The GiveWell Blog

Review of The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer

The Life You Can Save went on sale in the U.S. on Monday. First, disclosures: the book prominently features GiveWell, a portion of the book’s proceeds are being donated to GiveWell, and I was sent an advance copy. I have strong incentives to encourage people to read and buy the book.

So let me start with a reason not to read it: it will make you uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. It started by asking me a simple question – would I sacrifice time and money to save a stranger’s life? If so, why don’t I give more of my income to charity? – and pounded away relentlessly, tearing apart every excuse I had until I was left with “I’m really selfish.”

I’ve appreciated many books for making me feel scared, or angry, or sad. Now there’s one to make me feel personally guilty. (How’s that for a blurb?)

Of course the goal of the book isn’t to make people feel guilty, it’s to get them to give a lot (even if not as much as they, strictly speaking, could). And unlike the IRS, Prof. Singer doesn’t see supporting the local museum as equivalent to saving children’s lives. He’s specifically advocating more giving to developing-world aid, a goal we strongly agree with (as our research agenda demonstrates). You could think of this book as an End of Poverty on a personal rather than global scale – instead of arguing that the international community has the power to end poverty, it argues that you have the power (and thus the responsibility) to save a life.

But can a donation really save a life?

As with The End of Poverty, the moral argument depends on factual questions, and meets some skepticism from William Easterly, who argues – partly from GiveWell’s experience trying to find great charities – that saving a life is not as simple as it’s often made to sound.

There is merit to this. We’ve put a lot of effort by now into finding charities you can be confident in, and we still consider it an open question whether a $1000 donation really translates to a saved life. We estimate that it can in PSI’s case, but there are all kinds of room for uncertainty.

For example. To me the biggest questions with PSI are, (1) Is it getting its subsidized life-saving materials (mostly condoms and insecticide-treated nets) to people who need them, rather than to people who don’t? (2) Are these people consistently and correctly using the materials? One of the reasons I really like PSI is it seems very concerned with these two questions, and attempts to collect data specifically on them; the data it makes available imply success. On the other hand, a lot of monitoring and evaluation isn’t getting done (see the research scorecard, which to its credit PSI makes public), and none of it appears externally audited. How reliable is this data? How representative is the information we have?

And that’s PSI, our current top-recommended charity. Even if $1000 can save a life, your $1000 isn’t unless it gets used well. There’s no charity that makes me even 90% confident this is happening, and with the “average” charity I’d bet that it isn’t.

We can do more – not just give more

However, the bottom line is that I don’t think these concerns mean that Prof. Singer’s challenge can be dismissed. For one thing, even if 90% of PSI’s activities accomplish nothing and the other 10% are in line with our impressions, that’s still $10,000 per life saved – enough for the moral argument to remain very relevant, in my opinion. Based on the limited information we have, it appears that donating to our recommended charities likely is saving lives at some relatively good rate. It might be more uncertain and probabilistic than pulling a drowning child out of the water, but it’s still a compelling value for your money.

And the other issue is that there are more charities out there to be examined, and more improvement to be had from holding them accountable. As Prof. Easterly acknowledges, there are many proven life-saving programs. There may not be infinite room to expand these programs; these programs may not be able to end poverty by themselves; but they can absorb at least a few million more dollars. And that does mean that nearly all of us could be doing more to save (or change) lives than we are.

It’s just that “doing more” has to mean more than “giving more.” Picking your charity – and doing your part in holding it accountable – is at least as important as giving generously. We’re trying to make this task easier for time-strapped donors: if you put credence in our analysis, it can mean simply basing your giving on our recommendations (informally, or formally via GiveWell Advance Donation).

Bottom line

Unlike many “give more” advocates that target only dollars spent, Prof. Singer recognizes the challenge of translating generosity into results (hence his interest in GiveWell, as well as J-PAL, which we’re big fans of). His book challenges you to give more and give better. Neither of these is easy … nor is reading The Life You Can Save. But they’re worth it, because even for an individual donor, saving a life is within reach.


  • Grant on March 17, 2009 at 8:49 pm said:

    One question I always had was on whether we should earn more. For example, I am a graduate student, so if I give away 10% of a $30K stipend, it is only $3K. But if I were working at a “real job”, I could be making much more, and thus giving more. Is it better that I give away 3% of a 150K salary or 10% of 30K? I don’t want to compare what two different people make, but simply what one person makes, to what they could make if they worked harder. If 1K = 1 life, then at a 10% giving rate, every 10K more I earn can save one person’s life. Seems like I should never stop working (except to read up on where I should give my money to affect the most change)!

  • Holden on March 25, 2009 at 11:01 am said:

    It’s an interesting question. I do think that all else equal, choosing to earn more (and give more) is a morally superior decision. However, the benefits to society of the job you choose may not correlate perfectly with the pay, especially if your skills are a better fit for a more “public good” type job (one whose pay is low compared to its value to society).

  • Grant raises a good point and, ‘ceteras paribus’, I agree with him and Holden that in the viewpoint of helping with the poverty problem outside the USA at this time the higher paying job that allows one to contribute more is ethically ‘better’. Of course, one must follow through and not spend the extra salary on a luxurious home, a Mazerati or part ownership of a small aircraft or yacht, a club membership or somesuch as many do. (I speak from experience and observation.) Some ‘good’ positions almost require investments in certain social acquerterments to properly entertain peers and clients that the salary increase is absorbed by paying for those amenities.
    But to the excerpt from the book and commentary that I just read, I am not floored by the facts because I have seen and interacted with poverty in the third world. Seeing it makes it very personal and lives on with you. We who have so much need to be reminded by authors and speakers such as Mr. Singer so that we will dig deeper into our affluent pockets and give. We do need to be whipped into shaping up occasionally. However, I do often question if my donations are properly used and will peruse the sites offered above and in other comments to ascertain that my donations go to the best dispersor. I am far from affluent and sometimes wonder if my small efforts count for anything and why more super rich and affluent do not give as the Gates and Mr Buffet have (and undoubtably will continue to do). Solving world poverty by the billions of dollars would be far easier. Let’s see….. 1100 billionaires who can surely afford 10% equals 110 billion dollars at least. I challenge the poorest of the world’s billionaires to donate their share, $100MM as I do mine, a pittance.

  • Singer’s book is a challenging read – no matter which way you look at it. In my experience, visiting very poor communities, then coming back to live in an affluent country – I can quickly become engrossed in the values of those around me. Any reminders to give more is a good thing for me.

    Thanks for the work of Givewell.

  • Jodie,

    Prof. Singer wrote an excellent article called “What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?” which addresses this very issue.

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