Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 6, 2011

The Life You Can Save (2009), by Peter Singer

 I’m aware of the irony that I’ve just written my most-visited blog post ever, about why the Australian retailers campaign to have GST applied to online purchases overseas is so absurd, and now I’m blogging my response to Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save which is about something infinitely more important than a 10% tax on books.  But I’ve been reading Singer’s book, and I’d like to share his message widely.  Too bad if the timing is a little ironic.

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who is now a professor at Princeton University.  I have previously read his book about his grandparents Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna and also How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest,  As a secular humanist, I reject religion as a guide to morality and behaviour.  I believe that humans are neither inherently good nor bad but rather have a responsibility to use reason and ethics to make decisions about how to live a worthwhile life.  Hence my interest in books that have a practical approach to helping me to do this.

Peter Singer’s specialty is applied ethics and his numerous books have tackled all kinds of practical issues to do with everyday life.  He has explored vegetarianism, the ethics of expensive health care in western nations, euthanasia and abortion.  His stance on some of these issues have been controversial, in part because of his secular, preference utilitarian perspective.   This book, however, The Life You Can Save seems so far only to have generated generosity and giving, which I think it a very fine thing.

In a nutshell, Singer asks us why if we would not hesitate to jump into a pond to save the life of a drowning child, we do not have the same impulse to save the lives of children who are dying of preventable disease and malnutrition in developing countries.  He says that if we are choosing to spend money on bottled water, for example, when tap water is clean and safe, that we are spending money on luxuries that we could easily do without.  By giving just a small percentage of our incomes over the course of our working lives we can make a significant difference to a significant number of people, and if a whole heap of us did it, the UN could achieve the Millenium Goals sooner than 2015.   Sight can be restored for $60 AUD; a woman in Africa can have an obstetric fistula repaired for $450.00 AUD.  $35 AUD can provide anti-retroviral treatment for someone living with HIV/AIDS in a developing country.  These are life changing events for the individuals concerned but they also make these people economically productive and independent, which has a ripple effect.  The effect is even more powerful when whole village projects enable economic independence through, for example, education, health care or clean water projects or improvements in agricultural methods.

In a calm, reasonable and flawlessly logical way Singer demolishes all the usual objections:

  • Charity begins at home
  • I don’t want my child to go without for the benefit of some child I don’t know
  • I already pay taxes for the government to give foreign aid
  • I’ve worked for it so I can do what I like with my money
  • We don’t owe a duty to those to whom we’ve done nothing wrong
  • Philanthropy undermines real political change
  • Governments in poor countries are all corrupt
  • Giving money or food encourages dependency
  • The problem of global poverty is so big that nothing I do will make any difference.

Asked how much they thought their governments gave and should give, survey respondents in the US thought that their government gave  between 15% and 20% of government spending to foreign aid projects and should give between 5% and 10%.  In fact the only industrialised country to give less than the US is Greece.  In 2006, the US gave 0.18% of its Gross National Income in foreign aid.   Australia isn’t much better; it gave 0.3%.  And lest we argue that these stats are unfair because of private philanthropy for which the US and Australia think they are renowned, Singer has the stats to show that most of this is spent on at-home charity, much of it in the arts or at-home disaster relief.



And donating to alleviate extreme poverty does make a difference. ( There are, for example, now four schools in Cambodia that have clean water for the children to drink because of me, because I bought water filter systems for them instead of buying unwanted, wasteful Christmas presents for my colleagues at work.)  There are plenty of reputable charities making a real difference, no matter what kind of government exists where they work.  Singer cites The Fistula Relief Fund, the Fred Hollows Foundation, UNICEF and Oxfam; I’d also like to suggest  Médecins Sans Frontières but I’m sure there are others.   All these charities can do more with your donation when you pledge a regular amount, because then they don’t have to chase you with campaigns that cost money that could be better spent on alleviating extreme poverty: my regular monthly donation to Oxfam means they can count on my money for long-term projects).

Singer has a rational reasonable argument to rebut each of the reasons above, and makes a compelling argument for each of us to do our share.  What he asks is that we donate according to a progressive scale where those that earn more donate more.  If you visit his website, The Life You Can Save, you can calculate how much it should be, starting at 1% of your gross income (if you live in a country where you can claim your donations as a tax deduction) up to $154000 AUD/$105000 USD/£68000 GBP  getting closer to 5% as your income approaches 154 000 AUD/$105000 USD/£68000 GBP.  (There is a calculator on the site for other currencies as well).  I’ve been doing this for quite a while now, increasing it each time I get a pay rise, and I can honestly say I don’t miss it.

