Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Welcome to the so-called giving season. If you have given to charity, you will soon be inundated with letters and email imploring you to do so again. Giving Tuesday approaches! Gifts will be matched! Bad charities will claim to be good!

Giving is good, but don’t make any impulsive decisions. Instead, consider the work of the philosopher Peter Singer and in particular his book, The Life You Can SaveBeginning on Giving Tuesday, a 10th anniversary edition of the book will be given away by a nonprofit called, not coincidentally, The Life You Can Save.

Some background: The book and the organization can be traced back to an essay written by Singer in the fall of 1971 when thousands of people in what is now Bangladesh were dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care. Their death and suffering was neither inevitable nor unavoidable, Singer wrote in the essay, called Famine, Affluence and Morality.

He argued, first, that is the duty of those of us who are financially comfortable to do what we can to prevent needless death and suffering, and that, second, this moral obligation extends not just to those who we know but to those who are far away.

Singer made the case with a now-famous thought experiment:

If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

What’s more, he wrote, it should make no difference whether “this is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.”

This a radical argument. If more people felt the urge to help poor people in the developing world, Singer wrote, the affluent would spend less money on themselves, give more away and “our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.” His essay was published in an academic journal and taught at colleges. But not much changed — at least not for a while.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

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