Bioethics professor Peter Singer

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Princeton bioethics professor and author of The Life You Can Save explains why allowing harm is doing harm.

Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer has been described as a controversial modern thinker on the subject. He's author, co-author or editor of more than 30 books, but may best be known for his book Animal Liberation and being regarded as the guru of the modern animal rights movement. Singer was born and educated in Australia, the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics and founding co-editor of the Bioethics journal. His latest book, The Life You Can Save, addresses the response to world poverty.


Tavis: Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton whose efforts to combat poverty have influenced so many around the world. His latest text now out in paperback is called The Life You Can Save. He joins us tonight from Princeton. Professor Singer, an honor to have you on this program, sir.
Peter Singer: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Tavis: Why is it that we can’t seem to get the kind of traction that I know that you and I and others would appreciate around this notion of poverty here at home, much less abroad?
Singer: I think for many people the problem is that it seems so big that they’re worried that they can’t really do anything about it and they focus on the size of the problem. You know, we talk about the statistics, over a billion people living in extreme poverty, and nine million children dying each year from poverty-related causes that we could help, and they feel, “How can I make a difference?” The problem is that we need to focus on the individuals we can help.
We can’t help a billion people, but we can help one family. Maybe we can save one child, perhaps two or three children, depending on how much we do. And I think we need to get that message across to people that they are making a concrete difference, that this is not a sort of bottomless pit or a hopeless problem, but we’re really making progress. We just need to move faster with it.
Tavis: You do believe that each of us can in fact save a life?
Singer: Yes. I would say every middle class American and above, everybody with some spare income who, you know, spends maybe over a year $500 or $1,000 on things that they don’t need, even whether that’s just like a couple of cups of coffee, a day at a cafe that they don’t need or whether it’s a vacation that they could have taken a slightly less expensive vacation, or some clothing. Those are the sorts of sums that I think I demonstrate in my book.
You can realistically expect to save a child’s life if you take that money and you use it by giving it to an effective organization. I suggest some organizations that are particularly effective and I have a website with the same address as the title of the book, thelifeyoucansave. com, so I can keep that up to date and readers can go there and check the organizations that are really going to make a difference.
Tavis: The book starts – I love the way it opens. It starts with people being asked to make a pledge. Why was that important in the design of the text?
Singer: Well, it’s really unusual because, you know, when the book starts, it’s got a page that basically says “You can pass this book on to others to make a difference to the poor” and it’s like a sign-up sheet where there’s a number of spaces that you can sign to pledge, to give the amount that is recommended in the book, which for most people is only one percent of your income, a bit more if you are really in the top ten percent of the country’s income earners.
But I thought it was great that the publisher was prepared to say, yes, we want this book to be effective for the poor. So even if it reduces the sales that we get, we want to encourage people to pass the book around from hand to hand and, when the sign-up sheet is filled, send it off to me so we can add you to the several thousand people who’ve already pledged to meet this goal.
Tavis: There was recently a wonderful piece on 60 Minutes about Bill and Melinda Gates and about how much of their wealth they’re giving away. We know that their friend, Warren Buffett, is doing the same thing and we know that you’ve been influential in getting all of them to consider the strategies that they’re now employing with regard to giving their wealth away.
So when you’re talking to folk who have that kind of extreme wealth, what’s the argument that works to convince them that they ought to do what in fact they’re now doing?
Singer: I think it varies from person to person, but certainly for Bill and Melinda Gates. I mean, they really committed to the idea that all human lives are of equal value and they were just sort of shocked by the number of children that die needlessly just because we haven’t given them measles immunization or they don’t have bed nets to protect them against malaria or they don’t have safe drinking water even. So they were determined to use their wealth effectively.
They also believe that, you know, if you’ve been fortunate in life as they have been, extremely fortunate obviously, you have a greater responsibility to give, and I think that’s important for many people. But really all of us, I mean, everybody who’s growing up in the United States, is fortunate compared to people growing up in some countries with far fewer resources and far fewer opportunities.
For Warren Buffett, that was a factor too. I mean, he has said that, if he had grown up in a village in rural Peru, he would probably be as poor as the next person because, you know, the skills he has could be used to accumulate great wealth in the United States, but that just doesn’t work for other people. So whatever the skills or however they work, they still can’t get out of poverty.
Tavis: Indeed there is poverty in this country, to be sure, and we’re seeing more of it, given the recession that we are enduring at the moment. But how much of our being, for lack of a better word, anesthetized to poverty around the world has to do with the point you’ve just made, that so many of us have just not ever seen, lived in, that kind of abject poverty?
Singer: I think it has a great deal to do with that. I mean, we see that poverty sometimes on television certainly when there’s a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti. We see people in extreme need, but it has to be something like that that shakes us out of the complacency.
And what we don’t realize because it doesn’t make television news in the same way is that the number of people who died in the earthquake in Haiti is just about ten days’ worth of the toll of people who die needlessly from less dramatic causes because they don’t have safe drinking water or sanitation or they just can’t get enough food to feed their children.
If people could really go and see this for themselves and talk to the people, I think many more of them would be motivated to give. And if that’s not possible, well, some other way of contacting people, of having that link on an individual basis so that you know that you can help an individual or a family or a village. I think that’s what it’s gonna take to really get us more connected and get more people to feel that they can make a difference.
Tavis: You believe, and indeed argue, that to allow harm is to do harm. To allow harm is to do harm. So tell me then more about the connection or the lack thereof for many of us between poverty and our ethics.
Singer: Well, our ethics is very old. It obviously comes out of ancient traditions and most of those traditions developed in a time when the people that you could help were limited to those really physically close to you, your own village, a little community. You couldn’t really travel far. You couldn’t make a difference. And basically most people were fairly poor anyway, so they didn’t have a lot of resources.
But now the world has changed quite dramatically just in a century or so. So that, firstly, we have much more wealth even in these times of economic downturn. We still have vastly more wealth than we had before. And also, of course, we have the communications and the transport and the know-how to help people far away from us. So the problem is that our ethics hasn’t really changed enough.
I believe that in this new world that we live in, we often have a responsibility, you know, to actually go beyond the thou shalt nots, that is the not harming others, and say we can help others and we should be helping others. And if we don’t, it really is equivalent to us harming them because very often we’re living on things that, you know, have been traded. Perhaps we’ve a not quite fair balance of trade with those countries, or we contribute to climate change and make their lives more difficult in that way.
So I think, you know, the world is interconnected in a way that it wasn’t before and we can’t, therefore, just say, “Well, as long as I don’t do them any harm, that’s the end of my ethical responsibility.”
Tavis: Finally, I wonder how much progress we can make if the issue of poverty in this country and indeed around the world was moved higher up on the list of action items by our elected officials, by our leaders.
Your work is wonderful. The work that Bill and Melinda Gates are doing is wonderful and, yet, for so many Americans, you seem a bit removed, given the fact that you’re in the ivory tower there at Princeton or Bill and Melinda Gates, you know, Microsoft is one of the great creations in the world.
But for everyday people who elect these politicians to represent them, if they would take the issue of poverty more seriously, I wonder if we might get some traction on this?
Singer: Well, we certainly might. But I think, for that to happen, the people who elect them are gonna have to say to their elected officials or their candidates, “This is an important issue for me. What’s your view on this? I want to vote for someone who will make a difference to global poverty.” I hope in the election that’s coming up that people will ask their candidates that question.
You know, they are our elected officials. They respond to the issues that are of concern to us and, unfortunately, we haven’t really told them that this is an important issue to us and we want them to make sure that the U.S. gives aid that is effectively directed at the world’s poorest. It doesn’t really have to be so much more, but it has to be directed at the poorest people in the world.
Tavis: It’s a powerful and persuasive text now out in paperback by Princeton’s Peter Singer. The book is called The Life You Can Save. Professor Singer, congrats and good to have you on the program, sir.
Singer: Thank you very much. It’s been great to talk to you and I’m so glad that I can reach your viewers with this message through you. Thank you.
Tavis: And we’re glad to have you on to share it.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 1:27 pm