The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

Peter Singer, the philosophe terrible of New Jersey, argues in The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty that it is our responsibility to provide sufficient aid to poor people in foreign countries so that nobody starves or dies.

The obvious objection to this argument is provided by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who predicted that human population growth would inevitably exceed growth in food production.  Singer does not mention Malthus until page 121 (out of 173).  Malthus is dismisssed in a couple of pages by noting that if everyone on Planet Earth became a vegetarian we would then have enough grain to feed everyone.  [Not a refutation of Malthus because universal vegetarianism would yield a constant increase in calories available against an exponential increase in population.] Singer does not reference Gregory Clark, author of A Farewell to Alms, the most heavily researched exploration of Malthus and his applicability to the modern world (Clark analyzes data going back to the 12th Century in England).  Much of Singer’s support for a cheerful economic outlook is provided by references to Jeffrey Sachs (see this weblog posting from 2006).  Sachs is cited uncritically starting in the Preface and continuing throughout the book, as though Sachs had proved his assertion that if we guarantee every impoverished person on the planet free food, free housing, free education, and free health care, all currently poor countries will experience a development process comparable to Germany during the Industrial Revolution.

Neither Sachs nor Singer deals with the example populations that are in fact guaranteed all of these things, e.g., Saudi Arabians.  The result of all of these guarantees in Saudi Arabia has been one of the world’s highest birthrates, not a boom in education or industry.

Singer, in asserting that there is enough food for everyone, no matter how many babies we produce, is not taking the long view.  It may be that agricultural production is in a temporary boom due to the fact that we have been digging up coal and oil that required millions of years to form.  Chemical fertilizer has been the source of much of the increased productivity of agricultural land and (1) it won’t be available forever, (2) it gives a constant, not exponential, increase in output.  It might not be a moral act to help increase the long-term population of a country above the level that can be fed on naturally fertilized land.  Singer does not mention the use of fertilizer or question how sustainable current levels of agricultural production are (nor does he note that we’ve already more or less proven that the world’s fisheries were not sustainable at prior levels).

Singer argues that part of our obligation to help the poor is that we have made their lives tougher.  For example, subsistence fisherman in Africa find that Russian and Chinese factory trawlers have stripped their traditional fishing grounds bare in order to serve European markets.  Singer does not mention that people in advanced countries, merely by being advanced, have provided a lot of assistance to poor countries that wish to develop.  A poor country does not need to develop calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology.  A poor country does not need to invent antibiotics, water purification systems, refrigeration, internal combustion engines, the stored program computer, TCP/IP, or any of the other essentials of the modern world.  All of that can be copied for free from rich countries and bought ridiculously cheaply from China.

The most interesting section of the book describes psychology experiments in human nature.  Researchers have shown that we’re more likely to help another person if we think that we’re the only person who could help, e.g., an experiment with two students in a room showed that they each was less likely to respond to a cry for help from an adjoining room than if only one student were present.  We like “identifiable victims”: people were more willing to give toward a $300,000 medical bill to save one girl’s life than they were to pay $300,000 to save eight children.  We don’t like futility: we’re more likely to give money to save 1500 people out of 3000 at risk than we are to save 1500 out of 10,000.  Karl Marx noted that the existence of paper money made people less likely to help.  He thought participants in a barter economy would be more likely to send a starving neighbor a ham than modern Europeans would be to send some coins.  Modern research has confirmed Marx’s suppositions.

Singer tries to figure out how much it actually costs to save lives in Africa.  A group handing out mosquito nets can save lives (from malaria) at $200 per life per year.  But the person saved from malaria might also die from another infectious disease or from a lack of clean water.  Different organizations give different benefit estimates for their various programs.  Adding up all of the numbers, it looks as though it will cost thousands of dollars per year to keep each additional child alive.  Could Americans afford this?  Singer assumes that we can, but he doesn’t consider the facts that (1) the number of poor children in the world may grow exponentially, and (2) Americans are currently insolvent if you consider the likely cost of Medicare, Social Security, and public employee pensions.

