Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

An excellent book that provides a detailed but concise and accessible argument about why you should help those who are suffering from extreme poverty.
There are many ways to review this book, but I think I’ll just try to give you the main argument and then elaborate on some of the content. The first half of chapter one can be read here and there is also a website for the book.
Singer begins, as he has before, with a thought experiment:
"On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work.
What should you do?"
Please think about that for a moment; what would you do? If you wouldn’t help the drowning child, please leave the reason why in the comments section below.
If you would, what if you learn that nearly 10 million children under five years old die each year from causes related to poverty? As Singer states:

"Here is just one case, described by a man in Ghana to a researcher from the World Bank:
Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty. Think about something like that happening 27,000 times every day. Some children die because they don’t have enough to eat. More die, like that small boy in Ghana, from measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia, conditions that either don’t exist in developed nations, or, if they do, are almost never fatal. The children are vulnerable to these diseases because they have no safe drinking water, or no sanitation, and because when they do fall ill, their parents can’t afford any medical treatment. UNICEF, Oxfam, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care, and these efforts are reducing the toll. If the relief organizations had more money, they could do more, and more lives would be saved. Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?"

So, if you think saving the child in the pond is the right thing to do, and to not do so would be immoral, then why do you not help other children who are dying but could be saved with a minor sacrifice similar to ruining some shoes?
In the rest of The Life You Can Save, Singer further examines and elaborates on our notions of morality, what we typically think of as right and wrong, the common objections to giving, how to create a culture of giving, the effectiveness of aid and certain charities, how much it might actually cost to save a life, and then recommendations for donating a percentage of your income, on a progressive scale.

I’ll describe Chapter 4 as it was one of the most useful because Singer addresses the common objections to giving. I often think of these as psychology barriers to (demonstrative) caring.
1) The Identifiable Victim – Research from decision science and psychology has demonstrated that people give more when a single victim is presented instead of many. It may sound odd, but when there is one victim people tend to care more than if there a 1000 that are suffering similarly. In fact, this diminished concern even occurs in the shift from 1 to 2 victims. Of course, logically, if you think you should help one person for certain reasons, then someone in a similar position should be helped for similar reasons.
2) Parochialism – This is basically about how we tend to care less about ‘the other.’ If someone lives in a different country, is a different race, has different beliefs, we are less likely to help them. This is a nasty part of human psychology where we easily form groups and then diminish those who are not in our group. There are good (evolutionary) reasons for these tendencies, but that does not mean that it is a good behaviour and one that we want to continue. Geographical location is irrelevant. If someone is starving to death, it should not matter if they are 10m away, or 10,000 km. Similarly, to say race or sex or culture etc. matter indicates that we find little problem with racism or bigotry.
3) Futility – The feeling that because we cannot do a lot we tend to want to do little. In the book, Singer describes how one study found that people are more willing to send aid that would save 1500 out of 3000 people at risk than they were to send aid that would save 1500 our of 10000 at risk. The number is still the same, so why does it matter so much? It surely matters to those 1500 people who could have been saved. The point here is to realize that saving a life is important, even if 90% won’t be saved. Let me phrase it another way to highlight the flaw “Because I can’t do everything, I won’t do anything.” This is obviously wrong, so focus on what can be done and do as much as you can.
4) The Diffusion of Responsibility – Numerous psychology studies have indicated that people tend to help less when there are many people around who could be helping. If we are in a room full of 10 people, we tend to think “Someone else should/will do something” or that we are only 10% responsible for failures that might occur. This inhibiting effect can be more treacherous than we typically acknowledge, so try to remember it and realize that you are still responsible for your behaviour regardless of how many people are around you. Further, if everyone thinks someone else will do something, chances are no one will and the action will never be taken.
5) The Sense of Fairness – No one likes to be the one doing all the work or cleaning up while everyone else stands around. Singer provides a great scenario of a situation when he says, “Imagine writing that first big check for UNICEF or Oxfam, and then running into your neighbors coming back from a winter vacation in the Caribbean, looking relaxed and tanned, and telling you about their great adventures sailing and scuba diving. How would you feel?”I think most would say “But that’s not fair! They got have fun while I didn’t!” This is a very difficult barrier to overcome because much our notions of justice and fairness are bred into us so we quickly react morally to these situations. It is hard to overcome these feelings with logic and reason - which more often place our behaviour in alignment with our stated desires to help people.
6) Money – It turns out that just by inducing people to think more about money, people tended to be more selfish and help others less. This is probably one example of many aspects of reality that influence giving behaviour but are often unrecognized.

Those are the main ones he covers and after which he states that some may say, “Well, then giving is not in our nature.” But this is untrue, unless you now think you would let that little child in the pond drown. I’ll try to summarize by relating to that example. Imagine you came upon a pond where there were 9 other people standing there and 10 children were going to drown. You wade into to help a child and on your way back you realize that only 2 other people are helping, while one is just standing there watching and the other 6 have wandered off. One you’ve saved one child, do you just leave? Probably not, you’d probably go in to get another. And what about a third child? You’d probably want to go yell or hit the person just standing there watching, but once you realize that a child will drown if you don’t save it, you will probably help. That example takes care of 4 and 5 (and I won’t bother with 6).
Now imagine you come upon a pond and there are 50 children who will drown in 2 minutes, but there is no one else around. Because you will not be able to save all of them, do you not try to save as many as possible? While this would be like some reification of hell to those who care, I imagine most would save as many as they can and they weep from the floating bodies of children they couldn’t. But the point is they would save as many as they could. That example addresses 3 and part of 1. What if the children were a different race than you? Religion? Nationality? Why would this matter? That address 2 and also part of 1.

While one could claim these scenarios are unlikely, the purpose was to explore your moral intuitions to see how you would act and how you think you could act. Alternatively, these scenarios are not unlikely, they are representative: millions are suffering, they are far away, a different race, others are not helping and you won’t be able to save them all.
We now see that nearly all the psychological barriers are just that – barriers. The hard part is to overcome these barriers and to act in a way consistent with what you believe to be moral and right.

Finally, let me also mention that some charities are not great and have high administrative costs, but others are fantastic and have low administrative costs. You can investigate which ones pass your standards and focus on the issue that matters most to you: If starvation, perhaps the World Food Program; if it is sustainable development, perhaps Oxfam; and if it is AIDS, Malaria, or increasing access to contraception to decrease unplanned births, then just do some online research to find out which charity is right for you.

What should you do?
While it is true that one could always give more and that, personally, we must confront or acknowledge that we prefer certain goods or activities to helping people who are starving, such a hard line is very difficult to accept and is probably off-putting. Consequently, in the end, Singer wisely supports a realistic approach. He suggests giving 1-5% of your income up to 100,000 US dollars, and then 5% of the next $50,000, and 10% of the next $200,000 and so on. As most people who read this do not make several hundred thousand dollars a year, that means that you could help the world by giving 1-5% of your income to organizations, like Oxfam of UNICEF that help those in extreme poverty.

What will you do?
You have said that you would have helped the drowning child. Additionally, you have seen that the main objections to giving are not valid. The final question remains: what will you do?
World Food Program


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