An interview with Peter Singer
02 June 2015
By Pan Macmillan
We interviewed Peter Singer, the author of The Life You Can Save, about his book and why he writes about poverty.
You have been writing and thinking on the subject of poverty for more than 30 years – how much has the situation changed over these years?
It's changed in many ways. We pay much more attention to world poverty than we did 30 years ago. It is much more in the news, and not only when there are disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. And we have made progress, too - there are fewer children dying each year now, from poverty-related causes, than there were 30 years ago, and that is despite the world's population more than doubling in that period.
We all sit around and talk about poverty and the state of the world, but what made you get up and do something about it?
I decided that since I believe we ought to use some of our affluence to help those living in extreme poverty, I should do something about it. So I've been donating to organizations like Oxfam for more than 30 years now. And writing about it followed from the fact that I am a philosopher interested in ethical issues.
How did you go about writing the book?
I drew on articles that I had written over the years, and responses that people had made to them. And of course I did a lot of research on factual questions related to world poverty, and to the effectiveness of aid. But after all that, the hard part was to get rid of some of the academic style and make it interesting to read - because I did want it to be a book for a wide audience.
The tone and message of the book is striking, did you always know you wanted the message to be so explicit?
Yes, that goes back a long way, to an early article I wrote on the topic in the 1970s, when I asked readers to imagine that they were passing a shallow pond when they noticed a child in danger of drowning. My point was that if they thought it wrong to just walk on, leaving the child to drown, they should also think it wrong to ignore the children dying from avoidable, poverty-related causes. So that was already a very explicit call to individual readers to act. I've found that to be an effective approach, for many people, so I knew I wanted to continue it with this book.