The Life You Can Save (chapters 3-5)

singer1Singer seems to hope that by the end of chapter 2, we’ll be convinced that we ought to redirect some of our surplus money to the 1.4 billion people around the world who are living on less than $1.25 a day.  Surely we really should prevent the suffering and death of innocent people with some of the money we spend on luxuries. Surely.

The next question is why we don’t act on that awfully plausible thought more often.  Why don’t we donate more? There’s lots of fascinating research on this question.  Here’s the irony: what’s not likely to get us to give more is a philosophical argument. Not that argumentation is totally ineffective.  Singer says that after his 1999 New York Times article, which included a pitch for Oxfam, the organization’s donations increased by $600,000 over normal contributions.  Now, 10 years later, people still mention his article when they make donations.  But research shows that an abstract appeal is at a disadvantage.

An appeal works better when it’s made on behalf of one person, not two (!) or more, let alone a billion.  An effective appeal focuses on a specific problem, not a general problem; a small problem, not a large problem; a problem that you have the sole power to solve; or if not that, a problem that others are helping with too. The perception that other people are not helping dampens the urge to help.

So what to do to get yourself to give?   You have to find a community in which it’s “normal” to care about some very specific set of problems. That might be a church or synagogue, dare I say?  You have to read about real, 3-dimensional victims of the problem. You have to have a means of making a difference.

Once you’ve given, you ought to talk about it, Singer says. That’s an interesting suggestion, because it’s a standard rule of etiquette that you’re not supposed to talk about your good deeds.  But that’s counterproductive, since the perception that others aren’t giving reduces giving.

My best attempt to give has fit the profile I just sketched.  Through a synagogue, I am involved in a project that helps refugees of the conflict in Darfur.  Within that context, it’s “normal” to care about those problems. I got involved after reading What is the What, by Dave Eggers, a fantastic work of narrative non-fiction.  The book puts a specific face on the huge problems in Southern Sudan and Darfur.   My efforts don’t feel like a drop in the bucket because I coordinate with other people at the synagogue and nationwide.  As a result of the group effort, we were able to give Darfur relief agencies $18,000 last year.

Aside from that, my husband and I do donate to Oxfam and the like, but never as much as we really should.  Now if I can just find a way to trick myself into giving more. It’s interesting that reading Singer sets me in the direction of looking for a good trick, but it isn’t the trick itself.

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  1. Jean: This has nothing to do with this thread, but it has to do with Singer. Let’s say that I accept Singer’s argument that I should ruin my best jacket to save a child’s life. Does my responsibility to that child begin and end there? Should I sell my new shoes to send that child to school? And if not, why not? Should I sell my new pants to send him or her to the dentist? If not, why not? Do I owe that child more than just his or her life and if not, why not? Perhaps Singer is saying that we should start by saving the kid’s life and then widen our obligations towards him or her. That makes sense.

  2. Amos- Singer’s standard is we give until we give up something of comparable moral significance, and leaves it up to you to decide what is comparably morally significant. But in his book, he does use a few examples that may not be strictly “life-saving” help for others like helping blind people see, and repairing cleft palates. Since both of these conditions are likely to lead to severe poverty for these people, it amounts to saving them from poverty.

    Singer also notes that if you can make more money utilizing the capital that you have, so that later you can give it away, then you should do that. e.g. If Warren Buffett gave away his first million dollars, he wouldn’t have the billions to give away now…. but we must realistically evaluate how likely we are to make millions more with the capital that we have.

  3. Wayne: It seems to me that we either have obligations to help others (beyond the legal ones) or we don’t. If we do, they must (at least theoretically)
    involve helping others until we harm ourselves. As you say, helping others is more complicated than giving all our money to the poor: it may involve going to, say, medical school, which is costly, in order to save more lives. Now, very few of us, if any, put that idea into practice. It’s a very very radical idea. However, I can’t see why if we accept an obligation to help others insofar as we don’t harm ourselves, our aid should be limited to saving lives or helping the blind. It’s easier to say that my obligations towards others are limited to not harming them, acting justly towards them, respecting them, but once there is an obligation to help them without harming myself, I would have to go all the way, so to speak.

  4. The idea is not to help, so long as we don’t harm ourselves, but to help up to the point where we’d be sacrificing something of “comparable moral significance”, if we helped any more. This might mean having to do a certain amount of harm to yourself or a loved on. Going without food to save someone on the brink of death, and the like.

    This is exactly what you’d expect him to say, given that he’s a Uuilitarian. The prime directive for a utilitarian is to maximize total good. Doing that might very well mean doing yourself some harm, if that’s necessary to prevent a greater harm to someone else.

