The Austere Optimist

Singer200 Julian Baggini presses Peter Singer on his call for much more charitable giving, in The Philosopher's Magazine:

I want to make it clear that I did not pay for this hotel.” Peter Singer is understandably keen to distance himself from the incongruous opulence of our surroundings. There is a rich irony in discussing his latest book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, in the lobby of a five-star central London hotel, to a soundtrack of the obligatory easy-listening pianist./p>

Hearing the message of Singer’s book is anything but easy listening. In it, he reiterates for a popular audience the argument he first put forward in his famous paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, published in the first issue of the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1971. It starts by arguing that we should accept the deceptively uncontroversial-sounding principle that “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” From this, however, Singer concludes that “I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents – perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal.”/p>

In The Life You Can Save, Singer reiterates the same argument, but deals head-on with the problem that, obviously, hardly anyone is going to meet the stringent demands it makes of us. So what he proposes is a much less exacting sliding scale, where the rich are obliged to give quite a lot, and the less well-off hardly anything, or nothing at all. Is it then true to say that the populism of the book is a double-dilution of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”: a less-rigorous argument for a less-rigorous principle?