The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer [Book Summary – Review]

We are all aware of a hard fact but rarely discuss it. Poverty, malnutrition, and other types of deprivation affect people worldwide. Even our simple lives seem extravagant by contrast.

So, given our significant advantages, how can we live ethically? This is the central question of The Life You Can Save. These chapters use Peter Singer’s philosophical work to expose the moral challenge of poverty.

Rather than becoming a self-righteous rant, the reasons presented here challenge us to think about our own obligation to our fellow man. They look at why helping others seems hopeless, how we might overcome our aversion to giving, and what we can do to end unnecessary suffering.

These chapters will teach you

  • when you have to leap into a lake;
  • the expense of curing blindness; and
  • How donating a kidney might make your partner angry.

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Chapter 1 – We can, but we haven’t, eradicate severe poverty.

When philosopher Peter Singer gives an introduction to ethics, he always opens with the same question. He tells his kids a story about coming across a tiny child drowning in a shallow lake while heading to work. You can easily save the youngster, but your new shoes will be ruined. So, are you ready to get in?

Of course, every pupil answers affirmatively. After all, life is more valuable than the most beautiful shoes. The singer then asks a follow-up question: In 2017, 5.4 million children aged under five perished from illnesses that may have been avoided. How many students purchased new shoes with funds that could have gone to a good cause?

This second question is far more unsettling. It emphasizes the unsettling reality that our behaviors do not always correspond to our moral compass.

Humans suffer and die all around the world because they cannot afford the most basic essentials. According to the World Bank, 736 million people live in severe poverty, which means they survive on less than $1.90 a day. Premature death is primarily caused by poverty. One in every 13 children in Sierra Leone, a country with severe poverty rates, dies before their fifth birthday. Only one in every 263 people in an affluent country like Australia suffers the same fate.

Such figures might be daunting. However, mankind has made significant progress in improving this situation. The global rate of severe poverty has virtually halved since 1993. East Asia saw the most significant decline, with the poverty rate dropping from 60% in 1990 to only 2.3 percent in 2015.

The wealthiest countries are also doing well. As of 2018, over half of the population is middle-class or above, implying that they have extra money to spend on consumer items, holidays, or other unplanned costs. The wealthy, of course, are doing the best of all. According to Forbes, there are around 2,000 billionaires on the planet, which is more than double the number ten years ago.

So, with so much money on the planet, why do we let millions of people starve to death because they can’t afford appropriate nourishment or basic health care? Why haven’t we reduced poverty to zero if we know how to do so? In the following chapter, we’ll start answering these questions.

Chapter 2 – Yes, keeping excess cash for yourself is unethical.

Malaria kills tens of thousands of children each year throughout the world. This, however, does not have to be the case. A gift of $200 to the Against Malaria Foundation will provide mosquito netting for 180 children. Let’s pretend you make the gift.

Well done; you’re now helping to protect hundreds of individuals from a potentially fatal disease. But, before you start celebrating this act of kindness, consider why you’ve chosen to stop there in the first place. Is there anything else you can do?

New clothing, expensive cuisine, and evenings out are all unnecessary costs. You could certainly contribute more if you so desired. Is it thus incorrect that you do not?

It’s simple to come up with a solution when we contemplate thought experiments regarding rescuing drowning youngsters. Our instincts tell us that preventing mortality is more essential than a transient pleasure like designer shoes. As a result, diving into the water is a moral obligation, even if it means ruining our shoes. However, when you dissect the underlying reasoning for this behavior and apply them to the real world, the consequences might be more difficult to bear.

Three key principles underpin the rationale. First, people dying from a lack of food, shelter, and medical treatment is a terrible situation. Second, it is unjust not to avoid this suffering without surrendering anything of comparable importance. Third, by giving to efficient charity, you may genuinely avert this misery without losing anything vital. If you accept these three premises, the conclusion is obvious: you’re doing something wrong if you don’t contribute to productive charity.

Many of our ordinary activities, such as vacationing or purchasing the latest technology, seem ethically questionable when seen in this light. Some individuals will be offended by this framing. Surely, if we earn money, we are free to spend it as we like. But it isn’t the point. This debate is about what we should do with our money, not what we have to do with it. It’s all about our decisions.

