Call to Alms


Publishers ought to post a warning on the cover of any book by philosopher Peter Singer: Caution-Contents may cause dramatic changes in the way you live your life. More than 30 years ago, I read Animal Liberation, Singer’s compelling case against speciesism, the arrogant belief that other animals exist to feed, clothe and entertain us. I have not swallowed a morsel of meat since.

Despite its unremarkable cover price, Singer’s latest effort aspires to be the most expensive book of a lean year. Its purpose is to persuade readers to part with significant portions of their personal capital. Singer, an Australian who has taught at Princeton since 1999, argues that the most effective way to eliminate extreme poverty is for those living comfortably to sacrifice a fair share of their wealth. A fair share, by Singer’s calculation, is a bountiful portion: “[W]e must give until if we gave more, we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the bad things our donation can prevent.” Singer argues that those bad things-malnutrition, homelessness, disease, despair, early death-could be prevented if readers chose to forgo luxuries that only seem necessary.

According to the World Bank, 1.4 billion of the world’s 6.7 billion people live in extreme poverty, defined as subsistence on less than $1.25 per day. The fact that 27,000 children die daily from avoidable causes is an outrage, as well as the starting point for the advancement of Singer’s moral argument: “If it is within your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.” In other words, by redirecting our wealth to programs that help the world’s poorest, we can do the right thing.

The Life You Can Save

Singer’s ideas are making their way into print as a large chunk of our national wealth has been evaporating. Yet despite the failure of financial institutions and devastating spikes in unemployment and foreclosures, most Americans remain far better off than the poverty-stricken in Bangladesh and Burkina Faso.

What does it cost to do the right thing? According to a government study, Americans waste $100 billion worth of food every year. The money Americans spent in 2006 on 31 billion liters of bottled water might have brought potable water to destitute villagers in Africa and Asia. According to fashion designer Deborah Lindquist, Singer writes, “the average American woman owns more than $600 worth of clothing that she has not worn in the last year.” Given such profligacy, who but the most heartless Malthusian would be unwilling to sacrifice between $200 and $2,000, Singer’s estimated cost of saving a life in Chad or Haiti?

According to the relief organization Nothing But Nets, a $10 mosquito net can save a child from death by malaria. Students Partnership Worldwide has been providing arsenic filters for drinking water in Nepal for $3.33 per family. Still, the total price for protecting the vulnerable from starvation, dehydration and disease remains imprecise. Even if we could feed, shelter and inoculate a Congolese child for a week or a month or a year, what would it take to immunize that child from the lethal effects of war? Singer doesn’t say.

Because the truly wretched of the earth do not live in the United States, where destitution rarely means starvation, Singer contends that even in the current recession, our charitable efforts should be aimed abroad. Although he suggests that all developing nations share a responsibility to aid the truly poor, his book is aimed primarily at one of the world’s richest nations, the United States.

One might liken Singer to Mrs. Jellyby, the Bleak House character Charles Dickens mocks for her “telescopic philanthropy”-an obsession with helping African unfortunates that leads her to neglect her own family-except that Singer himself dismisses mockery of Mrs. Jellyby as a relic of a bygone age, before globalization and instant communications made indifference to the rest of the world a reckless indulgence. It has become increasingly difficult for philanthropy to distinguish between telescopes and microscopes.

While isolation may be an illusion, the United States remains stingier than any government but Greece in allocating foreign aid, spending a scant 18 cents for every $100 of national income. Even with private giving factored in, the total comes to only 25 cents for every $100. Though the United States continues to donate more than other countries in terms of raw dollars, the U.S. can and should, Singer argues, boost the percentage of wealth it contributes to combat poverty abroad.

In Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, also published last month, Dambisa Moyo fulminates against foreign aid. “The notion that aid can alleviate systemic poverty, and has done so, is a myth,” writes Moyo, a Somali economist who deplores the debilitating culture of dependency that aid can foster. “Millions in Africa are poorer today because of aid; misery and poverty have not ended but increased. Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.”

Singer anticipates Moyo’s hyperbolic claims with practical advice on how to ensure that aid is put to effective and efficient use. To save lives, it is not necessary to enrich corrupt officials or create cultures of dependency, and he recounts successful cases of targeted giving and enlightened microfinancing. Organizations with minimal administrative expenses that Singer identifies as particularly proficient include the World Health Organization, Population Services International, Partners in Health, Interplast, Opportunity International and the Fistula Foundation. Singer is donating his royalties to Oxfam America, which provides emergency relief, development aid and advocacy in the Americas and parts of Africa and East Asia, and to Givewell, a nonprofit that monitors the performance of charities.

