Monday, March 23, 2009

Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save"

Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than thirty books, including Animal Liberation, widely considered to be the founding statement of the animal rights movement, Practical Ethics, and One World: Ethics and Globalization.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, and reported the following:
The 99th page of The Life You Can Save is almost entirely taken up by a description of the work of Namlo International, a small aid organization founded by Magda King that helps rural villagers in developing countries to build and run schools.

The Life You Can Save presents an ethical argument for the view that we have an obligation to help those living in extreme poverty. I begin by drawing a parallel between our obligation to rescue a child from a shallow pond, at the cost of ruining one’s best shoes, and our obligation to rescue children in other countries who are dying from avoidable, poverty-related causes. I look at how much it really costs to save the life of one of those children, and conclude that it might not be so very different from the cost of a pair of expensive shoes. Yet most of us don’t give nearly that much to organizations seeking to help people out of poverty.

I then consider objections to the claim that we ought to be doing more to help those living in extreme poverty. Some of these objections are ethical, and others factual. One of the factual ones is that aid doesn’t work, and so there is nothing we can do for those living in extreme poverty. Part of my rebuttal of this objection is to describe many aid projects that do work, and this is the point made by my account of the work of Namlo International. It shows what can be achieved by relatively modest contributions to people in developing countries.

Someone applying Ford Madox Ford’s remark about judging a book by its 99th page would therefore get a very misleading impression of what The Life You Can Save is about. The reader who takes page 99 as representative of the book as a whole would expect a book full of descriptions of aid projects and the people who have started them. Neither the theme of the book nor its general mode of discussion is apparent from that single page.
Read an excerpt from The Life You Can Save, and visit The Life You Can Save website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue