Last semester I mentioned to my students that I believe one of the purposes of philosophy is to unsettle us. I then offered the age-old example of Socrates who likened himself to a type of biting fly that arouses a sluggish horse to action through irritation and pain. I then mentioned the philosopher Peter Singer, his book The Life You Can Save, and how I wanted to avoid reading it.
I knew Singer’s argument related to alleviating global poverty and human suffering would challenge me in a way that I did not want to face. By mentioning my avoidance of him, however, I intended to make an important point to my students; though you do not have to accept the challenging perspectives you encounter, running from them is no way to live. And so the book became something I knew I would have to read if I were to maintain my integrity.
I finally picked it up last month. I read it in three days. I am now a monthly contributor to two international aid organizations. I hope after reading this you will consider investing some of your time in researching whether or not you should become one too.
Would you save a drowning child?
Singer’s question is simple: what is our moral obligation to relieve the suffering of others? He begins his book with a thought experiment he has told time and time again, which I will paraphrase here.
Let us say you are walking to work past a lovely park on a bright morning. As you continue, you hear a type of splashing in the duck pond that sounds distressed. Upon investigation, you see a small child is clearly drowning. You look around. There is no one else near; no adults who look like the child’s parents, no rescue personnel of any kind. It is just you and the drowning child. What will you do?
No doubt your answer will be the same as, I hope, every other human being: you rush into the water and rescue the child. You do not give thought to the fancy work clothes or uniform you are wearing that will be ruined for the day. You do not call your boss before you dive into the water to make sure it is alright if you are a little late. You do not calculate the cost of income lost due to the time it will take to perform the rescue. The only thing you will do is rush into the water and save the child.
Singer then asks, if you would, without hesitation, rescue the drowning child that is in front of you from dying, why would you not do the same for a child in another country if you have the resources to do so?
My personal relationship to giving
If I am to be honest, which is what this essay is all about, I have never been a giver. Despite my parents’ best efforts, I was no different than most middle class children in the United States in my conception of giving. What counted as such was if someone we knew directly or by one/two degrees of separation was in some sort of difficulty that could be addressed by giving of my time to some kind of labor – helping shingle a roof, clear a tree after a tornado, mow a lawn or bake and deliver a casserole upon the death of a neighbor. Any giving of money was to be done with heavy consideration reserved primarily for the likes of Salvation Army Red Kettle workers stationed around shopping malls during the holidays, or when the collection tray passed during church service. If I did give to these causes, it was mostly self-serving, and wildly unproportionate to the resources I had as a teenager who worked during the summer. To my shame, when confronted with opportunities to give, the voice inside my head would ask: what am I getting out of it?
After high school, I chose to marry and had two children. I eventually went to college, earned a degree and now make a good living, but there was a period of time in my twenties and early thirties that, by American standards, I and my young family were poor. If it were not for government assistance programs such as Food Stamps, WIC and Medicare, my parents, and school loans/grants, we would have not made it. I will not recount the specifics of what we experienced, but many times it seemed we were on the edge of hopelessness.
I say all this to give you my personal relationship to money so that it might lend perspective to not only my own personal journey to giving to aid organizations, but perhaps to yours as well. I do not want to be over dramatic, but my experiences with scarcity these many years later still influences my decisions and feeds my fears. I do not hoard money, but I am constantly aware of the fragile nature of wealth. My largely irrational fears, however, do not excuse my actions, nor should fear excuse yours.
Like most people, growing up I had a binary view of things: rich and poor, east and west, first world and third world, good and bad. In reality, we know these strict dichotomies do not exist. Nuance and degrees weave themselves through our existence, yet we refuse to let go of these dichotomies even when we find ourselves right in the middle. For instance, growing up I knew my family was not poor, but I also knew we were not rich. Though I did not know the term at the time, we were middle-class. Despite this very obvious condition in which I grew up, I believed the dichotomy of rich and poor existed. I also believed there were rich countries/continents and poor countries/continents. I also believed that these poor people and countries were exclusively in Africa. All of this is only partially true.
The book Factfulness by Hans Rosling does a great deal to dismiss these dichotomies. In it, he and his team reveal data showing there are four income levels throughout the world, not two. The following figures are adjusted to US dollars.
If you live on Level 1, you live on about a dollar a day. You have no running water, but must fetch it and boil it, gathering firewood on the way home because there is no other heat source. The only transportation you have is on foot, almost always without shoes. Your house is made of mud. Your bed is the ground and a blanket. The food you eat is a grey porridge offering very little nutrition. You have no healthcare and child mortality is high. And important to note, if you are an adult, this situation is rarely just yours alone, but your spouse and children endure the same hardships. This is what Peter Singer refers to as extreme poverty. According to Factfulness around 1 billion people live on Level 1. (Rosling, 2018)
Wages for Level 2 jumps to $4 a day, which affords life changing developments. You can afford chickens which means eggs. You can buy shoes for yourself and your children. You have a bicycle for transportation and a cooking source inside your house. This makes water preparation more efficient. Meals are more varied and nutritious. You and your children have a mattress to sleep upon. There is some incredibly limited health care, but nothing we in a Level 4 country would recognize as such. Life is still very hard and on the edge, but the improvement to quality of life is vast. Roughly three billion people live at Level 2. (Rosling, 2018)
A Level 3 person earns about $16 a day and you can imagine the difference. You have running water in your house, a refrigerator, and a motorcycle for transport. Your children have access to education, and you are able to pay for nutritious food and health care. You are also able to take your family on their first ever vacation, one afternoon to the beach, just for fun. Your educated children will likely go on to earn more than you, improving their lives and possibly yours as well. Roughly two billion people live at Level 3. (Rosling, 2018)
If you live on Level 4, you earn $32 a day or more. If you are reading this article, you are likely living in a country that as a whole has achieved Level 4. Congratulations. Roughly one billion people live on Level 4. (Rosling, 2018)
When organizations like The Life You Can Save ask you to consider your moral obligation to alleviate human suffering, they are talking about people especially on Level 1 and Level 2. I think this is an important point to make. My conception of what living in poverty constituted was wildly limited before reading both Factfulness and The Life You Can Save. Extreme poverty can and should be eliminated. There are no arguments that justify the distance between the degree of human suffering that occurs at Levels 1 and 2 and what someone living at Level 4 can do to help alleviate that suffering, but I will address a few below.
Arguments against giving
I know the arguments against giving money to international aid organizations. I know them because they are the ones I have been telling myself for years. I would like to mention a few here with a response in light of the thought experiment mentioned earlier about the drowning child.
Argument: The people who receive the resources I am giving will not use them effectively.
Thought Experiment Parallel: Is there any guarantee the child you saved from drowning will use their gift of life effectively in the future? Will you still let the child drown?
Argument: A portion of the taxes I pay go already to international aid.
Thought Experiment Parallel: The local government has posted plenty of warning signs and fences around the pond using taxpayer money. Will you still let the child drown?
Argument: I have a right to my money and I can spend it the way I want. I earned it.
Thought Experiment Parallel: Sure, you can do what you like with your life, including letting the child drown.
Argument: Giving is just a band-aid and does not address the real symptoms of global poverty.
Thought Experiment Parallel: We should address the deeper, underlying issue of parent negligence and begin a compulsory government swimming program for toddlers. That will fix the problem. Let the child drown.
Argument: Giving people money or food breeds dependency.
Thought Experiment Parallel: Rescuing the drowning child will enable the parents to rely on a nanny-state to protect their child. Let the child drown.
Argument: If I am going to give, I want to do so for those in my own back yard.
Thought Experiment Parallel: The drowning child does not belong to me nor to anyone I know. Why would I save her? Let the child drown.
I have gone about addressing multiple arguments against giving to charity by way of using Singer’s thought experiment. In chapter three, The Life You Can Save goes about it by addressing every one of your objections effectively with studies and data, debunking the myths we in Level 4 countries have been telling ourselves for centuries. Persons given aid actually do use it to their benefit. Giving does not breed dependency. Working on larger, underlying issues is part of the mission of aid organizations.
Let me focus on one argument I feel most people have: how do I know my resources will be effectively spent? This is an especially important question.
Today there are a number of organizations that rigorously fact check international aid groups in the interest of transparency and that your dollar is spent in the interest of doing the most good. Not surprisingly, The Life You Can Save organization has a website with the best charities which can be found here https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/. I hope this answers that particular concern.
The Organizations I Have Chosen
The notion that, when we give we should do so anonymously, runs deep in Western culture. To tell others about our giving or the amount of how much we give is often perceived as bragging or attempting to make oneself seem morally superior to others. This notion is well entrenched within myself as well, but Singer provides plenty of studies that show people are motivated more to do good when they see someone else doing it.
Faced with this moral obligation, that I was without appeal or excuse to help alleviate human suffering, last month I decided to become a monthly giver to two organizations. I would like to tell you about them and why I chose each.
The first is Helen Keller International. Their Vitamin A Supplementation Program provides critical nutrition to children around the world at-risk for Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) — a condition that can lead to blindness and death. Over 100,000 children a year die from VAD related issues. Those that survive it are incredibly disadvantaged not only by blindness, but other VAD difficulties such as anemia and stuntedness. This is an entirely preventable circumstance. For $1.23 a child can receive an oral Vitamin A Supplementation. It seems to me absurd that the price of my grande Starbucks coffee could save five children from a lifetime of suffering. I give $50 a month to Helen Keller International. You can find their website here https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/best-charities/helen-keller-international/
The next charity to which I donate is the Fistula Foundation. I was unaware of this debilitating condition before I read The Life You Can Save which only speaks to how fortunate we are who live in Level 3 and 4 countries. Obstetric fistula is a devastating childbirth injury that happens to women who do not have access to emergency obstetric care, such as C-section. Due to prolonged labor lasting days and the pressure of the baby’s head on the pelvis, the tissue between the mother’s vagina and her bladder and rectum forms holes called fistulas. These leave the mother unable to control her urine/feces for the remainder of her life, making her especially prone to disease and infection. These women are also often shunned by their communities. The Fistula Foundations provides surgeries to repair fistulas, in addition to training surgeons, equipping facilities, grassroots community outreach, and holistic post-surgery reintegration.
This foundation is especially personal to me. Fistula tears are preventable, but once they occur, they can be repaired. I have three daughters, one of which just gave birth to our first grandchild, also a girl, and of course my beautiful wife. There is also my mother, step-mother, mother-in law, and my many friends and mentors who are women. My reason is hopefully obvious enough. Aside from this, fistula tears are something that can be fixed, yet without the resources, I cannot imagine the helplessness these women must feel, but I do have an idea.
During the portion of my life when we were quite poor, I went seven years without visiting a dentist. As a result, many of my teeth, especially the molars, had a number of dramatic cavities. I was embarrassed but worse was the daily fear that one of my teeth would collapse, need a root canal or infection would set in along with excruciating pain; all things I certainly could not have afforded to have addressed. It was only when a volunteer dentist office in the town in which I lived opened that I could have my teeth either pulled or, for the salvageable ones, the cavities filled. It took four separate visits to complete the work. I paid nothing for the service.
Now I can pass that generosity on and help someone else somewhere in the world feel whole again, relieving the anxiety associated with a seemingly hopeless future. A fistula repair surgery and rehabilitation services cost $694 per individual. I give $60 a month to the Fistula Foundation. You can find their website here https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/best-charities/fistula-foundation/. With my contribution, this year I will have saved one woman from a lifetime of misery.
The amount I am giving may not appear like much, but when it seemed like my teeth were about to fall out of my head, $1320 made up a quarter of my annual income. I am moving forward in the trust that all will be well financially, for how can I, with the Level 4 position I find myself in, not do more than nothing?
And here is where I leave you, reader, at the foot of the mountain. The information and data are clear. The moral imperative is too. These are the lives I can save. You can save many too. Will you save the life of the drowning child?
The e-book of The Life You Can Save can be purchased for .99 cents. The audio book is free. You can purchase a paper copy for $15. Please visit https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/ for carefully vetted charities that will help alleviate human suffering with your assistance.
Rosling, H., Rönnlund, A. R., & Rosling, O. (2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Reprint ed.). Flatiron Books.
Singer, P. (2019). 10th Anniversary Edition The Life You Can Save: How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty (10th Anniversary ed.). http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org.
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