Singer cites Rajan and Subramanian, economists who found that incoming foreign aid can wreck a local economy by driving up the value of the local currency and making it unprofitable to continue processing food and making clothing and footwear.   Lives might be saved temporarily, but long-term economic growth will be stunted, a recipe for further impoverishment if long-term population growth remains strong.

Singer’s most convincing point is that our agricultural tariffs and subsidies harm poor farmers by preventing them from competing with American and European farmers in world markets.  (The 2008 farm bill provided $300 billion subsidies, was vetoed by King Bush II, and then 2/3rds of Congress voted to override the veto (see weblog entry from July 2008).)

Singer says “My students often ask me if I think their parents did wrong to pay the $44,000 per year that it costs to send them to Princeton.”  [The cost now is up to $50,000 per year.]  Singer’s response is that by going to such an elite university they are going to earn more money and it won’t be immoral as long as they share some of that dough with the poor.  Singer is apparently unaware of the economists who researched this and found that people accepted to Ivy League colleges, but who chose not to attend, ended up with the same lifetime earnings as those who attended.  I.e., being smart enough to get admitted to Princeton is useful, but attending Princeton has no economic value over attending a state university.  Singer does not consider that his own continued participation in a gold-plated playground for rich kids might be immoral by the standards he espouses in this book.  If he were to segue over to Rutgers ($9000 per year in-state), that might attract more bright students to Rutgers.  Their families would collectively save millions of dollars that could be donated to the poor.

Singer never does address the question of whether by helping to keep alive 1 poor person today, you would simply be creating 100 hungry mouths to feed some years down the road (by which time you might be dead, your survivors wouldn’t be so generous, and now 100 people would starve to death instead of 1).  Let me repeat a couple of passages from my review of The End of Poverty:

One reason this 396-page book isn’t more convincing is that Sachs cannot come up with a single example of a country that has been lifted out of poverty by foreign aid.  He talks about saving Russia with financial engineering, but Russia’s clever people were making jet fighters, atomic bombs, and helicopters long before they ever met Sachs.  He talks about the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Germany, but Germany didn’t suffer from overpopulation and the lack of education that plague modern poor countries; investing in folks that had conquered France in six weeks probably did not seem very risky…

The most serious flaw with the book, in my opinion, is that Sachs fails to devote even one sentence to the modern fact that labor is mobile and global.  Transportation and communication costs fall every decade.  An ambitious, hard-working, intelligent, and well-educated person has never had an easier time moving from a poor country to a rich country. … If an African achieves the standards of a First World nurse, he or she can easily emigrate to Europe or the U.K. where such skills are in high demand.  The emigre enjoys a much more comfortable lifestyle in the rich country, can make free voice calls to friends and family back in Africa, and can fly home in 8 hours on a discount airline.  Educated and productive people are the biggest assets of most countries and, more so than ever, they can simply choose to walk away.  Sachs talks about building medical schools in Africa so that doctors and nurses will be plentiful, not noting that the U.S. has jobs for perhaps 200,000 more doctors than U.S. medical schools are going to graduate in the next decade or so.

It is difficult to say what Singer’s The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty adds to Sachs’s 2005 book.  The lasting benefits of foreign aid are difficult to find, yet rich countries and people continue to put hundreds of billions of dollars every year into foreign aid.  Singer says that this makes us immoral cheapskates.  However, the kinds of arguments that Singer put forth to prove that people should give more could easily be used to prove that people should give less.  The grain and packaged foods that you paid to send to a poor country may result in the bankruptcy of a local farmer or food processor.  The very possibility of foreign aid handouts may discourage businesses in poor countries from investing in agriculture, health care, and education.  Would you start a private health clinic if you thought that Paul Farmer was going to show up next month and offer health care for free?

As we Americans are painfully discovering, it may not be possible for per-capita income to grow unless people work harder or are better educated than previous generations.  Given that there are only so many hours in the day and that we in one of the world’s richest countries have been unable to build a competent system of schools, that makes world poverty a tough challenge.  Too tough, perhaps, to be substantially attacked from an office in Princeton, New Jersey.


