The Life You Can Save is a book about the philosophy known as “effective
altruism.” It’s tough to critique the book without also discussing the
philosophy, especially for someone (like me) who was previously unfamiliar with
either. That’s why this book review is also a reflection on a moral philosophy.
Author Peter Singer wastes no time introducing that philosophy. Section one
(“THE ARGUMENT”), chapter 1 (“Saving a Child”) opens with a hypothetical
situation which demonstrates the thesis. Singer asks his readers: will you
prioritize reducing the suffering of others above furthering your own comfort?
That might not seem like a very difficult question but maybe only when answered
in the abstract. Effective altruism attempts to ground the issue. It’s
conception of charity differs substantially from that of Western culture.
Where I come from, charity is commonly regarded as a virtuous elective action,
but Singer presents it as a moral imperative. He does so with an emphasis on
rationality and evidence-based methods. This leads to a stark conclusion:
- First premise: suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical
care are bad.
- Second premise: if it is in your power to prevent something bad from
happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong
not to do so.
- Third premise: by donating to effective charities, you can prevent
suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without
sacrificing anything nearly as important.
- Conclusion: therefore, if you do not donate to effective charities, you are
doing something wrong.
I personally found this line of reasoning compelling. As I’ve matured (if you
can call it that) and accumulated wealth, I’ve become more sensitive to my
privilege and more suspicious of my culture’s ability to acknowledge it.
Singer’s is a rare voice that says, “maybe you don’t deserve all that.”
Now, despite my tendencies toward shame, I wouldn’t subject myself to an entire
book of it. Thankfully, The Life You Can Save is an more an appeal to
rationality than to guilt. Singer doesn’t downplay the problems with enjoying
luxury in our current world, but he’s ultimately more concerned with helping
readers to take action.
It’s just that his final advice is hollow.
At the book’s conclusion, apparently satisfied that his case has been made,
Singer reveals a formula that readers can use to determine how much money they
ought to be donating to “effective” causes.
Hence in this chapter I propose a much easier target: roughly 5% of annual
income for those who are financially comfortable, with less for those below
that level, and significantly more for the very rich. My hope is that people
will be convinced that they can and should give at these levels. I believe
that doing so would be a first step toward restoring the ethical importance
of giving as an essential component of a well-lived life. And if it is widely
adopted, we’ll have more than enough money to end extreme poverty.
I concede that this standard falls far short of the moral argument I put
forward earlier, for it remains true, of course, that most people could,
after giving 5% of their income, give more without sacrificing anything
nearly as important as the lives they would be saving. So how can I now say
that people who give 5% are fulfilling their obligations when they are still
far from doing what my argument concludes they ought to be doing? The reason
lies in the difference between what I ought to do as an individual and what
set of principles, or moral code, I should advocate in my writing and public
This is followed by advice that seems designed for perfectionists like me:
[…] instead of worrying about how much you would have to do in order to
live a fully ethical life, do something that is significantly more than what
you have been doing so far. Then see how it feels. If it feels good, keep
doing it, or challenge yourself to do a little more. Try to set a new
“personal best” in giving. You may find it more rewarding than you imagined
That sounds like a helpful perspective, but the more I thought about it, the
more it felt like an apology for the lack of guidance on priority setting.
The central line of reasoning depends on the phrase “anything nearly as
important [as suffering and death].” Throughout the book, Singer oversimplifies
the idea of prioritization by offering crass examples of self-interested
spending. To name a few:
- “buying clothes or accessories that are stylish or fun”
- “buy a new car”
- “renovate your home”
- “mechanical watches”
- “drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house
It’s not that I’m feeling defensive about my new condo (as mentioned above, I
welcome constructive criticism regarding my privilege). It’s that there are so
many discretionary expenses that aren’t so clearly frivolous or “ineffective”:
- health insurance, life insurance, and home insurance (or home ownership, for
- political contributions
- overspending to encourage good business practices (e.g. encouraging organic
farming) or punish bad ones (e.g. sweatshop labor)
- gifts to loved ones
But Singer mentions none of these. He only just barely acknowledges saving for
retirement, and commitment to one’s dependents skirts by with only a little
more scrutiny. None of these save lives, but are they all subject to the same
criteria? He was far more direct when writing for the New York Times in The
Singer Solution to World
any spending beyond necessities is morally indecent.
That’s a hard pill to swallow, so it’s understandable why he downplays the
point for a wider audience (the first edition of this book received a lot of
attention, and this second edition has been freely-available since its
publication in 2019). He definitely
believes we need higher standards, but he chooses to lead people there with a
proposal that they’re more likely to consider. Hence, a conservative formula
based on pre-tax earnings.
My problem is that it feels too shallow even as a first step. Everything
Singer argues is in terms of donating money. He makes no mention of one’s
responsibility for action beyond funding “effective” causes. Does he advocate
“earning to give” (the term for designing a career in order to maximize profit
and thus charitable giving)? Does he see any tension in the choice between
working overtime and enjoying leisure activities? How ought one to justify a
day spent hiking when there’s money to be made and subsequently donated? Forget
taking a second job in our comfortable surroundings: how should one determine
whether it’s more effective to join the Peace Corps?
I didn’t open The Life You Can Save expecting to find the “answer” to the
basic ethical conundrum. I hoped that I’d learn more about rationally
evaluating charitable causes, and I did… But I also wanted to develop a
stronger stance on the way I live out my moral obligations. That’s an
inherently personal problem, but it’s a philosopher’s job to help others
realize ideals in their own lives.
To his credit, Singer’s convinced me that I need to do more, and I won’t let
questions about “how much more” get in the way. For that, I’m grateful. I just
wish that he had more to offer than a formula.