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The Life You Can Save

  1. Jan 17, 2011 #1
    I just finished Peter Singer's book "The Life You Can Save". It deals with practical ethics in approaching the topic of extreme poverty in the world. Peter essentially argues that any money spent on non-essential items and services is morally wrong. That money could be spent helping save the life a child who needs a vaccination or a sick widow on the street.

    Peter stresses the term extreme poverty. Not someone who just lives in a trailer or someone on the street. Rather it's where someone's life is in real danger and has no real options (think africa...india...).

    Peter gives an example of walking past a pond where a child is drowning. Most people will of course try to save the child by running in. If the option to save the child was that the passerby had to pay $5 a month for a few years, the vast majority would still do it. So why don't most people elect to save a child, say in in india, instead of going to a movie or buying an extra pair of shoes?

    Of course I think the most powerful excuse is "out of sight, out of mind". But that is really no excuse. So Peter thinks we all live immorally and every day we indirectly let people die while continue to live relatively comfortable and extravagant lives.

    Your thoughts?

    http://www.thelifeyoucansave.com/idea [Broken]
    Last edited: May 5, 2017
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  3. Jan 17, 2011 #2


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    Human nature. I also think a lot of people think that they can live the good life now and at some point, they'll return the favor to society... in the future... always.

    Then there's the idea of "How can not buying a pair of shoes help someone in Sierra Leon or Niger?" The immediate response could be "give to cause X or cause Y". Then you can immediately respond "I don't trust cause X/Y, how do I know the money gets to the children?". I even hear some people respond "I don't give to them because they're mormons/christians/whatevers!" as if that really matters.

    Then of course some people say that since they pay their taxes and that (in the US) our country is the largest provider of aid to africa, they are already helping children in africa. I believe under Bush, the amount of aid almost doubled to a couple billion a year so uhm... I suppose everyone has given about $8 a year. Not the greatest pair of shoes in my opinion.

    I think the Haitian disaster was a good example of how people in the US view helping out people in poor countries. I remember reading an op-ed or an actual article about how someone didn't give any money at some donation booth or something for some reason (I don't remember the reason but it was a good one). The group that person was with and I believe the people running the donation booth got very belligerent with her complaining about how could she be so heartless. Guess what? She was a regular volunteer at a soup kitchen and did some other charitable work on a regular basis that I can't recall. Moral of the story? I think most Americans only care to be charitable when a celebrity or "everyone else" is being charitable. As if it is a social status thing.
  4. Jan 17, 2011 #3
    Without reading or knowing about this book, my family was just talking about the subject yesterday.
    We do not live high, fact is much more simple we would be Amish.
    We gave money to the Haiti Relief funds. We boxed supplies with them under the direction of the NYC Haitian community.
    Greg, I don't think any of the money or supplies got to the people.
    I don't think it's that people don't care, I think it's hard to know who be able to run the funds through and organize in the areas we think we are helping.
    Most of us know you travel and have seen a lot. That you are a dooer of good deeds. You have helped a lot. Had we known you were going ahead of time and knew you better then, we would have done better to send the money with you.. You could have found the little shoes and put them on the little feet yourself!
  5. Jan 17, 2011 #4
    Certainly, but again, it's no excuse and Singer's argument holds. Those children who need a vaccine can't wait for our "future".

    Indeed a problem and Singer dedicates an entire chapter to the issue of charity selection. He seems to favor UNICEF and claims proper charity investigation is well worth the effort.

    Interesting. The impact of Peter's claim is that he suggests donating +50% of what we make. Again, he wants us to think about a child we could vaccinate when we reach for soda. That is the power of the argument.

    It helps to get national attention. Again, it's the "out of sight, out of mind". However thousands of people suffer and die every day that could have been saved, but instead we buy those 24 packs of coke and buy $30k trucks. We know this but we continue to act this way. So we decide to not save a child every day we buy something we don't need.
  6. Jan 17, 2011 #5
    I don't know if Peter talked about this in his well meaning book, but there are gangs, lame governments, politics, crime, violence and total disorgaization in the best cases keeping the supplies from getting to the people in Haiti.
    I know your going to win the Noble Prize for peace one day, but Greg, you are going to have to do the math. That would be upstairs here on this sweet forum your posting. :smile:
  7. Jan 17, 2011 #6
    Yes, but that is not a reason to avoid giving. There is an organization called http://www.charitynavigator.org/ that evaluates charities. There you can find the good ones.

    I want to stress that Peter also does not support directly giving the people in extreme poverty money or food. He advocates money go towards primarily to medical services and education.
  8. Jan 17, 2011 #7
    Thank you for the link and look forward to touring the site in the morning. Medicine and education are a tall order. Hoping that you young people will have clear heads in spite of the confusion and materialistic world your senior generations have left you. That you can organize and create a dialoug that will succeed in getting enough to everyone.
    There are so many young people with health and wealth of good intentions.
    Find one another and make it happen.
    We here and there will follow this link.
    Thank you for your post.
  9. Jan 17, 2011 #8


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    It really doesn't help. A parent doesn't teach a child to eat healthy if they eat a salad for every meal for one week every year as an example. I think when you have these disasters and celebrities get all gung ho for 5 minutes and then continue on with their private jets taking them everywhere, you're basically doing the same thing. The parent thinks they have done their part and in the end, they'll have achieved nothing. Same thing here. People believe they're charitable because they were forced once a year or so to actually give $10. I bet if you had an option to give $10 to UNICEF out of your paycheck, few people would, even though that would raise probably $20+ billion every year if even half the population opted in.

