This weekend I finished Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. The premise of the book is that many of us in affluent countries can do much more than we do now to alleviate suffering and to save lives. I first encountered Singer’s argument for giving when I taught “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” as a teaching assistant and as a grader at Harvard. Roughly, Singer’s argument in that essay is that we ought to give to prevent suffering (e.g., famine) so long as we do not sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance. Many of us in affluent nations spend money on things that we could easily do without (e.g., a pair of nice shoes or a night out on the town), things that do not have the same moral importance as a human life. Given this state of affairs, many of us should be giving much more than we do now. I was moved by this argument and vowed at the time to give more. But perhaps I was not moved enough. Several years have passed and my giving has not lived up to the ideals I formed when I first read “Famine, Affluence, and Morality."
The Life You Can Save extends the argument of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality," with a special focus on rebutting arguments against giving (e.g., that aid largely breeds dependence on charities or that it only has short-term effects). In addition, Singer reflects on moderate proposals for giving for those who might balk at the stringent standard that “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” defends. Perhaps this tactic is the right one, for having finished The Life You Can Save, I have decided to take the pledge that Singer proposes. The pledge is to donate a certain percentage of one’s income on a sliding scale. Details can be found here. Donating according to their scale would require that I donate $1920 yearly. I’ve pledged to do this.
While some readers of this post might disagree with utilitarianism, which is the ethical theory that inspires Singer’s moral philosophy, arguments for giving can be found on other philosophical grounds and in religious traditions. Other readers might disagree on how much aid is required. For my part, I think that Singer’s moderate proposal is something that I can meet and that would stretch my giving beyond the here-and-there donations I have made in the past. I say this because meeting the pledge would mean sacrificing many of the frivolities that Singer targets (a nice meal out, the new clothing), but nothing of moral significance.
What have I given? This weekend I donated to Earth Justice, a charity that funds legal defense in environmental causes, and today I donated to Village Enterprise, a charity that supports entrepreneurship and development in rural Africa. The meetup for philosophy that I created in the fall did not take off and I have decided to close it. I want to take the time that I would have devoted to it to connect with volunteer organizations here in State College.
I hope that those of you who read this will be moved to have a look at Singer’s argument and to consider pledging time and money to charitable causes if you are in a position to do so.