This year marks the 15th anniversary of Peter Singer’s New York Times op-ed, "The Singer Solution to World Poverty." When Singer published his piece in 1999, nearly 3 billion people lived on less than $2 USD a day. We know the facts about extreme poverty, Singer argued, and more importantly, we have the financial resources to drastically ameliorate its devastating effects. In light of this, what are our moral obligations to the world’s poorest people?
“Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's life.” Singer writes. “How should you judge yourself if you don't do it?”
We each have a personal moral obligation to those living in extreme poverty. And the good news is that in the 15 years since Singer published his piece, the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day has decreased significantly. From 1999 to 2010, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa decreased 10 percentage points—from 58 percent to 48 percent. And globally, despite significant increases in the world’s population, far fewer people live in extreme poverty today than was the case thirty years ago: roughly 1.9 billion lived in extreme poverty in 1981; that number was reduced to 1.2 billion by 2010.
The statistics show that extreme poverty can be solved. But despite successful poverty relief efforts in recent decades, the fact is that 1.2 billion men, women, and children still continue to live without adequate food, sanitation, clean water, or basic health care. These people present 1.2 billion reasons why Peter Singer’s piece still holds great urgency today, even fifteen years after its publication.
What can we do about extreme poverty?
Every time I read Peter’s article I am extremely uncomfortable, and I suspect that you feel similarly. So we are in this together – we are now even more than usual acutely aware of our moral shortcomings! The question is what to do about these feelings?
Most of us aren’t ready to live up to Peter’s moral ideal, which is to give away all our money to effective charities except what we need for necessities. I know that I certainly don’t live this way, and I imagine that few of us do. Assuming we are not willing to respond in the most moral way that Peter suggests, there are still many things we can do to fulfill our intentions to give. Here are a few ideas:
- Take Peter’s Pledge.
If you have not done so, consider taking the Pledge.
- Top your personal best.
Give more money to highly effective charities each year than you are currently giving – Peter recommends twelve of these charities on our website.
- Spread the message.
Actively share your thoughts about giving with your circle of friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Help The Life You Can Save spread the word. Share our website and those of our recommended charities.
- Stay motivated to give.
Place behavioral cues around your home and work that remind you of your commitment to fighting the devastating effects of extreme poverty. The cues that are most effective vary from person to person, but here are a few suggestions:
- A picture on your refrigerator that reminds you of your commitment. You can take one from our website.
- Calendar a goal every month, or better yet every week. The goal could be to talk with someone about extreme poverty, to hold a fundraiser for one of our recommended charities, or to give a certain amount of money away each month.
- Stay updated by reading our newsletter each month – they are getting better and better!
- Change your computer’s screensaver to remind yourself of your commitment to fighting extreme poverty.
These behaviors are not a substitute for meeting Peter’s goal of only spending what you absolutely need and giving the rest away to effective charities, but they are a start. In our personal journeys toward increased giving, we must always remind ourselves of our goals and our intentions.
Am I already giving enough?
We must be wary of a phenomenon that social psychologists call "moral licensing," a topic that Brad Hurley discusses this month in a post on The Life You Can Save blog. In essence, moral licensing means that by doing one good deed, we may take ourselves off the hook to do more, or other,good deeds.
For our purposes of falling short of the most moral way of giving, let’s be aware that doing good relative to others, or even our own “personal best,” does not let us off the moral hook. We must stay aware of the ideal way of giving even as we improve our own giving behavior. This awareness makes us uncomfortable, so the natural tendency is to suppress the feeling or even worse, change our vision of the ideal (see my letter in last month’s newsletter) so as to justify our behavior.
If all this sounds terribly hard, it is because it is really, really, hard. The easiest thing would be to congratulate ourselves for what we are doing, rather than focus on the ideal. But however hard living with our shortcomings is, it does not compare to watching one’s child die of a preventable disease, or knowing that a friend’s preventable blindness could be cured for $25-$50, or that a woman we know suffering from an obstetric fistula could be given a new start for $450, or that our child could be dewormed of debilitating parasites for a mere 50 cents!
Thanks for taking the time to read this issue of our newsletter and, more importantly, for your commitment to help fight the devastating effects of extreme poverty.
Good living and good giving,