Academic Philosophy

The Drowning Toddler Example, 1886 edition

Peter_Kropotkin peter_singerTurns out Pëtr Kropotkin beat Peter Singer to it by 86 years!

A child is drowning, and four men who stand upon the bank see it struggling in the water, One of them does not stir, he is a partisan of “Each one for -himself,” the maxim of the commercial middle-class; this one is a brute and we need not speak of him further The next one reasons thus: “If I save the child, a good report of my action will be made to the ruler of heaven, and the Creator will reward me by increasing my flocks and my serfs,” and thereupon he plunges into the water. Is he therefore a moral man? Clearly not! He is a shrewd calculator, that is all. The third, who is an utilitarian, reflects thus (or at least utilitarian philosophers represent him as so reasoning): “Pleasures can be classed in two categories, inferior pleasures and higher ones, To save the life of anyone is a superior pleasure infinitely more intense and more durable than others; therefore I will save the child.” Admitting that any man ever reasoned thus, would he not be a terrible egotist? and, moreover, could we ever be sure that his sophistical brain would not at some given moment cause his will to incline towards an inferior pleasure, that is to say, towards refraining from troubling himself? There remains the fourth individual. This man has been brought up from his childhood to feel himself one with the rest of humanity: from his childhood he has always regarded men as possessing interests in common: he has accustomed himself to suffer when his neighbours suffer, and to feel happy when everyone around him is happy. Directly he hears the heart. rending cry of the mother, he leaps into the water, not through reflection but by instinct, and when she thanks him for saving her child, he says, “What have I done to deserve thanks, my good woman? I am happy to see you happy; I have acted from natural impulse and could not do otherwise!”

Can anyone else find an even earlier example? To fit the bill, it’s gotta be a drowning, and it’s gotta be a kid. Choking adolescents and old women in burning buildings don’t count, even if the philosophical lessons are the same.

  • anarchopac .

    One thing is for certain Kropotkin’s facial hair is far superior to Singer’s

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    Wow, a good reminder that not everything old is venerable. That was poorly written. Of course the totally selfish person was a member of the Bourgeoisie, after all making good and services available to other people and working hard is just crass and evil. And the reasoning of the next three, very very specious, Who really thinks those ways? More likely your causes of either action or inaction will be due to a large number of factors all weighing upon you at once.

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes, I was appalled by the snotty, aristocratic self-righteousness too. Also he misrepresents both utilitarianism and and the way religions work. But I had also never heard of him until this post, so maybe it’s not important.

      • M Lister

        But I had also never heard of him until this post,

        Too bad- Kropotkin is an extremely interesting figure, generally a good writer. His autobiography is great fun, and his more theoretical writings (Mutual Aid, perhaps especially, but also his writings on prisons) are very interesting. He’s worth checking out.

    • good_in_theory

      This level of butt-hurt over a 19th century allegory is a good recipe for ignorance.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        you ought to know, you have been spewing leftwing ignorance here for a long time.

  • Drew Stonebraker

    It may be a drowning child, but it’s not the same argument as Singer’s. I’m not sure what your interest is in drowning children, but FWIW I’d be interested if there were any arguments analogous to Singer’s which pre-date him.

    • True. Singer could have made the same argument with a different example. And his example, as Kropotkin shows, can be used to make many quite different arguments. It would certainly be interesting to see if any arguments similar to Singer’s had been made in the past. But I thought his example was striking enough that the historical precedent might be of interest.

      • Sean II

        The interesting thing in both cases is that a takes a drowning child…a child…dying in one of the worst imaginable ways…by drowning…to induce in one’s reader a clarity of moral intuition.

        Why couldn’t it be a grown man doubled over from an attack of gastroesophageal reflux? Because nobody gives a shit.

        Why not a prematurely wrinkled woman wheezing from some bit of respiratory distress? Eh, she was probably a heavy smoker.

        Thus, the argument strangely backfires. The fact that we have to resort to something so extreme as a drowning child is actually a strike against the strength of moral intuitions.

  • RJL

    It is possible that Singer took the example from Bentham, where it was not a child but a drunken man drowning in a puddle. Perhaps Singer amended the example to an innocent child in order to avoid the objection that a drunken man drowning in a puddle was responsible for his predicament in a way that would obviate any obligation to assist. In any case, the point that Bentham was making was that while in general it is neither practicable nor (partly for its impracticability) justifiable for the state to compel benevolent acts, in some instances the amount of utility at stake in saving a person’s life could justify a law creating a positive duty to assist someone drowning in a puddle.

    Here is how Bentham presented it in IPML:
    “A woman’s head-dress catches fire: water is at hand: a man, instead of
    assisting to quench the fire, looks on, and laughs at it. A drunken man,
    falling with his face downwards into a puddle, is in danger of
    suffocation: litting his head a little on one side would save him:
    another man sees this, and lets him lie. A quantity of gunpowder lies
    scattered about a room: a man is going into it with a lighted candle:
    another, knowing this, lets him go in without warning. Who is there that
    in any of these cases would think punishment misapplied?”

  • Derek Bowman

    How about Mengzi (aka Mencius) circa 300BCE?

    From Book II, Part I, Chapter 6:
    “The reason why I say that humans all have hearts that are not unfeeling toward other is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion – not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries.”
    (Translation from Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy by Ivanhoe and Van Norden, p. 125)

    • adrianratnapala

      I think we have a winner.

      • Yup, that’s gonna be pretty tough to beat. Nice find, Derek!

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