Review: The life you can save

So I have two stacks of books sitting on my desk at home: one of books that I still need to read (I get through them rather slowly, as I mostly read during the few stolen moments available to a stay-at-home mom with 3 young children) and one of those that I have managed to read but want to write something about. I’m trying to wade through some of the latter stack, since even my generous faculty book check-out period at the university is coming to an end, and the former might need to get made into two stacks, lest they all come tumbling down.

I read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save after hearing about it on The World, one of my favorite public radio programs. That’s the way that I hear about a lot of the books (and mostly all of the fiction) I read. I was particularly interested in this one because of the Poverty in the Global Economy course that I taught early this summer, although I didn’t end up using it directly in the course. It’s very quick to read and worthwhile, especially if you have a particular interest either in moral reasoning (he’s a philosopher, and the beginning of the book really lays out his personal philosophy around shared responsibility for survival of the world’s most vulnerable) or in global poverty, although it’s lighter on critique of the global economic structure than I would have liked or expected.

Here are my reflections on the book, with the major caveat that I am no literary reviewer, obviously. I review articles for a couple of journals, but that kind of criticism is much different, and much more regimented, than this, so take it more as though we were having a book club and I’m a member offering my take on it, okay? And then feel free to totally disagree with me and offer your own thoughts in the comments.

As an aside, I’m interested in starting a real book club for radical social workers–I’ll do a whole post on that later–but if you’re at all interested in meeting monthly for drinks/coffee/discussion of the kinds of books that appeal to me, at least, as a radical social worker…please let me know!

The basic premise of the book is that our world is rich enough to end dire poverty, if we just spread our wealth around better and that our failure to do so is an individual moral failing no less egregious than if we saw a child drowning and did not jump in to try to save her. He challenges us to think about every penny that we spend unnecessarily and whether we can legitimately claim that to be ethical behavior. It’s a premise that I personally accept, yet there were many parts of the book that gave me pause. My thoughts, in no particular order:

There’s a section where Singer challenges the validity of the whole concept of self-interest, even enlightened self-interest (see p.77). He gives several examples where compassion is obviously not stemming from self-interest and then asserts that the norm of self-interest compels people to claim it as a motivation for their actions rather than to appeal to our own higher instincts and those of others. This discussion made me question the role that self-interest plays in community organizing, in particular, where it is pretty much universally the motivating factor around which people are brought into relationships. Should it be so? Or should we, in fact, be operating from a perspective of more altruistic motivation, using different language to talk about how to bring people together?

Singer is almost apolitical in his analysis of the global economy, and I take issue with his characterization of advocacy with national governments as being so unlikely so as to be a waste of time. To expand his initial analogy, to me that sounds like saying that, if the waves are really bad and I’m not a good swimmer, so it’s unlikely that I could save the dying child, then I shouldn’t even bother trying? Especially because, in this case, we can certainly be working to exert political, social, and economic pressure on world leaders to take anti-poverty policies at the same time as we are taking personal steps to make a contribution.

There is a chapter in the book that asks, in several different ways, questions about the extent to which we are allowed to have a preference for our own children over the children of others–basically, do we have a right to give to our own children, knowing that what we give to them effectively reduces what we can give to children in poverty around the world, and, if so, what are the limits that must morally be placed on this giving? This discussion was tough but very important for me as a mom. I think quite a bit, actually, about what my kids have compared to others. We really don’t buy toys for the kids much at all, and they rarely have new clothes, but they do have all they want to eat (not what they want to eat, my 3-year-old would point out!), great medical care, clean water, lots of attention from a well-rested and well-treated mom, access to safe and free recreation, books to look at…so very, very much. I do think, consciously, about not over-buying for them, both because we should be directing our resources elsewhere and because I believe that too much stuff is bad for them, but what about taking that further? Should we live in a less expensive neighborhood even if it means poorer-quality schools? Should I be working full-time on social justice causes rather than dedicating my time to them? I’m obviously exerting a preference for my kids’ well-being over the well-being of other kids, and I guess I really didn’t think about the questionable morality of that until I read this book. But now I kind of can’t stop thinking about it.

Overall, I was pretty enthralled by this book until the last two chapters when, much to my shock and somewhat dismay, Singer distills his philosophical arguments to a formula that dictates how much people should ethically be ‘expected’ to give to fight global poverty, and I find that, according to his standard, we’re already giving what we “should”. As in, without giving up my frivolous fountain drink splurges or our (very) occasional dinner out or any of the things we currently buy for our kids. Those last sections left me feeling pretty empty, really, and a little bit betrayed. Here I am wrestling with these moral quandries about my right to love my kids more than an unknown, hungry child somewhere, and the guy who has been causing me to ask myself these hard questions suddenly says that, according to his formula, I’m all good? Even though I know that I could/should be doing more? But because we don’t make more money, we’re somehow off the hook for giving sacrificially to fight global desperation? Talk about a letdown.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has read the book or has thoughts about Singer’s other philosophy or my quandries above. And I’d also take feedback about whether reviews like this are at all helpful to you and/or how to structure them to make them more so. And I’ll keep wading through the rest of that pile!

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