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Bold, provocative, but not for everybody
on 14 December 2010
Peter Singer has worked out how to end poverty, with change left over. On a sliding scale of giving in which 90 per cent of us give away just 1% of our incomes, and the richest give a little more, we'd have a trillion dollar pot that would be enough to meet all the Millennium Development Goals eight times.
For an average gift of around $200 per person per year in the rich world, poverty would be swept away. So why haven't we done it yet? What's stopping us? These the questions Singer tackles in 'The Life You Can Save: Acting now to end world poverty'.
As an ethicist and philosopher, his gift is to ask provocative questions - the kind that are penetrating, even borderline offensive in their implications. He lines up moral arguments that you couldn't disagree with, and before you know it you've argued yourself into something you don't want to believe, saying you shouldn't save for retirement, or that it's wrong to love your own children more than other people's. It's very clever, if you like that kind of intellectual trickery, and I imagine Singer makes a great professor at Princeton. If you just thought you were reading a book about aid and giving, you might find it rather frustrating.
There's more here besides moral philosophy however. There are chapters on the psychology of giving, an analysis of how much it actually costs to save a life, and who does it best. There's a great section on how to encourage a culture of giving, including the quite brilliant suggestion of `opt-out' philanthropy.
The book cops out a little at the end, soft-pedalling the call to personal action, and it lacks the historical background that could have added more depth. It could have benefitted from engaging with the spiritual traditions that have sought to foster a culture of giving (which is all of them) rather than sticking to its humanist guns and trying to re-invent the wheel.
Still, this is a probing enquiry into what we value and a challenging call to more intelligent giving. I just can't guarantee that you won't find it annoying.