I recently finished reading a remarkable book by Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. It makes an unusually tough-minded assertion: I am immoral. I already know that in a world where so few have so much and so many have so little, something is deeply amiss. I also know that every day, tens of thousands of children starve to death. I just didn’t see myself as part of the problem. Singer says I am!
I’ve launched Seventh Generation, devoted myself to building a responsible-business movement, and helped educate millions of Americans on issues surrounding sustainability. I drive a hybrid and forgo meat. But because I indulge myself with the occasional Starbucks coffee, a movie, or a vacation to a foreign destination, I am immoral. And I dare say you are, too.
Dwight Gardner, in his New York Times book review, explained Singer’s logic. “Given that 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year in developing countries, there is a ‘moral stain on a world as rich as this one.’ We are not doing enough to help our fellow mortals.”
Singer’s logic is unambiguous:
- “First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
- “Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
- “Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
- “Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.”
Gardner’s review concludes, “It’s pretty tempting to try to toss Mr. Singer’s argument back in his face. The counterarguments well up in your mind: The economy is tanking. Charity begins at home. I work hard for my money. Charity breeds dependency. Some charity groups waste too much money on overhead. And doesn’t everyone hate a do-gooder?
“Mr. Singer convincingly dismisses these counterarguments, and his logical conclusion above is well-nigh irrefutable. Helping the world’s poor will bring “meaning and purpose” to our lives, he suggests, through financial adjustments that will mostly ‘make no difference to your well-being.'”
I certainly have more money than I truly need and spend much of that money on things I could easily do without. I rationalize that this good fortune was hard won over many decades of working 12-14 hours a day. Yet the guilt I felt as I read Singer’s manifesto was inescapable. He told compelling stories of people who gave away 50% of everything they made and a man named Mr. Hong who donates 10 percent of every dollar he makes, over $100,000 each year.
So I made a pledge of sorts. Only time will tell if I follow through. Each year, my wife Sheila and I donate about 1% of our income to non-profits. This year, we’ll give away twice as much. Next year, we’ll increase our giving to 3%, and we’ll add one percent every year until we get to at least 5%. If I lag on that promise, I’ll know how to get myself back on track. I’ll just revisit Peter Singer’s uncompromising book.