Transcript of interview with Peter Singer on ‘The Life You Can Save‘:
I’ve been writing & thinking about the question of global poverty and what affluent people ought to do about it for more than four years now. The first article I published on that ‘Famine Affluence & Morality’ came out in 1972.
But I’d never written a book on that topic until a few years ago when I was encouraged by greater interest in the question of global poverty and greater interest in the question of the obligations of the affluent, and some very positive responses I had to an article that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. So it was then that I decided that it was time for a book on this topic – I wrote “The Life You Can Save” which came out in 2009 – essentially to encourage people to think that – if you really want to think of yourself as ethical – you want to say “I’m an ethical person, I’m living an ethical life” – it’s not enough to say “I don’t kill.. I don’t steal.. I don’t cheat.. I don’t assault people..” and so on and all those sorts of ‘thou shalt not’ kind of commands – but if you are an affluent person, or even just a middle class person in an affluent country (that’s undoubtedly affluent by global standards) then you’re not really living an ethical life unless you’re prepared to share some of the good fortune that you have with people who are less fortunate – and you know, just the fact that you are able to live in an affluent country means that you are fortunate.
One of the points that I try to emphasize is that the differences in the amount of wealth that people who are middle class or above in affluent societies as compared to people in extreme poverty have is so great that things that are really pretty frivolous in our lives (that we spend money on that are not significant) could make a difference in the lives of other people. So, we spend money on all kinds of things from going to a cafe and having coffee or buying a bottle of water when we could drink water out of a tap, to going on vacations, making sure we have the latest iPhones – a whole lot of different things that really are not at all life changing to us. But the amount that we spend on those things could be life changing to people in extreme poverty who are not able to afford minimal health care for themselves or their family, who don’t get enough to eat, to perhaps are not able to send their children to school because they need them to work in the fields – a whole of different things that we can help people with.
I think we ought to be helping – I think to do nothing is wrong. Now, you can then debate “well, how much ought we to be doing?” which is something I do discuss in the book – but I think that it’s clear that we ought to be setting aside some of what we have to donate to organizations that are effective and that have been proven to be effective in helping the global poor.
So that’s really what the book is about – and perhaps the other thing I ought to say is that many people feel that somehow world poverty is like a bottomless pit that we are pouring money down into – but I think that’s a mistake – I think that it’s clear that we are making a difference – that we’ve dramatically reduced the number of people who die from preventable poverty related illnesses. Even just since my book as been published (in the last 5 years for instance) the number people – the number of children who die each year (children under 5) has dropped from nearly 10 million a year to 6.6 million a year – so, you know, that real progress in just 5 years – and we can make progress with poverty if we are careful about the way in which we do it and fund organizations that are open to evidence about what works and what doesn’t.
Peter Singer – The Life You Can Save – Video inteview by Adam Ford
The Life You Can Save
Acting Now to End World Poverty is a 2009 book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. The author argues that citizens of affluent nations are behaving immorally if they do not act to end the poverty they know to exist in developing nations.
The book is focused on giving to charity, and discusses philosophical considerations, describes practical and psychological obstacles to giving, and lists available resources for prospective donors (e.g. charity evaluators). Singer concludes the book by proposing a minimum ethical standard of giving.
Christian Barry and Gerhard Overland (both from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics) described the widespread acceptance for the notion that “the lives of all people everywhere are of equal fundamental worth when viewed impartially”. They then wonder, during the book review in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, why “the affluent do so little, and demand so little of their governments, while remaining confident that they are morally decent people who generally fulfil their duties to others?” The reviewers agree with Singer, and say they see a conflict between the behaviours of the affluent and the claims of the affluent to being morally decent people. The reviewers also discuss other practical ways to fight poverty.
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