December 17, 2006
What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?
By PETER SINGER
What is a human life worth? You may not want to put a price tag on a it. But if we really had to, most
of us would agree that the value of a human life would be in the millions. Consistent with the
foundations of our democracy and our frequently professed belief in the inherent dignity of human
beings, we would also agree that all humans are created equal, at least to the extent of denying that
differences of sex, ethnicity, nationality and place of residence change the value of a human life.
With Christmas approaching, and Americans writing checks to their favorite charities, it’s a good
time to ask how these two beliefs — that a human life, if it can be priced at all, is worth millions, and
that the factors I have mentioned do not alter the value of a human life — square with our actions.
Perhaps this year such questions lurk beneath the surface of more family discussions than usual, for
it has been an extraordinary year for philanthropy, especially philanthropy to fight global poverty.
, the founder of Microsoft, the ideal of valuing all human life equally began to jar against
reality some years ago, when he read an article about diseases in the developing world and came
across the statistic that half a million children die every year from rotavirus, the most common cause
of severe diarrhea in children. He had never heard of rotavirus. “How could I never have heard of
something that kills half a million children every year?” he asked himself. He then learned that in
developing countries, millions of children die from diseases that have been eliminated, or virtually
eliminated, in the United States. That shocked him because he assumed that, if there are vaccines
and treatments that could save lives, governments would be doing everything possible to get them to
the people who need them. As Gates told a meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva last
year, he and his wife, Melinda, “couldn’t escape the brutal conclusion that — in our world today —
some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not.” They said to themselves, “This can’t be true.”
But they knew it was.
Gates’s speech to the World Health Assembly concluded on an optimistic note, looking forward to the
next decade when “people will finally accept that the death of a child in the developing world is just as
tragic as the death of a child in the developed world.” That belief in the equal value of all human life
is also prominent on the Web site of the
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
, where under Our Values