Elevate Difference

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty

For his writings against speciesism, most notably Animal Liberation, some people think of Peter Singer as the father of the animal rights movement. Singer is also an accomplished philosopher, ethicist, writer, and bioethics professor. But with academic notoriety comes controversy; Singer has long balanced criticism for his utilitarian ethics perspectives while acting as an advocate for the rights of animals and poverty-stricken people. In his new book, Singer expands his ethical arguments in favor of eradicating poverty and lays a theoretical foundation for ending extreme poverty and the powerlessness that it both causes and reinforces.

Drawing on the general facts relating to poverty, Singer breaks down ethical arguments about how to give and why. Every chapter begins with an exercise in "practical ethics." The reader is forced to examine contradictions in generosity and weigh the moral imperatives of saving a single life versus many lives. Singer offers a variety of tips for creating a culture of giving; for example, joining forces with like-minded philanthropists to rally enthusiasm, or doing away with anonymous donations to encourage more conversation about giving money away. Repeatedly, Singer asserts that as privileged people in the developed world who are universally better off than those battling poverty in the developing world, it is our moral obligation to equalize the masses.

The problem with The Life You Can Save is that poverty is not a one-dimensional issue that can be addressed with only large-scale measures. Singer writes about poverty in broad, sometimes offensively simplistic terms, relegating the cultural, socioeconomic, and regional specifics of poverty and its causes to appendix notes. While explaining what poverty is, Singer seems to forget the root causes and how so many of the supposed solutions of today (such as creating assets through investing and relying on large organizations) are built on models that brought us to our current global dilemmas (capitalism and corrupt governments). It is clear that Singer hopes to galvanize people to believe they can be part of the big-picture solution, but there is also something to be said for small scale alternatives that address the unique needs of specific continents, countries, cities, cultures, and people. To criticize residents of developed countries instead of oppressive oligarchies seems humorously shortsighted.

Singer does the predictable chastising of the spectrum; from "Don’t Be Evil" Google co-founders who use private planes to everyday people who needlessly buy overpriced bottled water and name brand coffee, Singer finds fault with every measure of wasteful spending. At the same time, he uncritically celebrates investment capital and the philanthropy of upper class white Americans like Bill and Melinda Gates and minister Rick Warren. Should a technology monopoly and homophobia at home be ignored when guilt-ridden white people send loads of money, vaccines, and church folk to Africa? Why are the majority of Singer’s examples white American men? Forgive me if I’m unconvinced and uncomfortable with the idea that one homogeneous group of leaders has all the answers.

In line with modern publicity, you can visit The Life You Can Save website to find the book in many languages and to learn about anti-poverty organizations that you can donate to. Then again, if you’re savvier than Singer assumes, you can also use the power of the Internet to find other ways to redirect your cash to the people in need.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, April 6th 2009