Some version of the Golden Rule is fundamental to most of the world’s religious and ethical systems, though self-interest so dominates contemporary culture that genuine acts of altruism can seem almost pathological, or else sly strategies for self-promotion. To the cynic, serving others is always self-serving. In The Missionary Position (1996), Christopher Hitchens mocks Mother Teresa’s fame as a paragon of humility. It might be tempting to dismiss Zell Kravinsky, the Philadelphia real estate tycoon who gave away most of his $45 million fortune and donated one of his kidneys to a stranger, as deranged, but Singer sees him as a saint. He also salutes Paul Farmer, the Harvard-trained physician who has donated all his income to Partners in Health, which he cofounded, and most of his energies to caring for the indigent of Haiti.

Noting that it makes us happy to be generous, Singer suggests that self-gratification is a sufficient-and benign-reason to act altruistically. He does not pursue the argument that it may run counter to our self-interest to inhabit islands of affluence.

While carping over Bill Gates’ indulgence in a $135 million lakeside house, Singer praises him for giving away more than $28.8 billion. Singer faults Paul Allen, worth $16 billion, for giving away a paltry $900 million while pampering himself with a $200-million yacht. Singer writes reverently about the 50 Percent League, a group of more than 100 Americans who have given away at least half their wealth or income for each of the past three years. Recognizing that few others are ready to match these models of largesse, he offers a sliding scale of suggested donations, beginning with those in the $105,001-$148,000 bracket, who, Singer says, should surrender 5 percent of their income. Those in the highest bracket, making over $10.7 million, should donate “5% of the first $148,000, 10% of the next $235,000, 15% of the next $217,000, 20% of the next $1.3 million, 25% of the next $8.8 million, and 33.33% of the remainder.”

Singer targets Americans here and stresses that he’s suggesting only voluntary donations, not changing the tax code.

To some, wealth is a sign of personal grace, and in their eyes the poor richly deserve their grim fate. Those who oppose human interference in the economic order are often the same people who cite Scripture to justify their piece of the pie, conveniently omitting inconvenient passages regarding camels and needles’ eyes.

For others, the gospel of free enterprise justifies non-interference in the misfortunes of others. If we do interfere, are we also purchasing authority? By saving a child from malaria, have we also bought the right to plan the size of her family and the size of her country’s military budget?

For the rest of us, who occupy an everlasting battleground between charity and vanity, Singer’s call to alms is likely to be less problematic than his moral calculus. One might agree that we all bear some responsibility for the world in which we live and that extreme poverty is a challenge to our shared humanity. Still, one can question whether eradicating poverty ought to be our exclusive aim. As wretched as it is to live on $1.24 a day, it might be just as bad to die of AIDS, cancer or Ebola. Singer doesn’t acknowledge the urgency of efforts to discover the causes and cures for devastating diseases. Nor does he recognize a responsibility to use wealth to advance social justice, human rights, environmental protection or peace. Must we deny support to the ACLU, Amnesty International and Greenpeace to bankroll Oxfam? The very poor may be the most helpless of our species, but they are not nearly as vulnerable as the millions of dogs, whales, cows and chickens who are abused and killed at our pleasure. A champion of animal liberation, Singer is surprisingly mute about the relative merits of steering financial support to the ASPCA, Humane Society and PETA.

While he omits mention of many causes worthy of sacrifice, Singer is downright derisive about claims for the arts. Noting that the $45 million that the Metropolitan Museum spent a few years back for a small painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna could have saved 45,000 lives, he contends that “… philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious.” The world is likely to be like this one for a long time to come; if we have to wait until hunger is eliminated, we’ll never spend a pittance on starving poets. D.H. Lawrence’s remark that, “The human soul needs actual beauty more than bread” may seem morally dubious in Singer’s equation, but that equation neglects to consider that art is one of the ways we examine and communicate morality.

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” (Grub first, then ethics), declared Bertolt Brecht, presaging Singer’s argument. In that scenario, the soul would starve long before support could come forth for the empathetic ethics of Peter Singer.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.