In 1971, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer made up a story about a drowning child. It was short and simple – a couple of sentences to illustrate a point in an essay about wealth, poverty and charity.
Singer didn’t give the child a name or gender: he or she was simply a hypothetical toddler whom a hypothetical passerby could choose either to rescue (at the cost of muddy clothes) or leave to drown. The question Singer then asked was whether you, as the passerby, would stop to save the child. (You probably think you know the answer, but hold that thought for a moment.)
Half a century later, Singer’s toddler is still busy drowning in the service of practical ethics. Singer invokes the scenario in lectures at Princeton University where he’s a professor of bioethics, in celebrity debates, in media interviews. In his book The Life You Can Save he tells the story again – this time with the added detail that the passer-by is wearing expensive new shoes that would be ruined by the pond-water.
The story in all its variations has become, in short, one of Singer’s greatest hits. So it seems almost sacrilegious to hear him announce he’s actually “a bit tired” of the child in the pond.
“I know what Mick Jagger feels like if he’s on stage and they say you gotta play “Satisfaction” again. You’ve just got to do it. That’s what people want to hear; it still has some impact; and it’s worth doing.”
The drowning story is still worth doing because the facts Singer hammered in 1971 are still broadly true: every day in poor countries thousands of children die for lack of food, shelter or medical care; many deaths could be prevented with well-understood, low-cost interventions; and most of the people living in developed nations could easily afford to donate enough money to save a life (or many lives) without any serious cost to their own wellbeing.
The kicker – both obvious and disturbing once it’s been pointed out – is that each time you choose not to spend a chunk of money saving the life of a poor person far away, and instead spend that money on, say, a $3 bottled water when there’s perfectly good water in the tap, you’re doing something morally equivalent to walking past that drowning toddler.
Six paragraphs ago, you were no doubt certain you’d wade into that pond, ruin your shoes and save the toddler, but trust me – once Singer’s got inside your head with his annoyingly bullet-proof analogies, that certainty starts to slip away.
The gist of Singer’s book ‘The Life You Can Save’, boiled down for a three-minute YouTube video.
In June Singer, 73, will be in Auckland as part of a four-city Australasian speaking tour. Earlier this month he talked to Stuff via Skype.
The tour’s focus is on how we can all “do more to help people in extreme poverty”. But there’ll be a Q and A at the end, so if anyone asks he’ll happily address any of the other big causes and controversies of his career – and there’ve been a few.
Singer’s brand of moral philosophy is utilitarianism – the idea that our choices should be guided by an effort to maximise happiness and positive outcomes, and to minimise suffering. The principle is hardly radical, but Singer has a knack for following its logic to conclusions not everyone likes.
He made powerful arguments for veganism and against animal experimentation in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. In Practical Ethics (1979, revised 1993 and 2011) he argued in favour of abortion, euthanasia and even, in certain extreme circumstances, the killing of profoundly disabled infants (a view that has intermittently sparked protests and event cancellations). He’s written a book comparing the moral rhetoric of President George W Bush to his moral behaviour. He’s weighed in on globalisation and performance-enhancing drugs, on baby surrogacy and climbing Mt Everest. When you’re a moral philosopher there’s an entire planet’s-worth of human behaviour to play with.
Singer was born in 1946, the child of non-religious Austrian Jews who’d fled Vienna in 1939 and settled in Melbourne. He wasn’t an especially moral child – “I don’t think I was any more honest in terms of stealing cookies than most of the kids around” – but one memory seems pertinent. He and his father were at a beach and saw a fisherman with his basket of catch.
“They were suffocating slowly, as fish do in the air, and my father said something like ‘I don’t know how anybody can think that it’s a pleasant afternoon to sit there while these fish are slowly dying beside them’. I think that moved me.”
He also grew up knowing three of his four grandparents had died in Hitler’s concentration camps, which “probably did have an effect in forming my views about injustice, about authoritarianism, about the use of force to achieve power and to silence opposition”.
As an undergraduate in Melbourne he protested against the Vietnam war and campaigned for abortion law reform, but it was as a postgrad at Oxford that he had an important lunchtime epiphany.
A colleague turned down a dish because the sauce contained meat, Singer asked why, and the colleague said he considered it unethical to kill animals for food. Singer was startled. It was the 1970s, he was a happily carnivorous Australian and this was “probably the first vegetarian I’d met”. But he swiftly realised it made perfect ethical sense, and within weeks he and his wife Renata went first vegetarian, then later vegan. (They’re still married, with three adult children.)
This was around the same time that Singer wrote Famine, Affluence and Morality – that famous essay featuring a drowning toddler. He returned to the same subject often, but it wasn’t till 2009 that he expanded his ideas into book-length as The Life You Can Save. The book was influential, and spawned a non-profit organisation of the same name.
