The Life You Can Save

Peter Singer, one of the most influential philosophers on my own ethical decisions, made a powerful argument that I am unable to ignore.  In his Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Singer argues that each and every one of us owes our disposable wealth to those who are lacking even basic human rights like drinking water, vaccinations, and clothing.  The strongest formulation of Singer’s argument, that this balance must be pushed so far that it only stops being morally obligatory once it hurts the giver more than it benefits the receiver, is immaterial for almost all of us.  We all spend too much disposable income on luxury items like a nice dinner out, a new(er) computer or phone, or a vacation.  Rather than painting a dark picture of how little we are all contributing to ending devastating problems like malnutrition in the world, I find it more inspiring to focus on a single aspect of my budget that can be cut, and giving that money to an organization that I trust to help others.

It is too easy to make excuses — especially the more sophisticated ones.  First, arguing that it is hard to be sure that the money you are donating will make a real difference is an easy trap to fall into.  Do not let that stop you!  There are organizations that have an extremely good record for making a real difference: kiva.org and pih.org, to name two.  Further, speaking from a Jewish perspective, the Rambam in his famous 8 levels of giving makes it clear that knowing the recipient (and/or having the recipient know the giver) is a lower level of giving than a truly anonymous gift.  Do not assume that just because you do not know who is getting your money, and that you will never know first-hand the benefit it is making in someone else’s life, that it is not helping.

Second, do not assume that others will give, and that you therefore do not have to worry about it.  While it is true that, if every person in the developed world donated a small fraction of their disposable income, many of the problems facing the poorest one billion people on this planet would disappear, it is quite clear that such is not the reality we live in.  It is incumbent upon all of us to first push ourselves, and then impact those around us to do likewise.

Using the Jewish study framework of chevruta is a useful way to keep yourself on task.  Find a partner who you trust, and sit down with them and do a frank calculus of how much money you each need to live (it does not need to be an equal amount, we are all accustomed to different standards of living).  Once you have that total, take the remaining money you earn and open a joint bank account with that total in it — ideally, siphon off the surplus straight from your pay-cheque so that you never even think of it as your income.  Finally, a few times a year, sit down with your chevruta and allocate those funds.

As the Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) says: “Therefore [humans] were created as individuals, to teach you that, all who cause even one life to die […] it is as if they have destroyed the entire world.  And anyone who saved even a single life, it is as if they have established an entire world” (translation mine).

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