This isn’t a novel concept, either. From Christianity and Judaism to Islam and Confucianism, some of our most beloved and long-lasting religious traditions teach that we have a moral responsibility to donate to the impoverished. Despite this, these lessons are frequently ignored or dismissed. Let’s look at some of the reasons for this.

Chapter 3 – We don’t always make compassionate actions based on strong justifications.

It’s 1987, and Midland, Texas is the center of attention. Jessica McClure, a tiny toddler, has fallen into a well. The news has been nonstop for the past two days as rescuers work to get her to safety. Millions of dollars have been contributed to her treatment by enthralled spectators.

However, something else happened over the same two days. Nearly 70,000 children have perished throughout the world from preventable poverty-related causes. Million-dollar gifts to save these youngsters are unfortunately few and far between. Their deaths were barely mentioned on the evening news.

People’s altruistic inclinations, it turns out, aren’t necessarily guided by logic. In reality, a slew of psychological biases impede us from acting in the most morally consistent manner possible.

The majority of individuals state that preserving lives is a top priority. However, our behaviors may not always reflect this idea. This is due in part to the way we make judgments about when and how to assist. Our decisions regarding whether or not to donate to life-saving charity are frequently impacted by variables other than the number of individuals we can assist.

People are more willing to donate money to save one unique life than a group of nameless lives. Two groups were urged to donate to Save the Children by researchers. The first group was given broad comments on how their money may be used to assist others. The second was told that their money will be used to help Rokia, a seven-year-old Malawian child. The second group gave much more because they had a stronger emotional link to the identified kid.

Our decisions to donate or not contribute are also influenced by feelings of futility. In one study, participants were told that providing help may save 1,500 individuals in a refugee camp. The camp had 3,000 total residents, according to one group, and 10,000 according to the other. The first group gave more money in this case. They believed that their intervention would rescue half of the camp, whilst the second group believed that their gift would have little influence. Naturally, both groups would save the same amount of individuals, but it was irrelevant.

These are only two examples of how effective, emotional thinking influences our charitable giving decisions more than rational, deliberate reasoning. This prejudice is due in part to evolutionary factors that have made us more sensitive to misery when it occurs in small doses and right in front of our eyes. This fact, however, does not absolve us from the moral need to donate; it is just a barrier we must overcome.

Chapter 4 – By cultivating a culture of giving, we can boost philanthropic contributions.

Consider this scenario: You tune in to your favorite local station on the radio. Instead of music, the DJ is asking for money for the station’s yearly charity drive. You initially dismiss the requests. The presenter then begins to provide updates. Someone just donated $20, and another just donated $30. Slowly, you begin to consider contributing a few dollars yourself.

What caused this abrupt change of heart? Hearing about other people’s kindness inspired you to do the same. This is because people tend to align with their “reference group,” or the people and groups around them, as defined by psychologists.

Making generosity a collective effort is a fantastic method if we want individuals to contribute more money to worthy causes.

Creating a culture of giving entails establishing a society in which contributing money and resources to charitable causes is the norm. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to simply convey the impression that giving is already commonplace. According to studies, people contribute more money when they believe others would as well. According to a Swedish study, notifying pupils that 73% of their peers gave to charity virtually increased the school’s rate of donating.

Another option is to create structured, giving groups to systematically boost generosity. Giving What We Can is based on this principle. Members of this group must sign a vow to contribute at least 10% of their salary to worthwhile causes. Since its inception in 2007, its 4,000 members have given almost $150 million, with a goal of $1.5 billion by 2020. The Giving Pledge, a similar organization, has gathered more than 40 millionaires to make a similar pledge.

Making donation the default choice is a more successful strategy than asking individuals to contribute money. Companies like Bain & Company and CommBank, for example, use automatic donation plans in their employee contracts. Unless the employee requests otherwise, 1% of everyone’s salary is donated to charity under these agreements. This works because, while some individuals may choose to participate in voluntary pledge programs, the majority of people do not.

