First published in The Big Issue
Peter Singer, philosopher and surfer, does not believe in retail therapy. In fact, he wants people to give more away. Even in tough economic times, he argues, people can afford to help those less fortunate than themselves.
It’s scorching hot. Peter Singer, philosopher, is sitting in a jumbled cafe-cum-general store in Anglesea, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. He’s wearing red board shorts, a beach t-shirt and a cheap digital watch. “Diogenes the Cynic was supposed to have lived in a barrel, otherwise naked,” he quips. “I’m closer to that than a business suit, which is what some American philosophers wear.” The 62-year-old, one of the world’s most influential thinkers, took up long-board surfing five years ago. He is relaxed and cordial, and speaks with unwavering logical control. “There’s a lot of unnecessary suffering in the world,” says Singer, leaning forward in his chair. “I’d like to do something to reduce it.”
That’s the matter-of-fact motivation driving Singer’s work. In a career spanning four decades and 25 books, the Australian-born philosopher, academic and author has confronted issues ranging from animal liberation and euthanasia to the ethics of day-to-day life. “I guess I enjoy a good argument,” he continues, wryly. “People always said, even when I was a kid, that I liked to argue.”
In his latest book, The Life You Can Save, he argues that the rich – and, on a global scale, that means almost all Australians – are morally obliged to give more aid to end extreme poverty overseas. Nearly 27,000 children die every day from preventable diseases and more than 1.4 billion people are living on less than US$1.25 per day.
Singer wants to change our understanding of what it means for people in affluent countries to lead an ethical life. “Most of us are absolutely certain that we wouldn’t hesitate to save a drowning child, and that we would do it at considerable cost to ourselves,” he writes. “Yet while thousands of children die each day, we spend money on things we take for granted and would hardly miss if they were not there. Is that wrong?” Singer’s answer – set out in a clear and compelling manner in his book – is an unequivocal ‘yes’. This is a book that deserves close attention: it has the potential to change lives.
The Life You Can Save is an extended reprise of an argument made in one of Singer’s first published essays, ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, written in the early 70s when he was just 25. In that essay, and again now, he argues that people should give money to aid agencies because, by doing so, it is possible to prevent death and suffering without giving up anything nearly as important.
That might not sound controversial. But Singer maintains that when people choose not to donate, and instead spent their money on other items, they are implicitly valuing those items more highly than the lives of the poor.
For Singer, the ethically justifiable action is to give money away to the point where, by giving any more, you would cause as much suffering to yourself as you would relieve by your gift. At the least, spending on luxury goods or exotic holidays is morally wrong.
In the new book, he softens this position by also offering readers a less demanding standard of giving: most people, he argues, should give 5% of annual income (more for the very rich, on a sliding scale). “It’s an attempt to get away from the idea that you have to live so that everything you do is costed against what it could do to save a life of another,” he explains. He maintains that this standard, if widely adopted, would be sufficient to end world poverty.
As well as its ethical slap, the book offers a close factual analysis of global poverty, affluence and the ins-and-outs of aid. Singer examines the reasons why we do and don’t give, rebuts common objections to giving and sets out its likely benefits.
Beachgoers come and go from the café; the cash register rattles. Against this backdrop, extreme poverty seems a far-flung concern. And Singer is wary of the potential for domestic economic worries to further undermine aid for the world’s poorest. But he is encouraged to see more discussion of ethics in public life. With a rack of glossy magazines at his left shoulder, he says: “I think maybe the recession does make us take stock of where we are and what we really need, and [also] makes us think about values in a more fundamental way.”
Since 1999, he has split his time between Australia and the US, where he teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey. He gives a third of his income to charity and says he lives a very comfortable and enjoyable life. “I’ve improved over the years, but I know that there’s still a lot more I could be giving.”
He wants to create a public culture of charitable giving. Citing evidence that people are more willing to give if they know others are too, he encourages his readers to tell friends and family about what they donate. The sweetener to his story is that, far from diminishing your wellbeing, giving money away can make you happier. Both age-old wisdom and recent neurological studies link giving with fulfilment. “You can make a difference and it will make your life better as well,” Singer says. “I really think that’s true.”