Are You Doing Enough To Save Lives? A Q&A With Peter Singer
Here's a chilling question philosopher Peter Singer asks to make you stop and think about your life:
On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather's cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don't wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you'll be later for work. What should you do?
The point of his example, excerpted from his latest book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, is that all of us would rush to save the life of a child right in front of us, shoes-be-damned.
But millions of children die each year from causes related to poverty, and yet we don't do a thing. By simply donating a small amount of money, explains Singer, we could save their lives.
We were thrilled that Peter Singer took the time to answer some of our questions about The Life You Can Save, ethics, veganism, New Year's resolutions, and more.
KS: The idea behind The Life You Can Save is that those of us who have enough food and water have a moral imperative to help those who don't. Does it ever surprise you that this idea is so controversial?
PS: It shouldn't be controversial. That's why I use the example of saving a small child who has fallen into a shallow pond. Everyone would do that, even if it meant you would have to buy a new pair of shoes.
But when you extend it globally, it becomes controversial, because there are many people in need and there seems to be no limit to how much we ought to give.
Did you know when you were writing The Life You Can Save that the book would spark an international campaign to eradicate poverty?
I hoped it would! But one can never be sure.
How's the campaign going so far?
I feel my book, and the website, TheLifeYouCanSave.com, is just one part of a huge movement that is, slowly but surely, changing the way we think about our responsibilities to the global poor.
I've read that you give about 25% of your income to charity and have been giving away money for the past three decades.
Yes, that's true, except that I've now been giving away money for 40 years. I started giving 10%, but I've gradually pushed that up, and it's now around one-third of my income.
Has that made you happier?
It has made me a lot happier, to know I am doing my part. I think it's also changed my nature for the better - it's made me less selfish than I was.
Is the pursuit of happiness a worthy aim?
I do think the pursuit of happiness is a worthy aim, but only if it is pursued universally. To pursue only one's own happiness is too self-centred. And paradoxically, as the ancient Greeks knew, to pursue your own happiness directly is also likely to be self-defeating. It will elude you, until you set yourself some other, more worthy goal, and then you will discover happiness is a by-product of doing something that is worthwhile in itself.
Do you have any New Year's resolutions? Any advice for readers looking to create a meaningful life in 2013?
Set yourself the goal of living more ethically. That doesn't mean that you should strive for sainthood, but just, do significantly better than you did last year. Take a look at TheLifeYouCanSave.com and you'll see more specifically what I mean by that.
Over the years, you've not shied away from taking controversial stances. Was it always so easy to speak your truth?
If you are going to do philosophy, you have to follow the arguments where they lead. So it is much easier to speak honestly about controversial topics as a philosopher than as, say, a politician, or a corporate leader.
Generally, it's not been difficult, but it is frustrating when people distort what I am saying, and why I am saying it.
Anything else you'd like to add?
We've been discussing The Life You Can Save, and helping those in greatest need is an important part of living ethically, but so is doing your part to reduce climate change - not just by reducing your personal carbon footprint, but also by being an active citizen working for your government to take the necessary steps to get everyone to live more sustainably.
I also think that we ought to extend our ethical concern to all sentient beings. So another part of an ethical life is being vegetarian or vegan, both for the animals and for the planet. If you have trouble with that, at a minimum, avoid factory-farmed animal products.