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The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty [Hardcover]

Peter Singer
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 3 2009
This is the right time to ask yourself: “What should I be doing to help?”

For the first time in history, it is now within our reach to eradicate world poverty and the suffering it brings. Yet around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than many of us pay for bottled water. And though the number of deaths attributable to poverty worldwide has fallen dramatically in the past half-century, nearly ten million children still die unnecessarily each year. The people of the developed world face a profound choice: If we are not to turn our backs on a fifth of the world’s population, we must become part of the solution.

In The Life You Can Save, philosopher Peter Singer, named one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine, uses ethical arguments, provocative thought experiments, illuminating examples, and case studies of charitable giving to show that our current response to world poverty is not only insufficient but ethically indefensible.

Singer contends that we need to change our views of what is involved in living an ethical life. To help us play our part in bringing about that change, he offers a seven-point plan that mixes personal philanthropy (figuring how much to give and how best to give it), local activism (spreading the word in your community), and political awareness (contacting your representatives to ensure that your nation’s foreign aid is really directed to the world’s poorest people).

In The Life You Can Save, Singer makes the irrefutable argument that giving will make a huge difference in the lives of others, without diminishing the quality of our own. This book is an urgent call to action and a hopeful primer on the power of compassion, when mixed with rigorous investigation and careful reasoning, to lift others out of despair.

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Review

Advance praise for The Life You Can Save

“Part plea, part manifesto, part handbook, this short and surprisingly compelling book sets out to answer two difficult questions: why people in affluent countries should donate money to fight global poverty and how much each should give. . . . Singer doesn’t ask readers to choose between asceticism and self-indulgence; his solution can be found in the middle, and it is reasonable and rewarding for all.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“If you think you can’t afford to give money to the needy, I urge you to read this book. If you think you’re already giving enough, and to the right places, still I urge you to read this book. In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer makes a strong case–logical and factual, but also emotional–for why each of us should be doing more for the world’s impoverished. This book will challenge you to be a better person.”
–Holden Karnofsky, co-founder, GiveWell


“In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer challenges each of us to ask: Am I willing to make poverty history? Skillfully weaving together parable, philosophy, and hard statistics, he tackles the most familiar moral, ethical, and ideological obstacles to building a global culture of philanthropy, and sets the bar for how we as citizens might do our part to empower the world’s poor.”
–Raymond C. Offenheiser, president, Oxfam America

About the Author

Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than thirty books, including Animal Liberation, widely considered to be the founding statement of the animal rights movement, Practical Ethics, and One World: Ethics and Globalization.

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I bet you didn't know ..... March 20 2009
Format:Hardcover
I bet you didn't know that a copy of this book has been sent to the Prime Minister of Canada, Leader of the Opposition Ignatieff, Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and the other 304 Members of Parliament. Why? Because this is a book that deserves to be read by those who make the decisions that affect our country. The Life You Can Save is the culmination of Peter Singer's work in the area of applied ethics for over 30 years. His conclusions are as simple as they are profound: if we can reduce the suffering of some of the world's impoverished people by making modest personal (and national) sacrifices, then it is ethically indefensible for us not to do so. While some may say this is like asking for support for motherhood and apple pie, the point Singer is trying to reinforce is that small changes to our micro and macro spending patterns can better the lives of millions. This is a worthwhile message presented in a compelling manner.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Professor singer has written a very well thought out book, integrating intellectual, ethical, and emotional reasons for lending a hand to our fellow human beings.
His compelling arguments cannot be dismissed as mere "bleeding heart liberalism" or "political correctness". Nor does Mr. Singer allow us to hide behind justifications for doing nothing, such as simply blaming their poverty on over-population, laziness, corruption, etc, etc.

We live in an age of a high degree of narcissism, selfishness, materialism, greed/over-consumption, and entitlement, all fed into by the media and internet culture that allow us the illusion of feeling independent and disconnected, fostering self-satisfaction and passivity.

Mr. Singer's book is a wonderful break from that culture, and a call for responsibility and action, without feeling like he is "preaching" - which nobody likes.

An excellent book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Provides reasons for giving... April 21 2009
Format:Hardcover
"The Life You Can Save" effectively deconstructs all those many reasons why we, as relatively wealthy people, rationalize why we shouldn't give more to alleviate world poverty. This book provides wise, kind counsel.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  52 reviews
44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another cogent and timely argument from Singer March 15 2009
By Nicholas Soucy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In high school philosophy, we read Singer's brief article that has been called the "Singer Solution to Poverty," (actually entitled "Famine, Affluence, and Morality"). I first read it in 2001 but he authored it in 1971. It changed the way I think of poverty.

"The Life You Can Save" is an extrapolation of the above-mentioned argument, and a response to the critics who dismissed his 1971 argument as unfair, unrealistic or simply unnecessary.

His credentials: Singer has been lecturing, writing and researching world poverty for more than 30 years, and, as with his 30-year study and defense of animal rights, Singer is able to convince most any reasonable critic that his positions have unassailable merit.

You can simplify this book's thesis by saying that if you fail to share the part of your income that is beyond what you need for a comfortable life, then that failure to share is a moral wrongdoing. In other words, if you can meet all of your shelter, food, education, transportation and other practical needs with $200 weekly, then any additional dollars you make above $200 should be given to responsible charities like Oxfam or to low-interest micro-lending institutions like Yunus's Grameen Bank.

So, whom do you share your money with? With what Singer calls the "extreme poor"-- those with little access to food or clean water, health care, education, protection from guerrilla warfare, etc. (Check out sites like Give Well and Charity Navigator to help determine which groups make the most of your money.) This is in contrast to Europe's and North America's "relative poor" who are hard-off, but still usually have shelter and clean water/food.