  1. Jim Van Donsel

    April 4, 2009 @ 12:47 pm


    Another contrary voice to Singer’s advocacy of aid for poor countries is that of African economist Dambisa Moyo. I haven’t read her book (or Singer’s) but there’s an interesting interview at

  2. John

    April 4, 2009 @ 4:52 pm


    “Singer is apparently unaware of the economists who researched this and found that people accepted to Ivy League colleges, but who chose not to attend, ended up with the same lifetime earnings as those who attended.”

    Do you have a source for that? I tried a Google search but no luck.


  3. philg

    April 4, 2009 @ 7:22 pm


    Jim: Thanks for the interview link. Very interesting reading.

    John: has the abstract of Dale and Krueger’s November 2002 article in The Quarterly Journal of Economics: “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College”. Simply attending a Harvard class, where some guy whose main job is research gives a lecture to a bunch of passive students, would tell you the same thing. Unless there is some sort of fairy dust sprinkled on the students, there would be no reason to expect a different result from going through Harvard and going through the same proven-to-be-ineffective set of lectures at U. Mass. Harvard and the other Ivies can stamp a person “Grade A Beef” but if they use the same teaching methods as less expensive schools there is no reason to expect them to give any given student a better education.

  4. Edith Frederick

    April 5, 2009 @ 2:22 pm


    Yes, thanks for the link, Jim. Tonight, Sunday, Dambisa Moyo is the interview guest
    on Q&A at 8pm ET.

  5. Vince

    April 5, 2009 @ 4:09 pm


    Farewell to Alms sounds like a great book. Is it possible that the same ideas could be applied to the poor communities in America? Some of these places, whether in rural areas like Appalachia or the ghettoes of our big cities, are similar to third world countries in a number of ways. Furthermore, their poverty is caused to a great degree by culture. Parents don’t know how to raise their kids so that they can prosper in 21st century America and people in general don’t know about the importance of education and hard work, or maintaining healthy habits, such as having a healthy diet, using alcohol in moderation and avoiding tobacco and illegal drugs.

    At the same time, hundreds of billions (maybe trillions) of dollars have been spent trying to raise communities out of poverty to no apparent effect. Would the ideas expressed in Farewell to Alms imply that we should end these programs and leave these communities to themselves?

  6. John

    April 6, 2009 @ 9:53 am


    Phil: Thanks!

    It suprises me that students with a degree from an elite university don’t get paid better than the other group. I always assumed that they would have an advantage simply because of the reputation of the university. I also thought that the personalized motoring at universities like Oxford would help a lot. It makes sense, though, that they learn the same in undergraduate courses, but later — in Ph.D. and maybe M.A. programs where the research abilities of the professor actually come in handy — it seems realistic to me that it would be better studying at one of the better universities. (By better I mean one with at least good mentors (I’m talking about humanities here).)

    I haven’t really thought this through, though, just being a simple undergraduate paying a yearly tuition of 210 Euro. (I didn’t buy the article)

  7. Ellen

    April 7, 2009 @ 10:00 pm



    I’m glad to see you discussing Singer’s theories but am disappointed that you seem to avoid the hard issues. I disagree with the objection that helping people = feeding people -> more hungry people tomorrow.

    One surprising but encouraging discovery about international development has been that as women’s education and equality rises, family size decreases. While much foreign ad has had disastrous effects, aid that increases self-sufficiency and earning power in poorer countries (such as that done by microfinance or educational institutions) can reduce suffering without leading to overpopulation.

    Similarly, the deaths of adults through disease (some easily treatable, some not) causes a tremendous loss in earning power in poorer countries. Providing free or low-cost mosquito nets or condoms seems to be a no-brainer for someone who wants to reduce suffering.

    I’d really like to see someone address what I see as Singer’s most compelling argument, that the life of a child (for example) we don’t see is as valuable as the life we see (the drowning child most of us are willing save at the cost of new shoes). Criticizing poor uses of aid money is going after a strawman.

