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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.
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on 6 July 2011
Singer's book is an unusual melange of ethical philosophizing, aid statistics and personal stories. He begins the book with some arguments for correct ehthical standards, pointing out that most people fall far short of these standards. Afterwards, he discusses aid efficiency, both as regards how functional aid in practice turns out to be, as well as the problem of distinguishing between efficient and inefficient aid. Finally, he lays out practical standards for giving.

His ethical arguments, and particular his discussion of the psychology of giving, are interesting. However, they also turn out to be the most annoying part of the book, as Singer implicitly accuses the reader who does not live up to his standards of being immoral - Singer lays out a short set of ethical standards, considers some objections to the standards which are generally dismissed, and between the lines seem to conclude that his standards are somehow universal and irrefutable. While he correctly points out that complete moral relativism leads to problems, his moral absolutism is also problematic. Moreover, he does not consider arguments such as personal happiness being very much relative to one's society, leading to his absolute comparisons being somewhat rigid. Finally, he several times uses the example of it being immoral not to save a child drowning in a pond, arguing that letting starving children in Africa die is just as immoral. It would indeed seem very heartless for a member of an affluent society to leave alone a child drowning on the side of the road. However, if instead it were the case that a billion children were drowning on the side of the road, it would appear somewhat more understandable that at some point, the otherwise upstanding citizen would quit rescuing children.

Singer must be commended for speaking his mind openly and raising difficult questions. However, his arguments appear somewhat simplistic in some respects. His call for people to give more is reasonable, and the 5% he is asking is not much, but his ethical arguments appear weak.

All in all, a book with a few flaws, but nonetheless unique enough to merit reading.
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on 17 January 2011
Believe it or not, I am very far from having any anti-capitalists sentmients and I really enjoyed the book, found it intellectually inspiring and impactful on my personal giving.

Some time ago I have decided to donate part of my income, but finally did not do so, because of insecurity about where my donation could have the largest impact and because of lack of information on the effectiveness of different NGOs. The book gives examples of effective NGOs that can save a life in one of the poorest countries for less than 1000$. On the same issue I found extremely useful, which has been mentioned several times throughout the book and is dedicated to identify the most effective charities by applying scientific methodology and giving a wealth of information on their website to anybody interested in effective giving.

It is difficult to argue that there are organizations that can save the life of a person in a poor country for less than 1000$. Mentioning this fact should not be considered as an insult. Neither thinking it through in a brilliant, convincing and easy to understand analysis, which takes into consideration different points of view and arguments.

In addition the book contains a wealth of very interesting statistical data from different areas about poverty and giving. It also discusses the arguments given by critics of aid.

I highly recommend this book to anybody dealing with any of the questions:
- whether to donate,
- how much to donate
- to whom to donate

and also to everybody who thinks to already have found a satisfying answer to any of these questions.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 March 2013
You may shy away from this book thinking it's going to be heavy reading, but it is not terribly long (fewer than 200 pages) and it's very readable. What I can guarantee though is that it will make you think, probably more than you have before, about how much you give to charity and how you choose where to give.

According to the World Bank, 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty, defined as having less than US$1.25 a day to live on (an amount that is adjusted to reflect equivalent purchasing power with the US). Yes we have poverty in our own countries, but in almost all cases at least those people have access to safe drinking water, education and emergency medical care. Peter Singer makes the point that extreme global poverty could be all but eliminated if everyone earning more than US$105,000 were to contribute 5% of their income and the extremely wealthy were to contribute at a higher level. Over the course of this very thought provoking book he looks at the excuses that we make to not give more, the ways to identify the organisations who can make a genuine difference in people's lives and the traps that Governments and Aid Organisations can fall into if funds are not used wisely.