One way I like to describe his thesis is as a `redefinition of luxury.' We may think mostly of sports cars, jewelry, iPods, plasma TVs and the like as the only luxuries, but as Singer points out, if you're drinking bottled water while you read this even though you have access to clean tap water then you are spending money on at least one thing you don't need.

That said, no one, not Singer or anyone else, would argue that money solves all problems. What does help is a cultural mind-shift. If we consume fewer luxuries, we are better off, and if we share our extra wealth with organizations that feed, shelter and medicate the poor, then we are also better off, globally. In this case, money can help get things going, but it's not a panacea; our actions will change the world, not just our cash.

Of course, you can spend locally as well. I prefer to donate time and labor to causes like homelessness and such, because your money gets stretched much farther in Haiti or Cameroon through Oxfam than it does in the U.S. I also think it's worth considering that U.S. shelters do get some gov't assistance from HUD and other sources, whereas a village in Belize probably doesn't get any grants at all.

It's important to understand that this isn't a guilt-focused book. If I teach my children that they ought to refrain from littering, I am not trying to guilt-trip them into environmental stewardship. It's an examination of the consequences of our actions and non-actions.

If, eventually, we agree to accept a lesser degree of entertainment and comfort in order to "make poverty history," then nearly everyone will enjoy a greater quality of life.

Examples: Think of the multibillion-dollar monument New York wants to build to memorialize 9/11 victims, or war monuments or on parades and athletic events. Or the billions we spend sending rockets and satellites to outer space. Or the $5 billion spent on the 2008 election cycle. Is it possible that money for monuments, fountains, statues, public art sculptures, trips to Mars, the Moon, elections, luxurious political and celebrity parties, etc. could better be spent taking care of our world's poor?

A final thought: you don't need to buy this $14 book either. Better to rent it from your library and give the $14 to an impoverished person. Or if you do buy it, share it with at least 10 other people before donating it to a library that doesn't have it.
51 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant work of philosophy that everyone should read! March 11 2009
By Travis M. Timmerman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In this relatively short book, Professor Singer makes an extremely compelling case for why it is morally obligatory for capable individuals to aid beings that suffer. Those that are familiar with his previous work will recognize his basic arguments on poverty, which he has been expanding upon for over three decades. For those who are unfamiliar with Peter Singer, the argument he expands upon in this book is quoted as follows...

1.) "Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad."
2.) "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."
3.) "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."

This argument is valid, and I think sound, so if one is to reject the conclusion, one MUST reject one (or more) of the premises. If they accept the premises, then they MUST accept the conclusion.

Professor Singer's logic is solid throughout. His writing is both lucid and entertaining, making this work accessible, absorbing and crucially important to philosophers and philosophical novices alike. This is simply a must read for everyone.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant piece of philosophical writing that everyone should read... Sept. 22 2010
By Travis M. Timmerman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this relatively short book, Professor Singer makes an extremely compelling case for why it is morally obligatory for capable individuals to aid beings that suffer. Those that are familiar with his previous work will recognize his basic arguments on poverty, which he has been expanding upon for over three decades. For those who are unfamiliar with Peter Singer, the argument he expands upon in this book is quoted as follows...

1.) "Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad."
2.) "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."
3.) "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."

This argument is valid, and I think sound, so if one is to reject the conclusion, one MUST reject one (or more) of the premises. If they accept the premises, then they MUST accept the conclusion.

Professor Singer's logic is solid throughout. His writing is both lucid and entertaining, making this work accessible, absorbing and crucially important to philosophers and philosophical novices alike. This is simply a must read for everyone.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Intro to Global Poverty and Charity July 27 2010
By Zachary Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is a great introduction to the philosophical issues surrounding global poverty and charitable giving. It is a simple fact that when you choose to buy something for yourself, you're choosing not to use that money to help the world's sick and starving. Singer takes this uncomfortable fact and examines it from many different perspectives. I highly recommend you read this book, think seriously about the issues it raises, and talk about these issues (as tactfully as possible) to as many friends and family members as you can. You will, in the most literal sense possible, save lives.
29 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Alienating and Misdirected June 2 2011
By JRG - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book has a lot of misdirected energy. For the majority of the book, the author makes the philosophical argument that as citizens of wealthy nations, we have the ethical responsibility to live ascetically and give all of our disposable income to charity. He then proceeds to explain our resistance to that idea as a function of "human nature", but comes off sounding like his knowledge of human nature is derived from the analysis of clinical studies more than from interactions with actual humans. He sounds petty and self-righteous at times, listing (to a weird degree of detail) the luxury items that certain uber-wealthy individuals have purchased, the cost of which could have saved countless lives. He derides parents who send their children to expensive private schools, but teaches at Princeton and tells *his* students (when they ask if it's morally wrong for their parents to be paying $44,000 a year to send them there) that the cost is justified because their Princeton education will open doors to lucrative jobs that will then allow them to donate more money to charity. He ultimately acknowledges that expecting people to give away all of their disposable income, while ethically obligatory, is unrealistic (even he doesn't do it), and closes by asking people to give a reasonable percentage of their income... so why not devote the book to that instead of alienating readers with a theoretical argument that even he can't abide? Beyond those issues, his approach for ending poverty - through generous donations of individuals to charities - address the symptoms of poverty, not the systemic causes.

If this book encourages people to give, or give more, that's great. And it seems, from all the positive reviews, that it's having that effect. But I think the pages of this book could have been more effectively utilized by starting with the reasonable request, showing how sufficient that reasonable request is (which he does at the end), and then going into more detail about how to make our donations go as far as possible.
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