Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: The Life You Can Save - Peter Singer

Peter Singer is an Australian born scholar who's fields of research and influence are philosophy, morality and ethics. Singer is widely known for his research and promotion of views in a number of areas, foreign aid being just one.

Focussing on aid for this work, Singer seeks to present a moralist case for giving. In particular his major question is why private giving is not higher in the west? The book has a constant rhetoric of asking the reader what would their decision be if faced with the need to physically save a child from imminent danger, for example drowning. Singer's hypothesis is that regardless of the cost or burden very few would choose to ignore a child's cries for help in these situations. Why then do that same majority ignore the cries for help by impoverished children?

At this point the oft used criticism of such publications is that after indicating that there is need they bombard the reader with so much in the way of horror stories that they feel utterly useless and therefore do nothing. Singer can be commended for striking a great balance between describing in detail the immense need that parts of our world has, and describing the successes that foreign aid work has achieved.

Singer further conducts a review of the idea of self-interest, and the contention that we as imperfect humans can never act without a benefit to ourselves. Rather than giving in, unable to escape the burden, or promoting that we should super-humanly pull ourselves out of it, Singer pragmatically advises that we minimise it in some instances but harness it in others.

Ultimately Singer argues that morally we have an obligation to help the poor. Of course it must be remembered that Singer is a moralist and not a moral authority. While great accolade must be paid to persons like Singer who have spent the time and effort researching and contemplating such matters, even he would most likely agree that no one human can claim to be morally authoritative. Sceptics of aid still need to moralise their stance.

This leads to identification of my only weakness with this work, and that is the discussion of faith based initiative in aid work. This is not a plea for including religion for religion's sake. If we cannot assign moral authority to humans therefore it is logical that we must look into human worship of the divine for such authority. Singer is not silent on the topic of faith-led aid initiative, he does identify all the world's major religions as being motivations for charity, but in my opinion is not extensive enough, particularly as his argument is rooted in morality.

The work concludes with discussion of how easy it should be for the wealthy to help. This has been another rhetoric throughout, the waste of resource by the rich. Do you really need to purchase a bottle of water when you can get it clean from the tap?

Singers final answer that the wealthy should give approximately 5% of income inhabits a zone between a calculated figure that will make a difference, and providing a 'scratch' for the actually and relatively wealthy readers 'itch'. But his aim is to make people act, and in my opinion well we should. In some respects it could be a promotional response. Having potentially been moved by the stories, the 5% of income will represent a challenge to his readers, yet it is not insurmountable by any means.

More can and needs to be written on poverty and aid, but I highly recommend this book for readers seeking to make sense of what they can do to help this world. There is a true academic base for the book's contentions, providing relief for those of us tired of just marketing and tabloid media. Yet it is written in a way that one does not need the intellect of Singer to understand. Footballs.

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