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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