Singer also says it’s important to normalise this kind of donating by talking about it and creating a culture of giving.  Research shows that donors give more if they think others are giving more.  (There’s also some horrid research that shows that if people are asked to donate after they’ve been talking about money, investments and so on, they always give less.  Economics students apparently give less than Arts students do.)   That’s why his website has a page where  those who’ve taken his pledge can sign up in public.  To quote his website

Peter Singer suggests a new public standard for a minimum that we should expect people to give. By pledging to donate the percentage of your annual income that meets the standard, you will be making a difference to the poor. But that’s not all: you will also be helping to change the public standard of what is involved in living an ethical life in a world that contains both great affluence and extreme poverty.

You’ll find my name there.

Take the pledge.  Don’t do it later, do it now.  You could save someone’s life between now and next payday.  Click here.

Author: Peter Singer
Title: The Life You Can Save
Publisher: Text Publishing 2009
All author royalties to Oxfam; a portion of Text Publishing revenue to the Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund
ISBN: 9781921520013
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings Bookstore $34.95


  1. A very inspiring post, Lisa. I’m off to check out the website.


  2. Oh I will definitely be on the lookout for this book. My partner’s charity of choice is the Fred Hollow’s Foundation, mine is Fistula Relief and together we support Beyond Blue which is more local. To be honest, I am flabbergasted at the foreign aid percentages quoted and I feel the burden of guilt for not doing enough.
    I would add another objection to Singer’s quoted above (it is one I confess to having sometimes used myself) and that is the percentage of the money donated that goes toward administration and paperwork in some charitable organizations which leads to thoughts that the money is not being spent in the best possible way. I guess I just wish the charities didn’t have to send out so much paper in their bid to get more funds.
    Having said that, I always feel that I could do more and your post is timely, coming as it does just after the ‘festive season’.
    I was always taught that we should give quietly and secretly; that it was somehow ‘unbecoming’ to speak of our donations but I can understand the need for cultural change and will make an effort to be more forthright on the subject.
    Thanks, Lisa, for another great review.


    • Hello Karen, Singer does address that issue of the administrative costs of running the charity. (You might have noticed that I did not mention one high-profile charity you might have expected to see in my article, and that’s because they operate from a very large, very expensive-looking piece of real-estate in Burwood; they lost my annual donation the day they moved into that. I wasn’t the only one, there was an uproar about it in the media too).
      Singer says that (like any other business) development support agencies have a responsibility to analyse their operations to make sure they are cost-effective and he recognises that the public will only support those that put the donated money to the use it’s intended for. Increasingly these agencies include info about this in their marketing campaigns and also on the receipts that go out to regular donors at the end of each financial year.
      He also analyses the hidden cost impacts and benefits on foreign aid budgets too. Quite often government aid projects impose rules so that equipment, supplies or pharmaceuticals must be sourced from the donor country so that the project supports manufacturing even though the goods could be bought more cheaply elsewhere and so get more actual money to the project.
      It’s all very complex, and I guess that’s why I like this book. Singer has done the research and the hard thinking for me. Following his advice means I can donate the money without qualms – which makes me feel good and certainly less guilty about my little luxuries!


      • I’m sending a link to this post to a few of my girlfriends. Cheers.


  3. Brilliant post, Lisa. I’ve never been able to explain my philosophy or outlook on the world in a nutshell, because I’m not religious and I don’t believe that evil exists. But thanks to your post I can see I am quite clearly a secular humanist, I just never knew it. :-)

    Like Karen, I always thought donations etc should be given in secret, and not something to talk about, but now I understand that’s kind of silly. As you state, the more we talk about it the more we normalise it.

    At my last place of work they made it very easy to donate a percentage of your income to various charities. They simply gave you a form with all the main charities on it and you ticked the ones you wanted to donate to and how much you wanted to give them each month and it got taken out of your pay packet at source (for tax deductible purposes). You could also choose to name any charity not on their main list.

    Our company also used to nominate a charity every year (usually a London-based one to do with medical research, homelessness, etc) and for the entire 12 months all monies raised by the staff (cake stalls, raffles, marathons etc) would automatically go to that charity — and our company would match it £ for £.

    When I went to China we got to visit a school for mentally disabled adults, which our travel company (Intrepid) helps support. The school had a wish list stuck up on their wall of things they needed sponsorship for. I’ve never felt so Western and selfish when I looked at their list and saw they just needed the equivalent of £2 to buy a year’s supply of washing powder, or a new set of crockery, or toilet paper, or notebooks etc. These were just small things necessary for the running of the school and yet they could not afford to buy them. I wasn’t carrying much cash on me but I shoved what I had into their donation tin. I’ve since donated more online: (I plan on writing a post about the school at some point — it was a great experience to visit it.)

    But back to the book: it’s gone on to the wish list. Thanks for reviewing it.


