Book of the week
The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

by Peter Singer's inspi
(Random House, 206 pages, $22)

“There is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views of what it is to live the good life,” says Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. Most people who saw a child drowning in a pond, he says, wouldn’t hesitate to jump in even if the rescue attempt was sure to ruin their new shoes. But far too many of us are able every day to rationalize buying a useless bottle of water when the same daily expenditure would save one of the 18 million people who die from poverty each year in developing countries. No great sacrifices would even be required to eliminate extreme poverty entirely. It could be done, Singer says, if most individuals lucky enough to make more than $105,000 a year devoted just 5 percent of their income to the cause.

Singer makes it all sound so simple, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Already “America’s most famous specialist in applied ethics,” he’s now delivered a book that “instantly” distinguishes him as the “most readable and lapel-grabbing” of all the serious thinkers who’ve attempted to jolt the world into recognizing that poverty may be solvable. The Life You Can Save is “part rational argument, part stinging manifesto, part handbook.” And because the author of one of the “founding texts” of the animal-rights movement produced it only after pondering poverty for more than 35 years, it even anticipates most arguments against it. Knowing that some charities waste lots of money, he identifies some that don’t. Knowing that charity can “breed dependence,” he argues that experimentation will work out the kinks.

That doesn’t mean Singer’s arguments can all be trusted, said Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe. This is the same deep thinker who used his considerable persuasive skills a few years ago to suggest it’s time we all get over the hang-ups that keep us from exterminating severely disabled infants. What’s troubling in this work is that Singer never confronts the significant differences between sending money to a charitable group and saving a drowning child, said William Easterly in The Wall Street Journal. Singer’s “compelling moral voice” is indeed inspirational. But as long as some of our charitable dollars wind up empowering parties that oppress the people we intend to help, there’s no guarantee that a mass awakening of the charitable spirit is enough.