Today, an extraordinary man turns 70 – philosopher Peter Singer, a pioneer boldly asserting that to live a truly moral life those of us global "haves" must act to help alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest. (BTW: If you are reading this, you likely fit in to that "have" category; most Americans are part of the global 1% – meaning we make more money than 99% of the world.)
While you've gotta love that fighting global poverty has become cool, whether it’s Bono, or Warren Buffett, Bill Gates or Angelina and Brad, Singer made the case for action to help those on distant shores decades ago. The time: 1971; the event: the Bangladesh famine following independence from Pakistan. At the same time the Beatles were holding their benefit “Concert for Bangladesh” in Madison Square Garden, Singer wrote the seminal Famine, Affluence, and Morality, urging action to stop the starvation of millions:
It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away… The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously, this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.
(Tragically neither Singer nor the Beatles were very successful. By December 1974 an estimated 1.5 million Bangladeshis had died largely from preventable starvation and disease in what became known as the Bangladesh famine.)
Singer’s call for action, not just empathy, to help the poor across divides of race, borders, citizenship, and time zones, is the opposite of the siren’s song of nationalist and xenophobic hate plaguing the world from Orlando to Dhaka.
I first met Singer eight years ago when he came to San Francisco to give a lecture sponsored by Princeton University where he’s a tenured professor. At that point Singer was already famous, having been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, and I assumed the place would be packed. I was wrong. Only about 30 people showed up, so it had the feel of a seminar, giving me something unexpected and invaluable: the chance to talk to him.
Confession: philosophy is generally not my thing. As an undergrad, I lasted for one week before dropping an introductory class; the lectures and reading made my brain feel small and tired, like I did trying to program my old VCR.
Singer is different, with a calm voice of a good friend who wants to help you understand something he finds important. That night, he led a guided tour through the basic arguments that became the core of his best selling book, The Life You Can Save. His key message, as with the Famine piece, is that ‘"the lives of all people everywhere are of equal fundamental worth,” and that as citizens of a rich country we are immoral if we do not act to end suffering in developing countries.
Afterwards, enthused, I nervously approached Singer, blathering on about how his arguments resonated deeply with me. Then, quite amazingly, he asked what I did, and seemed genuinely interested in my answer. When I explained what fistula was and what the Foundation did he asked a host of perceptive questions, as I pillaged through my messy purse looking for a business card, slightly overwhelmed by his interest in our work. Turns out, he thought fistula made a good example of the kind of tragic suffering that continued needlessly, but could be effectively alleviated. I was delighted, and frankly more than a tad surprised, when we ended up being featured in The Life You Can Save.
Singer’s own organization, The Life You Can Save, spawned by the book, and staffed by a crew as dedicated as he is, recommends 17 nonprofits that offer low cost, high impact solutions, like bed nets and deworming – or surgery, be it for fistula or cataracts – surgery that can transform lives.
Singer’s thinking is captured in his TED talk, now viewed by more than 1.3 million people. He is influencing a younger generation of “Effective Altruists,” some very smart people who recognize that having a caring heart is only half the answer to helping the world’s poor. What they add to the mix is vital: the toughest of minds. Will MacAskill, Toby Ord, Dean Karlan, Esther Duflo, Rob Mather, and the team at GiveWell – are harnessing data and creating tools to evaluate the cost effectiveness of strategies and organizations fighting poverty. Their contribution on humanity’s margin, will, over time, likely have a profound impact – helping tens of millions of people avoid untimely death or unnecessary misery and keeping well-meaning people from wasting money donating to ineffective organizations.
Perhaps most importantly, these visionaries are shaking up the too often stodgy field of philanthropy, and inspiring the emerging technorati wealthy to see that the greatest humanitarian impact they can make lies in places beyond our shores, embracing Singer’s ethos that to not act when you can makes you immoral.
The world needs all of these brilliant thinkers now more than ever. Tens of millions of people still suffer and die needlessly from preventable and treatable illness and injury. While the US is the most wealthy and powerful nation in the history of the world, 95% of our charitable giving stays within our borders. Those dying from largely preventable deaths, including over 6,000 children a day, don’t live in the US. They live mainly in Africa and Asia. Yet, only $1 in $20 given to charity goes internationally. How can that be? Why do we not see the suffering beyond our borders? Why do we not act to help?
Singer started asking these critical questions 45 years ago. And they are still relevant. Thank you, Peter, for leading the way, for your tenacity, your courage, your surprising humility, your caring heart and capacious mind. Happy Birthday!
Send Peter Singer a personalized birthday greeting of your own by signing Fistula Foundation's e-card today.