    • I’ll bring the book with me when we meet for coffee, then you can read it on the plane back home:)
      One of Singer’s suggestions is that companies and employers do what yours did: if donating is automatic then people have to opt out, and that takes care of the I-meant-to-but-never-got-round-to-it problem. Because most people are good and kind and generous and just and when they think about it, they do want to donate. Making it opt-out rather than opt-in makes it easy.
      One of the most humiliating experiences I’ve had was on our first trip to Indonesia when The Spouse got a nasty rash on his feet and we went to a local clinic rather than traipse into Kuta (ugh!) from Ubud. The clinic was a very rudimentary affair, just a table and chairs in a dimly lit room by ony a table lamp and a small cupboard holding very basic equipment that wouldn’t fill an ordinary first aid kit at home in Australia. The doctor diagnosed an allergy to eggs, prescribed vinegar as a cure and would only take the normal consultation fee from us, about $1.50. Perhaps he was afraid of being accused of corruption but all we wanted to do was to give him what such a consultation would have cost us in Australia so that the clinic could buy some extra supplies…


  4. PS to Kim, I had a look at the Intrepid Foundation site and that gave me the idea of adding these development NGOs to my blogroll under the heading ‘please donate to’. I’m going to do the same thing on my Travel Blog, so thanks for triggering the idea:)


    • Excellent, Lisa! Intrepid also match dollar for dollar any donation you give, and they do NOT take admin costs out of your donation so you know the full whack goes to the people who matter.


  5. Why we must give, not counting the cost? For one thing we affirm a certain step in tune with our conviction; by giving we are also releasing the hold of necessity that makes us slave to habit and self.
    There are so many unknown factors at play that make what money scrimped and saved not serving the purpose when need arises. By sharing from our abundance to causes at home or abroad we may be creating buffers so our own savings are not hurt unduly. Both these eventualities are hypothetical, of course. How can one say our savings will not be wiped off by a global economic meltdown? By the same argument how can any one be certain our help to worthy causes in far corners of the globe will not soften the blow or prevent our losses altogether?
    These are besides the point. But certainty that we have already hardened ourselves not to be unduly thrown out by causes outside our control is the main thing. Charity is one way of building up our self-sufficiency.


    • Benny, Singer doesn’t say we shouldn’t count the cost. What he’s asking us to do is to identify luxuries we can do without, and to give a very small percentage of our incomes.


  6. Thanks for the thorough review, Lisa. Peter Singer has been an inspiration for me for years, since I read How Are We to Live? I realise the need to “normalise” donating by talking about it, but this takes much care and skill – it would be so easy for one to be seen as boasting, which could be counterproductive. The other dilemma for me is the relationship between donor and recipients. I used to like the idea of an actual relationship, and made visits to villages my donations had helped. I loved meeting the people, enjoying their hospitality, and seeing concrete achievements, but I was also uneasy, feeling unable to shake the role of rich Western benefactor, worrying that by being there I was creating unrealistic expectations and encouraging dependency. So now I try to stay in the background, like Maimonides and his ladder of charity (described in How Are We to Live?) – give so that one does not know whom one benefits and they do not know who benefits them.


    • Hello Bryce, yes, I agree that How Are We to Live was inspirational – it’s the one that made me start reading Singer.
      I can see what you’re saying about the ‘boasting’ – and there’s another peril too which Singer does address, that when very rich people like Bill Gates give vast amounts of their wealth, there’s a tendncy (which I have to confess to) to ask ‘why only that much, he can easily afford more). But he makes such a compelling case for spreading the word that I find him convincing.
      Re the donor-and-recipient relationship, I know many fine people who sponsor a child or have a personal relationship with some village somewhere through a project, and I do not for a moment question their integrity. For myself, however, I feel more comfortable at arm’s length, and have felt acutely uncomfortable in the unexpected role of ‘rich Western benefactor, see This is where the question of trust in the aid agency comes in. I do not need to confirm for myself that Oxfam is spending my money wisely and like you would rather stay in the background.
      One other thing I haven’t addressed in my post is the need to pester politicians. That 0.3% Australian foreign aid statistic bothers me and shames our nation, and each time there’s a change of government I pester them again to raise it, but it’s going to take a great many people to change their attitude to foreign aid before governments see it as something they could change without criticism.


  7. This is a fantastic post; thanks to Kimbofo for tweeting about it.

    We share a world view and now I can articulate it much better and even have a name for it!


    • Thank you ‘Coops’ – it’s nice to share a world view about something so important!


  8. […] I’ve reviewed a couple of his books about philanthropy (The Most Good You Can Do, and The Life You Can Save) but this latest title Ethics in the Real World  is different because it ranges widely over a […]


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