    Chapters 9 and 10 are really good (will post about them tomorrow, hopefully). There he says there’s a difference between the standard we try to live up to personally (that’s the extremely demanding one I just stated), and a publicly promulgated standard. In the second case, you have to figure out what’s going to convince people and alter behavior. In that spirit, he actually suggests some very tame donation targets.

  5. Jean: As you explain it, Singer’s philosophy is even more radical and disturbing. I say “disturbing” because I don’t know if I could live by such a philosophy if taken literally. For example, I’ve always tried to do no harm, to act justly, to respect others, but could I really consistently help others to the point you outline? That would require a great deal of love for others, although I’m sure that Singer does not speak of love for others. Yes, love.

  6. amos- Singer accepts that radicality of his position… He starts off with the small examples, draws the comparable moral significance standard, and says it sounds innocuous, but it really is a radically life altering standard to live by.

    Singer actually does address this point… I think he even talks about the love for others and such. Simply put, he lumps them into the category of reasons why we don’t act. But these psychological reasons, make it difficult for us to act, but they don’t absolve us of our obligations.

    Moreover, its not clear that we do no harm to those in the third world. I forget which chapter, but Singer devotes a bit of paper to the idea that we have in some ways indirectly harmed these people through our actions. He puts most of the moral shame on the ultra rich, giving examples of giant yachts. But you could easily extend that argument to the middle class.

    I think Singer is softening in his age, heh. Lately he’s been making a distinction between the strict philosophically rigorous position, and the practical. But at least with charity, he’s always been consistent with that approach… He isn’t saying that you should give up that much, he himself doesn’t. (although he does give examples of people who do much more than himself, like members of the 50% club, who have given half of their assets or half of their income for the last 3 years to charity). His old standard used to be 10% for everyone. I’ll let Jean cover his revised position in the books final chapters.

  7. Indirect ethical responsibility, I’m not sure. Let’s say that I deposit my money in bank X, which uses that money to purchase stock in a uranium mine that exploits workers in the Congo. Do I have any responsibility? From your post, Wayne, I’m not sure that you understand why I talked about love. If you did, my apologies. I meant that to follow Singer in the strict sense I would have to love humanity, people whom I’ve never seen, much more than I do.
    Like everyone, I have moments of compassion towards suffering, and I will give money to a well-done charity campaign insofar as I can, but I don’t think that I would be willing to dedicate my life to helping others to the point that Singer’s philosophy, in the strict sense, dictates.

  8. amos- no singer talks about just that kind of love… again through proxy by example… I believe it was a doctor who could not stand the idea of people dying from diseases and illnesses for which there was a cure for.

    Singer wouldn’t claim that the source of our obligation comes from indirect harm… So Singer probably would point you to the arguments that Jean has already pointed to. But I think there is something compelling about the idea of indirect harm. I would probably say that in your example, there the indirect is doubly indirect, since I have to pass through a couple of links to get to the harm, which would be difficult to see through. But lets make it simpler…. I go to the grocery store, and I see two bunches of bananas, one from ecuador, and the other from Hawaii. I buy the hawaiian bananas because I want to support the american economy. In that act, I’ve deprived the ecuadorian farmer of some income. Now I don’t have pressing moral reason to choose an american over an ecuadorian (that just smacks of racism or more specifically nationalism), and moreover, the hawaiian farmer would be in a much better situation than the ecuadorian farmer if they became unemployed, because of social safety nets and such that America has, and Ecuador doesn’t. So it seems like I should buy the ecuadorian bananas, or thusly, I indirectly harm the farmer.

  9. I heard an interview Diane Rehm conducted with him on National Public Radio a few weeks ago. Diane asked him about eliminating poverty in the United States first (handle what is in your own house) and he dismissed the notion because children and the poor in the United States are better off than the impoverished in other countries. It would seem, therefore, that merely giving to those in need, regardless of their circumstances, is not enough to meet his moral requirement. Your directed contribution should go to those whose governments do not offer any support to even the poorest of its citizens. That was when I had to stop listening. Is there a moral obligation to investigate the relative poverty of each individual to determine whether that person is really in need? Relative poverty? He also dismissed donations to churches or other religious organizations because some of the money is used to pay for rent/mortgage, services, and payroll. If there is a moral duty to assist those in need, IMHO,it should not be qualified by the relative neediness based on geographic location. I don’t think most people could meet his standard, and who would want to? Other than those who volunteer, people are not called to live a life impoverished, not even those so living. However, I do think most people could meet the moral standard of giving more to those less fortunate than themselves via a medium providing the most assistance at the most cost effective price to ensure optimal benefits for those people.

  10. For a less congenial view of Singer’s argument I invite you to have a look at

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