The Life You Can Save: Logical food… but still hungry for heart

The cost of saving a human life is “between $623 to $2,367”

Cool logical proclamations like this can be found throughout The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer, a well known Bioethicist at Princeton University. Singer is a master at weaving logical webs of ethical arguments to address some of the most pressing questions about giving…. why we should give, how much and to whom. The book marches from the initial premise; that donating to charities that save lives is our ethical duty, through the various arguments against giving all the way, to the manner and amount which giving should take shape. All compelling and deeply researched stuff….. but why didn’t I end up with that “time to change the world” feeling in my gut as I turned the final page?

While reading Singer’s writing I was transported back to college philosophy… a place where mathematical-feeling postulates seemed to cleanly resolve some of life’s greatest mysteries, leaving me with the feeling of a problem solved minus any real conviction about the solution. Similarly books like The Life You Can Save, ask me to travel to a place where not saving a drowning child is equivalent to not giving a small donation to water purification for a Ugandan child I’ve never met. I get it… but is this a convincing strategy for engaging people in the cause of combating poverty?

From our perspective as storytellers, balancing the emotional with the logical is a constant struggle. There is lots of interesting research that indicates that information addressing our logical brain system is much less effective in producing empathy than information appealing to our emotional brain system. At the same time we’ve come to firmly believe that the segment of the population who is receptive to messages about social causes have a strong attachment to facts, efficacy and a general grounding in reality.

I’m a huge fan of Singer’s work, especially something as comprehensive and forceful as this. I just wish he held our hand a bit on this factual journey through moral judgments of our society (readers included). For a book with so many mentions of “To be a good person…” we need more something more poetic to soothe the side of us that feels assaulted by the implication that living a good life is such an inelastic pursuit. I think this point is proven by Singer himself who at the tail end of the book after several hundred pages of logical arguments ultimately appeals to our emotional side…. It may be logical to give as much as you POSSIBLY can without effecting your own basic health and security, Singer concludes that 5% of income is a fair (emotionally viable) starting point for most of us.

These are tricky issues… that don’t live neatly in either the logical or emotional realms. As we tell the stories of social causes we need to remember to serve each plate of logic with a healthy side of heart.


Leave a Reply


e-Mail * (will not be published)