Then last year, as Singer prepared a 10th-anniversary revised edition, the charity bought the book rights from his publishers so he could give it away. It’s now available for free from thelifeyoucansave.com – either as an ebook or as a celebrity-studded audiobook, in which Singer shares reading duties with the likes of comedian Stephen Fry, singer Paul Simon and actor Kristen Bell, star of the TV comedy The Good Place.
I downloaded the audiobook just before Christmas after hearing it advertised on a podcast. It’s 10 chapters of facts and figures, case studies about global poverty and wealth, and philosophical argument, all bound together with Singer’s clear, persuasive rhetoric.
The book takes deep dives into the psychology of charity, the pros and cons of billionaire philanthropists, and the growing “effective altruism” movement, yet the central message Singer is pushing is short and sweet: He says there are 700 million people in the world living on less than US$1.90 a day, and that each year more than five million children die before their fifth birthday. He points out that if you live in a developed nation, it’s extremely likely you could afford to direct a little (or a lot) of your own money towards improving or even saving some of those lives. And morally speaking, the fact that you can help means you must help (as per our drowning toddler) so, you know, get your credit card out right now!
To make that final step easy, the book directs you to an online list of 20-odd charities that are verifiably delivering lifesaving bang-for-buck: organisations that distribute mosquito nets in malarial regions, or provide cost-effective cataract surgeries, or arrange for iodine supplementation of the food supply, almost exclusively in poor countries. And in case you’re not sure how generous to be, Singer has set up an online calculator that suggests an annual donation based on your income.
I inhaled the audiobook in days, listening intently in my car or on headphones. I found it thoroughly convincing and – if you’ll excuse the naff self-improvement language – oddly empowering.
Singer’s a leftie. He ran for the Australian senate as a Green in the 1990s. You can tell he’s not entirely enamoured of consumerism and capitalism. But rather than wringing his hands while waiting for the revolution, he’s saying something can be done right now that will, definitely, make some things better.
He points to specific problems (famine, malaria, blindness, childbirth injuries), and names specific solutions (food aid, mosquito nets, cataract ops, fistula-repair hospitals) that can be delivered by named organisations at a specific cost, then he gives the web address so you can redirect some of your spare money somewhere that it could, quite literally, save a life. He even provides grounds for cautious optimism: it turns out extreme poverty and child mortality are already on a downward trend, proving that this isn’t a hopeless project.
I was sufficiently impressed by Singer’s words (and, OK, also by Stephen Fry’s diction) that I logged on and started browsing the charities and trying out Singer’s online calculator. Then quite coincidentally I was offered this Skype interview with Singer. I said yes – quietly excited at the idea of joining the “effective altruism” movement then talking to one of its ringleaders.
Anyway, fast-forward six weeks, and I’m on Skype with Singer and we’re talking about charitable giving and … well, to be blunt, I haven’t quite got around to setting up that donation.
I mean, first there was Christmas, and then a family camping holiday and then there was school stationery to buy and – somehow I’d managed to do precisely nothing for the starving millions.
Singer is a literal world expert on good intentions, so I ask: Why were mine were derailed so easily? Also, what kind of monster does this make me?
Singer is gentle.
“So I don’t want you to abandon your summer camping holiday with your family. Family is really important and I certainly have holidays with my family. But I do think it’s important to do something regularly. Setting up a monthly or recurring donation to the most effective charities you can find is a very good way of doing that because then you can set it and forget it. Or maybe revisit it annually and see whether you could ratchet it up just a little.”
His tone is just like that of his book: laidback, reasonable and polite, yet somehow relentless. He continues:
“What’s important is to think about your life and your goals, and whether just cruising through life and being with people you like and care about is enough. Or whether you want to have some larger purpose, to think, ‘My life is making a positive difference to people who are less fortunate than I am.’ A lot of people who do that actually find it becomes a more important part of their life.”
How much does Singer give himself?
“My wife and I started off giving 10 per cent back in the 70s, and we’ve built that up as we’ve become more comfortable. We’re around 40 per cent of our income now.”
In The Life You Can Save, Singer writes approvingly of super-altruistic individuals who’ve sacrificed much more than that, and not just in dollar terms. Does he ever feel guilty that he’s giving only 40 per cent? I mean, surely he could nudge that up to 41 per cent?
“I just accept that I’m not a saint. There are people in my book who are better than I am, people who’ve donated a kidney to a stranger. I still have two kidneys. And I could certainly live more parsimoniously and donate more as a result.”