The first part of this book is about the ethical arguments for giving. Singer encourages us to distinguish between the things that we need and the things that we simply want. He points out that many simple daily indulgences that we take for granted - buying bottled water, a new pair of shoes, a night out - could instead be channeled towards saving lives. He makes the point that it is easier to ignore poverty when it's not close to home and/or we are not confronted with it, that we can rationalise "the problem is so big, how can my small contribution make any difference" and that we tend to normalise with what we think others around us are giving or doing. These chapters will almost certainly make you think and probably make you feel uncomfortable to a degree. However Singer also makes the point that while we are often resistent to giving more, it usually makes us feel tremendously good when we do so.

The middle section of the book is about finding charities that make a difference. In short, he is a fan of micro finance and other initiatives that encourage communities to become self-sufficient and more productive. He believes that aid must be given to communities who are willing to participate in the solution rather than just receiving. He also talks about charities that address very specific health problems such as restoring sight and repairing fistulas. Of the big aid organisations, Oxfam is the one that he feels put the biggest effort into evaluating their work and ensuring that it is spent effectively. On his website (the same title as the book), he lists several recommended charities but he also gives advice on how to evaluate others.

Singer also talks about international aid given by Governments and the ways that political motivations rather than the desire to make a difference dictate many decisions about how and where money is given. I found this section extremely depressing!

The final section of the book talks about what you can do, how much you could realistically give and what difference we can make.

I found the book very thought provoking. To be honest, I think most people who read a book like this are probably already inclined to give, so for me the biggest take out was more about how to identify charities that really make a difference, although I also feel challenged to do and give more than I do currently.
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on 17 February 2015
This is a wonderful book: simple, short and very much to the point. It has two aims.

The first aim is to demonstrate the importance of making the right decision when donating to charitable causes. Charities vary hugely in their effectiveness. Most charitable interventions have not been evaluated and most of those that have show pretty modest gains. But rigorous evaluation of charities is a new science and there are many out there that have demonstrated exceptional value. All these work on humanitarian causes in relieving poverty and preventing diseases in developing countries. Singer shows how these can be found.

The second aim is what other reviewers have referred to as “bold, strong, provocative and infuriating”. It is the moral argument for individuals giving more to effective humanitarian causes. Singer makes a very strong case and takes apart the common reasons given as to why supporting humanitarian causes is ineffective. If we all gave a little more we could eliminate the extreme poverty that blights 20% of the world’s population and kills 18,000 children every day.

A summary of The Life You Can Save is available through Peter Singer’s 18 minute TED talk at I would also recommend Caroline Fiennes’ “It Ain’t What You Give It’s The Way That You Give It”. Though covering much the same territory, Fiennes’ book avoids the moralising, is more orientated towards UK charities and provides a road map for effective giving that can be applied to any cause.
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on 12 July 2010
I think the reviewer below is incorrect in believing that the main aim of this work is to discredit capitalism. Rather, it puts into perspective the standards and luxuries which we are so accustomed to that we do not stop to consider how our standard of living compares to that of others. Singer is not calling for an end to capitalist society, but rather encouraging the reader to think how the money spent on anything from a bottle of water to a sports car could potentially help those in real need. By all means read the book critically, but learn the lesson Singer is really trying to give.
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on 24 February 2013
Has the cojones to come out and admit that ignoring people dying or living horribly impaired lives unnecessarily is immoral, and almost everyone is guilty. We should all be doing more, and he explains why and how. Lots of books have changed my life, and this is one that might actually change others' lives too if I can be as good as he argues I should.
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on 4 January 2016
Fantastic book. Deeply thought provoking and ultimately a won argument. The basic premise is that if we can help another human being then to not do so is wrong. Our obligations in relation to this premise are then laid out and the reasons we don't fulfil them but also how we can are explored. Very readable, engaging and massively inspirational.
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on 16 December 2015
Insightful, poignant and truly remarkable. This book has changed my life and in doing so will change hundreds of others. I urge you all to read it and pass it on to as many people as possible. The world needs more Peter Singer's
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on 8 May 2013
A thought provoking, easy to read and concise book. Recommended to anyone interested in ethics or charity, whether as an exam subject or general interest. A good summary of Singer's main ideas and approach to moral problems with lots of interesting examples.
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