    Some international organizations that Keith and I support are Global Fund for Women, Mercy Corps, The Green Belt Movement, Grameen Bank, and Acumen Fund. All of these organizations focus on helping people help themselves and each other. People who say money can’t buy happiness don’t know where to shop or where to give. :-)

  8. philg

    April 7, 2009 @ 11:00 pm


    Ellen: No disputing that economic development and a rise in the education of women has reduced family size in advanced nations, but there aren’t any examples of countries that have experienced sustained development as a consequence of foreign aid. Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms shows that it is much more likely that food aid and health care will result in a larger population living at an even lower standard of subsistence. Clark’s conclusion does not depend on aid money being wasted or skimmed off by non-profit management. For example, the superior hygiene of the Japanese during the Middle Ages compared to Europe enabled Japanese to survive on many fewer calories than Europeans. European travelers to Japan and China were shocked by the poverty there, which Clark attributes directly to the superior adaptation of Japanese and Chinese to urban living. Basically Malthus was right for most human societies in most periods of history. The sustained growth in Western European living standards from the 18th Century until the present (well, maybe until late 2007) is an aberration, not the rule.

  9. Ellen Spertus

    April 13, 2009 @ 12:36 am


    Again, I agree that much foreign aid has been harmful. I think, however, that private aid has helped countries. Consider Israel, which we were told blossomed because of our trees for Israel donations. Consider also the remittances to Mexico and the Philippines by migrant workers. Note that I am not arguing for Zionism or guest workers, just pointing out that infusions of cash can improve living conditions.

    You and I may continue to disagree about the benefits of private aid. What really interests me though is the moral argument. What do you think of the claim that we have just as much of a moral responsibility to help an unseen child as a seen one?

  10. philg

    April 14, 2009 @ 8:23 pm


    Ellen: Moral responsibility to help an unseen child? If we can’t see the child, I don’t think that we can actually help him or her. A child in the neighborhood comes to me for help with tennis or homework. I can be pretty sure that I have helped her. A non-governmental organization shows me a picture of a child somewhere in Africa and says that if I give them money they will help the child. Are they going to give that child a complete package of food, health care, education, job, growing economy, telecommunications, etc.? It seems unlikely. Suppose that they pump extra food into an African country and the result is a population boom. The NGO has no plan for ensuring economic growth or jobs in that country so eventually the population boom may lead to conflict over limited land and other resources, thus resulting in a genocide (see Rwanda).

    There is also an arrogance about assuming that we can put human conditions into a spreadsheet and “sort by misery.” Who is more miserable, the African who is surrounded by friends and family and lives on one meal a day or the well-fed American who is lonely in the suburbs? By many standards I would say that Americans are not as well off as materially much poorer people that I’ve met in various countries. (In I propose a fix for this problem, but it would be very expensive to implement, requiring the building of new towns throughout the U.S.)

  11. Martin

    April 15, 2009 @ 5:24 am



    I think there is a difference between even private aid and remittances by expatriate workers. Private aid donations typically go in to a large pool and are intended to benefit the recipient country as a whole; remittances go in fairly small amounts to the family of the individual to spend as they collectively see fit.

    It would be interesting to see some data on their relative benefits. Anecdotally remitances are highly beneficial, helping to develop businesses or other assets in the original country, or to pay for health or education.

    I suppose microlending schemes are trying to get a similar effect.

  12. The Atheist Missionary

    April 15, 2009 @ 7:12 am


    I will confess at the outset that I believe “The Life You Can Save” is an important book. By “important”, I mean that it is spreading a basic message that we don’t hear enough: it is unethical not to do something to assuage human suffering when the cost of doing so is relatively inconsequential to us. Thank-you for highlighting Singer’s description the harmful effect of agricultural subsidies and tariffs.

    I can’t disagree with your review. I wish everyone would read Sachs’ “The End of Poverty”, Singer’s “How Are We To Live: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest” and Peter Unger’s “Living High, letting Die” but the simple fact of the matter is they won’t.

    I thought enough of this book to distribute a copy to 308 Canadian Members of Parliament. If I had the means, I would distribute a copy to every high net worth individual on the planet.

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