Are you a good person?
The proper answer to that question is, of course, “Go away.”
But you might reply that it depends on how one defines the word good. In a world of easily identified devils Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il, Bernard Madoff most of us feel we’re basically on the side of the angels. We work hard, pay our bills, try to raise our children well, volunteer a bit here and there and, when in doubt, abide by the golden rule. (Don’t we?) Why not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt?
Peter Singer’s new book about world poverty, “The Life You Can Save,” is here to tell us that we aren’t, most of us, the people we think we are. On a planet full of so much obvious and widespread suffering, he writes, “there is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a good life.”
Mr. Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and perhaps America’s most famous specialist in applied ethics, has made a career out of making people feel uncomfortable. His best-known book, “Animal Liberation” (1975), is among the founding texts of the contemporary animal-rights movement. He has been working out the ideas in “The Life You Can Save” since at least 1972, when he published his influential essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”
Mr. Singer is far from the world’s only serious thinker about poverty, but with “The Life You Can Save” he becomes, instantly, its most readable and lapel-grabbing one. This book is part rational argument, part stinging manifesto, part handbook. It’s a volume that suggests, given that 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year in developing countries, that there is a “moral stain on a world as rich as this one.” We are not doing enough to help our fellow mortals.
Human beings have an intuitive belief that we should help others in need, Mr. Singer writes, “at least when we can see them and when we are the only person in a position to save them.” But we need to go beyond these intuitions, Mr. Singer declares. And so, early in “The Life You Can Save,” he proposes the following logical argument, one I’ll quote in full:
“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 aid agencies, 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 aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.”
To reject this argument, Mr. Singer writes, “you need to find a flaw in the reasoning.”
It’s pretty tempting to try to toss Mr. Singer’s argument back in his face. The counterarguments well up in your mind: The economy is tanking. Charity begins at home. I work hard for my money. Charity breeds dependency. Some charity groups waste too much money on overhead. And doesn’t everyone hate a do-gooder? (In a 2008 Reuters poll, Madonna was voted the least-liked celebrity do-gooder. Mr. Singer strongly defends her.)
Mr. Singer convincingly dismisses these counterarguments, and his logical conclusion above is well-nigh irrefutable. Helping the world’s poor will bring “meaning and purpose” to our lives, he suggests, through financial adjustments that will mostly “make no difference to your well-being.”
In his book, which began as a series of lectures at Oxford University and as an article for The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Singer praises many people who give away as much as 50 percent of their annual income. For the rest of us, he proposes a more realistic approach: “Roughly 5 percent of annual income for those who are financially comfortable, and rather more for the very rich.”
(Maybe you’re asking yourself, as I did: Am I “financially comfortable”? My mortgage, my credit-card bills and my other debts scream no. But the $3 coffee I’m drinking while I type this, and the Lucinda Williams concert tickets I just bought, tell me there is wiggle room in my budget.)
Some of Mr. Singer’s contentions are harder to stomach. “Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious,” he declares. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought a painting by Duccio in 2004 for more than $45 million, an amount, Mr. Singer says, that would pay for cataract operations on 900,000 blind or near-blind people in the developing world.
He continues: “If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?”
You can agree with him in general while suggesting to give just one example that society was ennobled rather than hurt, during the Great Depression, by the money the Works Progress Administration, while not a philanthropy, spent on drama, literature and arts projects.
Mr. Singer’s book has its heroes and villains. Among the former are Bill Gates and, interestingly, James Hong, who became a millionaire after founding the fluky Web site Hot or Not, where people’s looks are rated by strangers. Mr. Hong donates 10 percent of every dollar he makes over $100,000 each year, and he runs a different Web site encouraging others to make the same pledge.
Among the villains of “The Life You Can Save” are the software billionaires Paul Allen and Larry Ellison. Mr. Singer concedes that Mr. Ellison gave away $39 million in 2007. But he adds, “If Ellison never earned another dollar, he could give away $39 million every year for the next 600 years and still have more than $1 billion as a cushion for his old age.”
There is time for Mr. Ellison. As Mr. Singer points out, if Warren Buffett had given away the first million he’d made, he would not be in a position now to be giving $31 billion away. But most of us are never going to be Warren Buffett.
On one of Mr. Singer’s Web sites, thelifeyoucansave.com, he asks people to sign up to donate to world poverty along the sliding scale he proposes. (He himself gives away about 25 percent of his annual income, he writes.) So far there are more than 800 names.
“We tend to think that people are more to blame for their acts,” Mr. Singer observes, “than for their omissions.” You don’t have to agree with everything in “The Life You Can Change” to feel that there’s no real debate: When it comes to living the so-called “good” life, one’s moral omissions count more than ever.