Although our contemporary culture promotes selfishness and self-interest, this is not a permanent situation. Though we begin to act as if giving is a natural part of our lives, it may well become one.

Chapter 5 – The goal of effective help is to save as many people as possible.

Investment bankers are perhaps the most focused with financial returns. So, when Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, two hedge fund managers, wanted to give to charity in 2007, they did their research. They looked into which charity would be the most cost-effective.

What they discovered was… disappointing. Few nonprofits could give clear data or information about their accomplishments. To address this, the two launched GiveWell, a charity committed to identifying and financing the world’s most successful charities.

GiveWell found an answer after a few years of testing and auditing. Give to charities that help people directly if you want to accomplish the greatest good with your money. 

It’s a common fallacy that we should judge nonprofits based on their administrative expenses. The notion is that terrible organizations spend too much money on overhead and not enough money gets to the people who need it. This ratio, however, is mainly inconsequential. After all, offering effective, life-saving therapies requires a well-funded team and well-run organization. Examining a foundation’s activities in terms of cost per person assisted is a better statistic.

Consider a nonprofit in the United States that gives blind individuals with guide dogs. Although it is a worthy cause, each dog costs $50,000. Consider Seva, an organization that treats trachoma to avoid blindness in underdeveloped nations. Each instance will cost around $50 to treat. So, for the same price as one blind person, this organization can aid ten people.

You can now discover a curated list of many comparable interventions at, which can benefit an incredible number of individuals for very little money. Helen Keller International, for example, provides life-saving vitamin A pills for approximately a dollar per person. Or there’s the Fistula Foundation, which delivers lifesaving obstetric treatment to women for just a few hundred dollars.

Some opponents claim that foreign assistance initiatives are counterproductive. These criticisms are frequently directed at initiatives that are poorly planned or have strings tied to them. Some food aid programs, for example, mandate that organizations purchase pricey US commodities rather than less expensive locally farmed alternatives. Clearly, this isn’t a viable strategy. Even yet, if we properly select programs based on their real efficacy, we can find some success.

Chapter 6 – Your children are significant, but so are the offspring of others.

Zell Kravinsky had a long and fruitful career. He’d shrewdly developed a real estate empire worth roughly $45 million by his mid-forties. Then he decided to give it all away one day.

He quickly sold his assets and donated the proceeds to charity. He then sold his enormous home and downsized it to a smaller one. Finally, he phoned the local hospital and gave a kidney to a stranger, still feeling kind.

His wife was enraged by his past behavior. What if he died during the procedure? What if Kravinsky’s child needs a kidney transplant in the future? He was out of options now. Such acts of kindness force us to confront our empathy boundaries. Is it fair to prioritize our own life over that of others?

It’s only normal for the great majority of individuals to prioritize their own family over everyone else. Most parents would sacrifice the lives of 10 strangers to save just one of their own children if they had the option. Anyone who claims differently risks being accused of being unloving or unsuitable. Is such a posture, however, morally acceptable?

It is debatable. If we look at things objectively, everyone is valued, regardless of whether or not they are connected to us. Still, family ties are strong and crucial, so expecting someone to love their neighbor as much as their own child is impractical. Even in traditional Israeli kibbutzim, where all children are reared together, parents still prefer their own children.

As a result, it appears reasonable to prioritize your own family. After you’ve addressed their fundamental requirements, though, it’s morally correct to consider the larger community. After all, lavishing gifts on your own child while others go hungry is excessive, even if it seems normal.

Responsible Wealth, an organization formed by Chuck Collins, is based on the same concept. Collins, like many other millionaires, inherited a sizable wealth. Rather than leaving everything to his children, he opted to provide the basics for them and give away what’s left.

He now encourages other members of the rich elite to do the same through his book Responsible Wealth. Yes, this strategy may deprive some children of their trust monies, but it will also provide many more with better lives and opportunities.

Chapter 7 – When others refuse to sacrifice for the greater good, we must make even larger sacrifices.

Let’s go back to our pond thinking experiment. As you recall, one youngster was trying to keep afloat in the initial situation. Increase the stakes by 10 children bobbing in the water. We’ll also include nine adults on the beach with you.

