Imagine you’re on your way to work, and you see a child drowning in a shallow pond. Would you save the child, even if it meant being late for work and ruining your shoes? Of course you would. But now pretend the child is one of the 6.9 million who UNICEF says died in 2011 of preventable poverty-related diseases. The philosopher Peter Singer suggests the moral logic is the same: Everyone who has the extra time and money that come with living even a middle-class life in the developed world could donate enough money to save a child. That means we’re all effectively guilty of walking by while 19,000 children drown, every single day.
“The fact that they’re not right in front of us, the fact, of course, that they’re of a different nationality or race: None of that seems morally relevant to me,” he said in a recent TED talk. “What is really important is can we reduce that death toll? Can we save some of those 19,000 children dying every day? And the answer is yes, we can.”
Singer has been making this argument for 40 years, and not much has changed, philosophically speaking. What’s changed is that now, instead of focusing on the philosophy, Singer is focusing on getting people to actually try to save lives, and he appears to be succeeding.
What began as a book called The Life You Can Save has become what he calls a movement for “effective altruism.” Instead of asking people to give until they can give no more, he asks for a modest pledge: “Any percentage of your income that feels appropriate to you now.” (His website suggested I donate 2.3%.) More than 15,000 have done so.
Beyond that, most of his attention–and that of fellow travelers like Giving What We Can–is on where to send that extra money. He draws on the work of charity evaluators like Give Well to demonstrate how most aid organizations that deal with the neediest–like Oxfam, Give Directly and the Against Malaria Foundation–can turn dollars donated into lives saved. The basic insight is simple: Doing good is possible, and it doesn’t have to be hard.
At the end of his TED talk, Peter Singer brings up a picture of Chris Croy, who was inspired by Singer to donate one of his kidneys. At first Singer felt guilty–he still has both his kidneys–but Croy reassured him that he could save a life with much less sacrifice. Singer’s website calculates the Against Malaria Foundation can save a life for $1,865.
“If you’re feeling bad because you still have two kidneys as well,” Singer says in closing. “There’s a way for you to get off the hook.”