Book-Blogging: The Life You Can Save

Recently, I read, and responded to, Dylan Matthews’s great article on Millennials “earning to give” – taking high-paying jobs at Google and hedge funds in order to maximize the amount of money given to worthy causes. Part of their rationale to do so seemed to come from Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save, which I hadn’t read.

200px-TheLifeYouCanSaveSo I picked it up on my Kindle for a long, jostling ride through west Uganda’s dirt roads and impenetrable forests. It’s a quick read that will stick with you; I highly recommend reading it, especially to folks our age who are (hopefully) beginning to make a non-zero amount of money.

It’s a book that asks an uncomfortable question: why don’t you give more to those mired in extreme poverty?

The answer is tied up in human evolution and behavioral economics. Anyone who has taken an entry-level philosophy course is no doubt familiar with the example Singer poses to start the book: how many would jump in a pond to save a child who will otherwise drown? Most of us would, it turns out; we’re heavily inclined to help the “identifiable victim,” and “we will spend far more to rescue an identifiable victim than we will to save a “statistical life.”

This shows up in experiments that looked at giving patterns of participants confronted with either emotional, individual stories (that of Rokia, a desperately poor Malawian girl), or statistics about poverty in Malawi. Participants gave more than twice as much when confronted with Rokia’s story than when confronted with faceless statistics; emotions, and individuals, matter[1].

Knowing why people choose not to give, Singer argues that the morally appropriate response is to donate – a lot:

“So you must keep cutting back on unnecessary spending, and donating what you save, until you have reduced yourself to the point where if you give any more, you will be sacrificing something nearly as important as a child’s life—like giving so much that you can no longer afford to give your children an adequate education.” (emphasis mine)

Give to the point where the marginal utility of that dollar is the same for you and Rokia. Anything less is immoral[2].

He recognizes that the likelihood of this happening approaches zero, so advocates a more tenable position: an implicit, voluntary “donation tax” on the wealthiest Americans of at least 5%. He convincingly argues that someone making $100,000 per year should be able to part with $5,000 without any damage to their finances or standard of living.

It’s a fascinating book that’s worth reading, no matter your preconceptions of donating, aid, and worldwide poverty. If you are already inclined to support his view, you’ll have more ammunition for friendly debates with others; if you disagree with him at the outset, it’ll at least make you think.

The one quibble I had with the book is Singer’s clumsy use of data to support his assertion that aid is effective at reducing extreme poverty. He cites a 2009 UNICEF report that documents the fall in extreme poverty over the last 50 years: from 20 million people in 1950, to 10 million in 2007, to 8.8 million in 2009. Given that the world population has nearly tripled in the same time period, it’s a remarkable reduction.

But Singer, perhaps being driven by confirmation bias, attributes this significant drop to aid:

“The lack of attention given to the UNICEF data makes it difficult to inform the public that we are making progress and that aid, especially aid directed to improving the health of children, is a big part of that progress…In the last two years, we have saved a million children. In the coming years, if we all give substantially more, we can save the entire 8.8 million.”

I think it’s highly probable that a portion of this reduction is directly caused by aid focused on health, sanitation, water, bednets, and other initiatives designed to reduce child mortality. But I think it’s more likely that economic growth had a lot more to do with the precipitous fall, especially in China, India, South Korea, Brazil, and other countries with high growth over the time period.

To me, Singer’s on the right side of the “does aid work” argument – it probably does, at least when it comes to health – but it is sloppy polemics to overlook something as simple as economic growth when coming to that conclusion; his argument would be significantly improved by acknowledging other causal factors. The rhetoric of “we have saved a million children” is good rhetoric but grounded more in emotional appeal than fact[3].

Sloppy section aside, though, this is a perfect book for Millennials who question if donating any of their (often meager) incomes is worth it. It’s $1 on the Kindle; buy it.

[1] There’s a much larger discussion here about “poverty porn” and its use to compel these donations, which Singer doesn’t discuss. I don’t want to, either, but do want to acknowledge it exists

[2] The obvious rebuttal is to call out Singer for not doing so, but it’s a cheap, trite one. A more interesting question would be to ask how future earnings potential is included in the moral calculus; if I was to give to the point where my marginal utility of a dollar is the same as Rokia’s, I wouldn’t be able to earn money the way I used to. Singer wouldn’t be able to write another book – and even if he did, the publisher wouldn’t have a printing press, etc. etc. It’s myopic to not consider this, but I haven’t seen anything about it from Singer or others

[3] Yes, I know, emotional arguments work much better than empirical ones; Singer spends a good portion of the book discussing this. But I doubt he’d argue that skewing the emotional arguments away from the truth when it’s convenient is appropriate

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