The Life You Can Save
Random House, New York 2009
You are walking past a shallow pond and
you see a small child has fallen in. No-one else is around. The child
is in obvious distress and will drown without your immediate help.
You are however, wearing a gorgeous set of clothes you have lusted
over for months and have just managed to purchase. You are also
running late for work. Do you wade in to help the child – ruining
your clothes and being late for work, or do you walk on by?
This is the thought-experiment with
which Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, opens his
discussion on the ethics of charity. Given this story, the vast
majority of people will of course say that they would save the child
and would consider it reprehensible to do otherwise or to consider
their clothes or lateness for work as serious objections. The
underlying premise being that if we can lessen the suffering of an
innocent other at minimal cost to ourselves, it is wrong not to do
so. The situation can also be thought of in terms of the golden rule
– stated in various forms by all the major world religions.
Singer states a simple argument :
First premise : Suffering and death
from lack of basic necessities such as food, shelter and medical
treatment are bad things.
Second : If you can prevent something
bad without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not
to do so.
Third : By donating to aid agencies you
can prevent some bad things.
Conclusion : Not donating to aid
agencies is wrong.
If we accept this argument, we are led
to some radical conclusions. It is morally wrong to spend money on
anything unless it is to prevent something bad happening – or for
something nearly as important. From this argument, Singer goes on,
buying a bottle of mineral water or a can of soda, when one can get
perfectly potable water from a tap is morally unjustifiable as the
outcome is not nearly as important as saving a child's life.
Several objections to this line of
argument are discussed. Some brief highlights:
Objection : There is no binding
universal moral code. People have a right to their own beliefs and
Response : Agreed. But as a society we
try to stop rape and murder and would not accept that someone has
the right to torture animals or children because they believe it is
fun. This suggests we are not complete moral relativists.
Objection : People work hard and have
the right to decide what they spend their money on.
Reponse : Agreed. This is simply one
argument for what people should do with their money. People have the
right to do whatever they wish with it, but if they chose to flush
it down the toilet or bury it rather than to save human lives, we
would likely consider it wrong.
Objection : If we did not cause the
suffering of others, we have no general moral obligation to
Response : There are many ways in
which we can indirectly contribute to the suffering of others, for
example in our pollution of the atmosphere, commercial fishing which
devastates local communities, or our extraction of oil and minerals
from countries whose people do not benefit from them. Nonetheless,
even in cases where we have demonstrably done nothing wrong, our
moral obligation is not lessened. Thinking back to the child drowning
in the pond, the fact that we did not push them in does not lessen
our feeling of obligation to help them.
Objection : Philanthropy breeds
dependency, undermines real economic and political change and
sustains the immoral status-quo.
Response : There are situations such
as disaster-relief in which immediate donations are required to save
lives. In the longer term, we must be extremely careful in how we
give charity. Many charitable organisations these days do not simply
give hand-outs but aim to engineer sustainable change in
communities. Revolutionary change in global socio-economic and
political structures may be desirable, and if one believes that, it
would be right to devote serious resources of time, money and energy
towards achieving it. Our concerns are practical and pressing. We
know that doing nothing will not help. In the absence of
revolutionary change, or while such change is being brought about -
if we can do something to help, we should.
Objection : It is natural and
ingrained by evolution to treat yourself
and those close to you, as more important than people very far away,
with whom we have no ties.
Response : Agreed. But it does not
necessarily follow that it is right to spend extravagantly to
purchase luxuries for ourselves, our friends and our families when
the money could help relieve serious suffering.
The book goes on to discuss some of the
economics of charity in more detail, particularly in terms of
governmental donation and ways to measure the efficacy of aid. The
organisation GiveWell is plugged as an independent monitor of aid
organisations' bang for buck. Of Singer's several striking examples
of charitable work, one is the Fred Hollows foundation which provides
sight-restoring cataract operations in the third world. Between 1993
and 2003, the foundation restored sight to a million people, at a
cost of around $50 a pop.
Another example is the Worldwide
Fistula Fund. Childbirth without adequate medical attention
(particularly in young or malnourished women who have small pelvises)
can be very prolonged. This can cause tears called fistulae between
the vagina and the rectum or bladder. Women suffering from such
fistulae have a continuous flow of urine or faeces through the vagina
and are outcast from their families and communities. The Worldwide
Fistula fund provides fistula repair operations for these women and
girls. Speaking of Lewis Wall, president of the fund, Singer tells
us: « In Liberia the previous summer, he had operated on a
sixty-seven year old who had developed a fistula when she was
thirty-two and had been living soaked in urine for thirty-five years.
It tooks twenty minutes to repair it in surgery. » Ongoing
long-term approaches focus on education and prevention, particularly to reduce pregnancy
in young girls but in the interim, asks Dr. Wall « What is it
worth to give a fourteen-year-old girl back her future and her
life ? » Although we cannot answer the question of what it
is worth, we can answer the question of how much it costs : about
The last section of the book discusses
the bottom line: how much are we willing to give? What is our fair share? A variant of
the drowning-child story illustrates the problems with the fair-share
question. Imagine that you come across a shallow pond with ten
drowning children in it. There are nine other adults around. You leap
in and pull out a child, expecting the other adults to do the same.
But looking around you see that the other nine have ignored the
children and walked on. Having done your fair share, do you now leave
– or do you try to save another child?
applied, Singer's moral argument would make it impossible for us to
spend our money on anything that is not of equal value (or nearly) to
saving a child's life. Excepting a few saintly ascetics, this is
clearly untenable for the most of us. Fortunately, Singer also
recognises it as such. After (qualified) praise of the Bill Gates
foundation and scathing denunciation of the uncharitable super-rich –
the Larry Ellisons and Paul Allens of the world with their $200m
super-yachts, he turns to the likes of me and you. After all, as we
have seen, the can of soda and the Patek Philippe watch sit morally
in the same super-yacht.
Singer's solution is a scale of regular
charitable donation starting at 1% of personal income below
US$100,000 per year, 5% between $100-150k and increasing thereafter
to a maximum of 33% of income over ~$10m per year. A little
arithmetic shows that even a fairly limited subscription to this
modest standard would meet the funding requirements of the UN
Millennium Development Goals several times over.
Personally, I think the scale is too
modest but as a point of departure it seems reasonable. Though
perenially a private person, I have been swayed by Singer's arguments and unashamed
exhortation to unashamedly exhort and discuss things openly. I therefore (ashamedly) confess to
you, that upto now, my charitable donations have consisted of a
couple of very modest monthly payments and sporadic lump sums
donated in response to specific appeals. I have signed Singer's
online pledge to abide by his minimum standard and will aim for at
least one bracket above his suggestion. The tap-water around here doesn't taste so bad.