Write a check, save lives

Princeton professor Peter Singer’s new book, The Life You Can Save, reminds us that people all over our planet are suffering and dying for lack of the very basics of nutrition, clean water, medicine, etc. Given how much wealth Americans possess (even after our 401(k)s have lost half their former value), should we not be doing more? Prof. Singer said — on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time — Americans are less generous than people in any other developed nation. Perhaps this is because we’ve too long believed the lie that whatever we possess we’ve “earned” through our own merits, conveniently forgetting the tremendous opportunities given to us by our ancestors, our economic infrastructure, our government, our (relative) lack of corruption, our good luck to have been born into a nation of great wealth, etc.

My initial thought was that Prof. Singer’s timing could not have been worse. Who can give money to the poor now that we’re suffering so? But we must ask ourselves, are we really suffering? Some of us truly are. If you’ve had to cut back on the number of meals you eat, you’re truly suffering. But many Americans still possess plenty of wealth, and sending only a little bit to an aid group — may I recommend Doctors Without Borders — makes a big difference in people’s lives and makes us feel better about ourselves. If you’re regularly throwing away money on fancy clothes or expensive coffees, please consider cutting back a bit and sending your savings to help the poor.

The New York Times writes:

On a planet full of so much obvious and widespread suffering, [Peter Singer] writes, “there is something deeply askew with our widely accepted views about what it is to live a good life.”

…[“The Life You Can Save”] suggests, given that 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year in developing countries, that there is a “moral stain on a world as rich as this one.”

…Human beings have an intuitive belief that we should help others in need, Mr. Singer writes, “at least when we can see them and when we are the only person in a position to save them.” But we need to go beyond these intuitions, Mr. Singer declares…

Mr. Singer praises many people who give away as much as 50 percent of their annual income. For the rest of us, he proposes a more realistic approach: “Roughly 5 percent of annual income for those who are financially comfortable, and rather more for the very rich.”

…Among the [book’s heroes] are Bill Gates and, interestingly, James Hong, who became a millionaire after founding the fluky Web site Hot or Not, where people’s looks are rated by strangers. Mr. Hong donates 10 percent of every dollar he makes over $100,000 each year, and he runs a different Web site encouraging others to make the same pledge.

Posted by James on Wednesday, March 11, 2009