The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer (Book Review)

This short and accessible book by bioethics expert Peter Singer certainly gives the reader food for thought.

Singer does not mince his words and is clear in his beliefs. The average person, he opines, can and should be playing a part in reducing extreme poverty around the world, and the rich have an even heavier obligation. His view challenges the well-known maxim that “charity begins at home”.

His exploration of the idea of harm is particularly illuminating. Some people don’t feel any obligation to actively help others, so long as they do not actively harm anyone. The idea is that we should be free to live our lives for ourselves but avoid causing direct harm. There are limitations to this, Singer observes.

He gives the following example. In some coastal areas—such as in Senegal—European, Chinese and Russian fleets have depleted the seas once abundant with fish in order to “sell their fish to well-fed Europeans who can afford to pay high prices”. This has left the local population without a much-needed source of sustenance and income. (See more info here)

In terms of climate change and global warming, it is also undeniable that Europe and the United States have been responsible for many of the greenhouse gas emissions which, Singer notes, “have harmed, and are continuing to harm, many of the world’s poorest people”. (See more info here and here)

Thus, in an increasingly globalised world, it is not so easy to raise your hands, shrug your shoulders and say that you’ve not directly harmed anyone.

I enjoyed the book, but it does have a number of shortcomings. His exploration of the impact that aid and philanthropy have on the political will to enact economic change in poor countries, for example, is fairly limited. He does acknowledge the conundrum, noting that he is, “open-minded about the best way to combat poverty”.

His chapter on improving aid is somewhat underwhelming, though that is unsurprising given the complexity of the subject and the fact that Singer is looking at the matter from an ethical point of view rather than strictly an economic one. He does raise the important issue of trade barriers and agricultural subsidies provided by rich countries to support their own agriculture sectors, which have major consequences on poorer countries.

He seems set in the view, though, that the most important use of aid is the alleviation of poverty rather than broader political or economic goals to promote growth. (For more information on the failings of foreign aid to Africa, I would strongly urge anyone interested to read Dambisa Moyo’s excellent and hard-hitting book, Dead Aid.)

Furthermore, Singer’s focus is on alleviating extreme poverty, but he makes little mention of other important causes (human trafficking and climate change being the two most obvious ones in my mind).

Whatever its failings, the book is still worth a read, if only because it is part of an important debate that the world should be having. That is, the obligation of the rich to help the poor. Singer’s book encourages the reader to examine their own life and the contribution that they are—or could be—making to the world.



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