. The Effects of Money

    Here’s a thought that the opponents of capitalism ( some Bernie bros maybe?) might agree with: money tends to cloud and affect our judgement in more subtle ways than we can fathom. In fact, Karl Marx, perhaps the biggest critic of capitalism ever, describes money as “the universal agent of separation” , because it transforms human nature and characteristics, and alienates us from our true selves.In fact, a study publised in the journal Science lays credence to this idea. In the study, a group was subconsciously “primed” with money and with images of money. The responses of the group were then recorded for different tasks that involved helping others. Compared to the control group, the “primed” group was less helpful to other people. Perhaps in today’s culture, in which immense value is placed on material goals and on a person’s monetary achievements, people are slowly becoming more self-centred and are not as sensitive to other people’s plights than they should be?

Singer argues that we need to work on changing our culture from one that focuses on individual progress and achievements to one in which donating is highly encouraged. Rather than deriding the ultra rich for being hypocrites whenever they declare their latest charity donations under immense media fanfare ( the Bonos, Bill Gates and Angelina Jolies of the world), Singer argues that even if they have their own self serving interests driving their philanthrophic ventures, as long as the money is being put to good use, it should be encouraged. By publicising philapthropic actions, the notion of donating more than we currently are, which would also translate into changing a number of our wasteful consumerism habits, would get traction with the majority.

Singer also believes that companies and organisations can play a major role in pushing the default behaviour towards more donations. Similar to the default organ donation opt-in options that are the reason for the high rate of organ donation in European countries like Austria, even a simple measure as a default donation of 1% from the salary of all employees can go a long way in fostering a culture of donating.

The Life You Can Save is an interesting read, and one that definitely makes the reader pause and take stock on how wasteful some of our spending habits are. While it is difficult to argue against the moral arguments for saving lives that the book raises, they often do come across as a tad bit biased towards people from the developed countries. For a lot of people from developing countries who are pushing themselves towards the global middle class, donating a substantial portion of our income to charity is easier said than done, simply because of the reason that a lot more people are financially dependent on us, either directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, this criticism notwithstanding, incorporating a much more concerned outlook towards the global poor is something that all of us should strive for. In today’s increasingly polarized world where different groups are holding up their own ideologies as the flagbearers of progress, it is a source of collective shame on all of us that a huge portion of the world’s population is still living in deplorable conditions. Rather than fighting for which Holy Book or nation-state ideology is the correct one, we should be vehemently fighting over whose efforts to help the poor are bearing more fruit,and what action should be taken to drag out close to a billion people from the horrors of abject poverty.


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