    And yes, none of the reasons I listed are good reasons to not give. However, they are the reasons people use. People are distrustful. To top it off, unlike say Habitat for Humanity, you can't drive by the village you helped support to make you feel like it was worth it like you could the house you helped build.

    In my opinion, a society has to develop charitable habits when it comes to people outside of the US. A quick search found http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/News/2009/docs/GivingReaches300billion_06102009.pdf" stating international giving makes up only 4% of the $300 billion Americans give each year. Animal causes received 2% in relation.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  10. Jan 17, 2011 #9
    Certainly there are many reasons why we don't give (99% indefensible). What I'm really after here is a response to Singer's argument that "that any money spent on non-essential items and services rather than giving is morally wrong". I want people to take it completely literally. How do you feel about eating a candy bar when that money could have saved a child. We are essentially murders! Does this make us bad people? We are walking past the drowning child in the lake. How do you deal with this? Candy bar vs child. Millions pick candy bar. Child dies. How does this make you feel?
  11. Jan 17, 2011 #10


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    Personally I would favour a non-interference policy in other cultures (africa, india...). They should develop and grow on their own. Admitedly a lot of them (if not all) have been directly affected by western culture in the past or at the present.
  12. Jan 17, 2011 #11


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    No, we're walking past our own neighborhoods while the child drowns 5000 miles away. There are great philosophical arguments about the morality of the situation. I think it is immoral, however. You can start running into some slippery slope arguments about all of this (eg. is it immoral to let the vaccinated kid then fall victim to starvation? then is it immoral to let the vaccinated, "well" nourished kid go without at least a high school education? then is it immoral to let the kid grow up and die in tribal warfare?). Unfortunately we aren't even near any of that and I'd be happy to see the day where the morality lies with whether or not we have to educate a vaccinated, well nourished 3rd world child.

    Oddly enough, the cultures that were interfered with the most in the past are the ones who are doing better (all things are relative of course). If we let them to their own devices, they would probably be a few hundred years away from the level we're at, at the least.
  13. Jan 17, 2011 #12
    In terms of this argument, I believe it rests on the notion of immediate survival. Extreme poverty is one in which a person is not meeting it's survival needs. One in which a $15 vaccine will save it's life. What happens 10 years down the road is another story. But even in your scenario, you can ask yourself the simple question. Should a savable child die tomorrow because you think it's immoral for it to grow up without a high school education?

    So you admit it's immoral. Tomorrow you will likely spend some money on things you don't really need. Money that could go to a saving a child that will die if you do not help. How will you live with that? No matter the distance, that child you could have saved has died. Does that make you a bad person? (i'm not trying to badger, just trying to get interesting answers)
  14. Jan 17, 2011 #13
    Disguised Marxism.
  15. Jan 17, 2011 #14
    So what. The argument stands.
  16. Jan 17, 2011 #15


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    I don't see that as a reason to get involved. The governments will eventually learn to take care of their people.
  17. Jan 17, 2011 #16


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    No. I think whether or not a person is good or bad is a compilation of how they act throughout their entire life. It certainly is a notch on the immoral tally though. It doesn't bother me though because if you start running through these arguments, you can easily either 1) find enough reasons to make yourself out to be on the same level as Hitler or 2) marginalize everything so that it's all irrelevant. I rather not open that box.
  18. Jan 17, 2011 #17


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    Sure. That's the core of the whole idea of charity though. Even homeless people can eventually get back on their feet without the help of charity. However, morally do we really want them to have to?
  19. Jan 17, 2011 #18


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    The modern western society is built upon buying non-essential items and services, if there had not been a culture for this how would be reach the level of technology and life expectancy we have today? And surely it's the state we are in now that economically allows us to help people suffering in the third world. If every dollar that would've gone to soda went to the third world, the soda industry would disappear. Same with everything else which provide that we don't need to survive. In the end, this would collapse the entire society as we know it today, and as individuals we would not have the economic freedom which allows us to donate. Hence it's absurd to call it morally wrong to spend money on non-essential items and services, for it would contradict the premise for the situation we are in that allows us to give money to the third world. There is always a "golden path", absolutism is seldom convincing.

    The most effective, and in my opinion most moral, would be to affirm laws which incorporates some affordable amount of money into taxation that goes directly to organizations which help people in the third world.
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2011
  20. Jan 17, 2011 #19
    Look, Greg, the solution is simple. Nobody forces those humans to reproduce. In fact, they shouldn't reproduce until they can afford the costs of raising a child.

    But if they do, it's utterly immoral to expect the rest of the population of the planet to raise their offspring. It's the same old song, "from each according to his ability to each according to his need". Utopians which beleive that humans are blank slates and hence they can be social engineered into anything.

    Second, raising to status is part of the human nature. Much of the so called "displays of status" are realized through non-essential items and services. Expensive art pieces, expensive cars, expensive designer clothes, whatever you got it.

    Spending on such apparently "non-essential" items fills a very specific niche in humans. They are far from being "non-essential". They are powerful signals which most definitely have a role in the polarization and hierarchic stratification of society. They have far reaching implications, which go as far as access to (more) mates. They are intrinsic part of the human psychology and neurobiology.
  21. Jan 17, 2011 #20
    Yes. Luck helps the ones which help themselves.
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