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Utilitarian Lifesaving

Peter Singer — Australian, Utilitarian, Princeton philosopher — has long been famous in the animal rights world for his arguments against cruelty associated with carnivorism. His book The Life You Can Save focuses on human suffering and explores arguments in favor of greatly increased charity toward those in the worst corners of the world, the poor and sick mainly located in Africa, Asia, and less-developed areas of the Americas.

It's a fast-reading but complex and multifaceted discussion, convincing in many parts, shaky in others. From near the beginning of the book Singer mixes intellectual fallacies, such as appeals to emotion, with solid logic and fact. Wealthy people — meaning virtually all of us who may read this — throw away money on frills, in Singer's judgment, like bottled water, fancy cars, spectator sports, etc. Yes, we enjoy them. But we should, Singer contends, throttle back on such spending in order to donate several percent of our income to organizations like Oxfam that efficiently direct resources toward projects that save lives and lift people out of poverty.

Hard to argue with some of that. Singer's heart-wrenching examples of suffering are unforgettable. And the quantitative estimates of how much it costs per death prevented, per major medical problem repaired, etc. all add weight to the case. It turns out, for instance, that factoring in all the probabilities and overhead, most anti-disease campaigns are only a few tens of dollars per life saved — more than the pennies that are sometimes advertised, yet still shockingly low.

But there are weaknesses. Singer's arguments against (most) saving for retirement and against (much) charity toward local higher education and hospitals, etc., are (largely) questionable. Likewise his attempts to compute a sliding-scale formula for the appropriate percentage that well-off people should donate from their income and accumulated wealth. That doesn't mean he's wrong; it does suggest that more careful thinking is needed in those areas. (His unstated bottom line judgment: tithing isn't too far off. More would be better, if you're rich enough to afford it.)

And the key questions that Peter Singer tries to explore — fairness and inequality and obligation — remain tough challenges. The Life You Can Save is a flawed but unblinking look into those areas of ethics and social morality.

(cf. EstateTax (2005-05-06), Philanthropy and Charity (2010-03-28), ...) - ^z - 2013-10-20

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