By Walter Cohen
Why did I start giving to “The Life You Can Save?” Two reasons. First, its executive director, Charlie Bresler, is my oldest and closest friend. We go back—and I say this with both pride and disbelief—almost 60 years, and we share both a background and a political outlook. When he took charge of the organization, I naturally got interested. Second reason: Peter Singer. I’d first come across his work on animal liberation in the 1970s and had been impressed. His attention to extreme poverty struck me as thoughtful, compelling, and important. So, when I found myself in a position to increase my spending on good causes, I decided that most of it should go to The Life You Can Save.
More recently, Charlie asked me if, in lieu of my annual contribution, I would volunteer to copy edit the revised edition of Singer’s The Life You Can Save, the book for which the group is named. I’m a college teacher of literature and readily agreed, though I was partly lying. I knew from the start that I would continue with my regular amount of money in any case. But I was wrong. What I did not know was that the time I spent on the book would reveal to me that the amount I was giving did not meet even the semi-wimpy standards Singer sets at the end of the book—standards established for those, like me, who mean well but can’t come close to doing what their ethical and political convictions ought to lead them to do. Hence, I increased the amount I sent in accordingly, to what is still a fairly modest level. Charlie was surprised, and this led to the following text-message exchange.
Charlie: Working on book costly ?.
Me: Who knew?
This year, of course, the coronavirus has figured prominently in everyone’s lives. And here, too, I’ve given primarily to The Life You Can Save. I mention this for two reasons. First, most of us (all of us?) who hope our money can help others a bit think initially of our own community and then of our own country. I find this emotionally compelling, especially at the present moment, when the death toll is far higher in the U.S. than anywhere else, while our national response is not what it could or should be. I live near Detroit, which is one of the poorest cities in the nation and not coincidentally has suffered one of the worst outbreaks. My first check therefore went to a group that helps those in need there, not least because many of the very lowest-income regions of the world have not yet been hard hit.
As I said, I find this position emotionally persuasive. But I do not find it intellectually persuasive. Money that I send to well-chosen charities dedicated to the reduction of extreme poverty will go farther, will do more good, than anything close to home. So once again I made the majority of my contribution to The Life You Can Save—in the unfortunately-confident expectation that those most vulnerable economically will be the ones whose health suffers most as well.
That last statement, however, leads me to my second reason for this decision. There’s an ambiguity in that statement’s phrasing. What it may conceal is this reality—that everything I give to The Life You Can Save goes to The Life You Can Save, not to the organizations it recommends. I do this not to help fund Charlie (he works for free, fulltime) and only partly because it’s more difficult to raise money to cover operating expenses than to fund worthy projects more directly. I do so mainly because I’m persuaded that—yet once more—the money goes farther this way. It has a multiplier effect that would otherwise be impossible.
Most recently, I’ve attempted to combine my day job with support for The Life You Can Save. Academic employment for literature Ph.D.’s has been challenging for the past half century; it became much tougher in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis; and I expect things to get worse still as a result of the current pandemic. My program is therefore looking for ways to introduce doctoral candidates to other career options, partly by funding short-term internships. The Life You Can Save seems to me a good fit with the values of the students I know, whether the work leads them to careers in effective giving or enhances their knowledge and skills for future employment in educational institutions. And I think that during these internships, the students (or former students) will usefully contribute to the organization. Anyway, I’m hoping we are in the process of opening a pipeline. As I write, negotiations are ongoing.
What about the future, beyond what I’ve described? Well, I don’t know. My teaching and scholarly research in recent years have turned to the relationship between literature and ecological catastrophe. I was thinking of global warming, but, sadly, this line of inquiry has become even more timely than I’d have wished. And my earlier point about the extra peril those living in extreme poverty are likely to suffer from COVID-19 goes double, if anything, for what they’re likely to experience from the continued heating up of the planet—with 2020 on track to be the hottest year on record, despite the pandemic-generated reduction in the pace of carbon emissions. So I’m anticipating continued cross-fertilization between my academic interests (and not just the ones I’ve described) and my giving to and involvement with The Life You Can Save.
In short, a combination of professional self-interest (my students, my teaching, my research), emotional attachment (a close friendship dating from 1963), and an intellectual-political judgment (the best use of my money).
Walter Cohen is professor of English at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain and A History of European Literature: The West and the World from Antiquity to the Present. He’s also one of the editors of The Norton Shakespeare. From 1980 to 2014, he was professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University, where, in addition to teaching and conducting research, he held a range of administrative positions.