Then the jab:
“On the other hand, maybe it’s the people like you who aren’t giving – or who are working their way up to giving 1 per cent – who make me feel, ‘Look, I’m not such a bad guy, I’m giving more than most.'”
Seeing we’re in secular confessional mode, and Singer is Mr Animal Rights, I decide to admit that I’m one of those people who accepts eating animals is ethically dodgy, but hasn’t got round to stopping. Is that better or worse than being an unapologetic meat-eater who just gets on with it?
Probably worse, says Singer, “because I find it harder to know what to say. If people say, ‘Well I don’t really think that animal suffering matters’, I’ve got arguments about why I think it does matter and I probably can persuade some people of that. But when people say ‘Yes, I know you’re absolutely right in terms of the ethics, but I just don’t want to do it’, it’s more difficult.”
Some meat-eaters respond to logic, but Singer doesn’t mind if it takes sentiment to get them across the line: “People having empathy with pigs and chickens is terrific.”
What troubles him, though, is that some people fail to generalise their empathy: “people who are outraged by the idea of eating dogs, but are not outraged at all by the idea of eating pig, although pigs are just as sentient and have needs just like dogs do”.
Then again, says Singer, some people take it in steps. You’ll get a dog-lover who will “see the similarity between the dogs they’re concerned about and the other animals that they’re eating”, and go from there.
It’s funny he should say this, because that is precisely how my son embarked on his journey towards vegetarianism a few years ago. I tell Singer how we were visiting a farm and met a hairy, snuffly pig who was strangely reminiscent of our border terrier Max, and how that day my son announced he would no longer eat pigs, and how his circle of empathy has since expanded to include all mammals and birds (though not yet fish).
Singer sounds delighted.
“Good! I hope you’re following him now. He should be the moral leader in the family.”
I stammer a little, and admit that though we’ve increased the proportion of meatless meals, we’re still at the only-freerange-pork phase. There are halfway houses on the road to enlightenment aren’t there, Peter? Aren’t there?
“OK,” says Peter Singer, esteemed bioethicist, philanthropic influencer, vegan thought-leader. “All right,” he says. “There are halfway houses.”
Later, I have lunch at a food court with an office vegetarian. I fancy the chicken curry but settle for a falafel wrap. Dinner that night is macaroni cheese, but the next day it’s steak. My moral evolution is clearly not yet complete.
Still, I figure there’s something I can do. I go back to thelifeyoucansave.com. The calculator says that based on my salary I should think about giving away 1 per cent of my pretax income (billionaires are instructed to give closer to 50 per cent).
I cheat slightly and discount the small monthly donations I’m already making to Barnardos and Amnesty (neither are directed at relieving extreme poverty so they’re not endorsed by Singer). Then I fish out my credit card and sign up to a regular donation to the Fred Hollows Foundation (Hollows was a Kiwi, so it seems a good choice).
And that’s it. On February 25 the first payment will go out. It’ll make virtually no difference to my ability to pay my bills, yet each month it’ll be enough to cover a cataract operation and a pair of glasses for someone I’ll never meet.
I agonise briefly about whether it’s obnoxious to publicly talk about one’s not-especially-generous charitable giving in a national paper. but then I remember that there’s a whole chapter in Singer’s book urging everyone to shout from the rooftops about their giving, because it it’s been shown to increases the frequency and quantity of other people’s giving.
So this is me shouting from the rooftops: I’ve just committed to giving away a small amount of money each month to some people I don’t know, and I’m pretty certain it will lead to something positive. It feels quite good.
* Update: On February 18 the intended Auckland venue, SkyCity, cancelled Singer’s booking after disability activists raised concerns about Singer’s views about infanticide of profoundly disabled newborns. As of February 19, event organiser ThinkInc said they were looking for a new Auckland venue. For latest information about the tour and booking of tickets, see thinkinc.org.au.
Sunday Star Times
- The Bachelor: Peter Weber asks Alayah Benavidez to return and gives her rose upon return as he angers other women
- EXCLUSIVE: Bachelor star Peter Weber shows off a scar above his eye that he got while filming and hints to DailyMailTV that he has found love at the end of the season as he's now 'very very happy'
- Pamela Anderson's secret fifth wedding! Baywatch star, 52, marries movie producer Jon Peters, 74, in Malibu ceremony 30 years after they first dated
- Halsey does drag! Singer transforms into David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Jimi Hendrix for The Advocate
- Peter Andre's daughter Princess reveals her dad's parenting fail in new video
- Michael Jackson Leaving Neverland documentary – Peter Andre spotted coming second in dance comp that led Wade Robson into ‘paedo’s’ clutches
Peter Singer: You've got to give till it (almost) hurts have 2941 words, post on www.stuff.co.nz at February 16, 2020. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.