You can individually save one child if everyone pitches in. But what happens if five of those adults choose to disregard the situation? Is it your responsibility to save two children? What if you’re the only one who feels compelled to take action? Do you have to save all 10 kids on your own?

That’s undoubtedly more than your fair share of effort. However, if we stick to our original argument, none of this matters. Even though it appears impossible, we still have a moral obligation to preserve their lives.

We already know that the world has enough resources to end severe poverty and save millions of lives. Indeed, if everyone pitched in and paid their fair part, this work would be rather simple. However, this raises a crucial question: what is your fair share? Let us investigate.

To end severe poverty, we would need to give enough money to boost everyone’s daily income to over $1.90. Researchers predict that direct income support would cost between $65 and $130 billion each year. That may seem high, but consider that Americans spent $73 billion on alcoholic beverages alone in 2017.

Let’s imagine there are around one billion wealthy individuals on the planet. Well-off in this context refers to earning more than the average wage in Portugal, a typical middle-income country. If everyone chipped in, each person would only have to provide $130 every year. While this is a little sum, it is evident that not everyone will contribute. As we’ve established, this implies you’ll have to put in more effort.

Just how much more is there? What privileges must you forego to compensate for others’ inaction? Different philosophers suggest various criteria in this area. Some, like as Richard Miller, think that we must donate until we face a “substantial danger” of harming ourselves. Others, such as Brad Hooker, argue that we should contribute much more than that. Perhaps there is some type of appropriate test to be used between these points of view. We will cover that in the next chapter.

Chapter 8 – Each year, we should try to contribute a respectable amount of money.

How much should a single person contribute? On the surface, it appears to be a straightforward question. Yet, throughout millennia, it has elicited a wide range of responses.

Judaism has always required its followers to pay a tithe of 10% of their annual income. For Muslims, one-fortieth of their whole income should be donated. Certain Catholic societies require practically everything from its members. Finally, more contemporary secular pledge organizations promote annual donations ranging from 1 to 50%.

So, with all of these criteria, which one should you pick? A decent starting point for Singer is 5% of your yearly salary. Naturally, if you earn more, you should also donate more. Most of us would have to give up practically all of our comforts to really fulfill our moral commitment to reduce human suffering. Of course, such a commitment is tough and surely goes against our usual way of living. As a result, while Singer realizes that giving a lot is ethically appropriate, he publicly pushes for a far lower criterion.

Singer recommends that everybody who is financially secure — that is, most people living in affluent nations – set aside 5% of their yearly salary to donate. This criterion, obviously, is altered on a sliding scale. If you’re short on cash, you should contribute less, and as your income grows, you should increase your donation.

Take a look at how this works. It’s fair to contribute 1% of your wealth annually if you live in the United States and earn $40,000 per year. If you’re in the top 0.001% of incomes – that is, if you make more than $53 million per year – you should pledge to donate at least half of your earnings.

Giving at this level should not have a significant impact on the donors’ lifestyle. All of that money, though, adds up. Adopting this standard would raise $1.3 trillion globally, according to conservative estimates. This money would be sufficient to end severe poverty and support broader programs that would significantly reduce overall human suffering in the future.

While you may experience a little financial hardship, the number of lives saved will be well worth it in the end. And, if you genuinely embrace this truth, you may discover that giving brings you more joy, significance, and fulfillment than any monetary good. 

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer Book Review

Innocent people are suffering and dying all around the world as a result of poverty-related reasons such as a lack of food, shelter, and medical treatment. Meanwhile, millions of people live in relative comfort. We are ethically required to contribute money to productive altruistic groups if we follow some straightforward moral reasoning. While it is morally correct to contribute a significant share of our existing riches, even tiny improvements can have a significant impact.

Begin with little donations and work your way up.

Even when you’ve internalized your moral need to provide, changing your lifestyle might be challenging. Try contributing a small amount of money here and there and see how you react. You could discover that saving lives is just as rewarding as it sounds. For instance, go to to find a variety of free resources to help you become a more successful contributor, such as a curated list of effective organizations, an Influence Calculator to quantify your impact, and information on tax deductibility in various countries.

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