Saturday, April 02, 2011

Singer - The life you can save

Spent some of this morning with Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save". A really interesting and provocative book posing the ethical question as to how much money people should give to others in need. He argues that those who can have a compelling moral obligation to tithe part of their income to organisations who are genuinely saving the lives of poor people. He argues that this obligation is as pressing as the obligation to rescue a child who is in danger of drowning if you are walking past.

He uses the vignette (due to Peter Unger) of the man who sees a child playing on a train track who is oblivious to an oncoming train. The man is too far away to catch the child's attention. However, he can flick a switch to get the train to divert down a sidetrack. Unfortunately his prized sports car is down this side-track. The man has cared for this car for a long time and was eventually going to sell it to partly fund his retirement. There is noone else around and presumably no cameras. Nobody is going to know if he doesn't flick the switch. He decides not to and the child presumably is obliterated by the ongoing train. Singer argues that not giving money to aid organisations that have demonstrated their effectiveness is equivalent to not throwing the switch. He spends some time arguing against common ideas about the ineffectiveness of philantrophy,arguing that is now possible without substantial effort to locate agencies that are saving lives. He then turns to the question of human nature and why it is that we do not give. He cites studies from Harbaugh and others showing that giving actually improves well-being and draws from the literature of Vohs and others arguing that money itself may distort the expression of people's preferences through priming them to think differently about issues than if they thought about them as pure resource allocation problems. He draws from behavioural economics to suggest that inertia may be a key force and argues for the use of more effective marketing and also the use of default options, whereby company employees would be opted into donations to effective aid organisations and given the option to opt-out.

This book certainly made me think fresh about an issue I have thought about since I was a small child. In some sense, it is most profound and compelling question of them all, as to our duty in a world where there is avoidable suffering.

No comments: