On Singer’s Thought Experiment

Apropos Matt’s recent post: Peter Singer argues we have stringent duties to give to charity. He relies upon a thought experiment:

One Drowning Child
You come across a child drowning in a pool. You can save the child at some personal expense. Imagine you’ll have to jump in right away and thus ruin your iPhone.

Most people judge that they *must* save the child, even though this costs them, say, $500. If so, Singer asks, why not conclude that rather than buying the iPhone for $500 in the first place, you should just send $500 to save a child’s life?

There are some practical objections to this: Perhaps it’s not actually possible to save a child’s life for $500, or there are various problems and moral hazards created by charity. But let’s put these aside.

The central problem with Singer’s argument is that he thinks that once you’re committed to saving one child’s life, you’re committed to the following principle:

If you can save a life without sacrificing anything of moral significance, you ought to do so.

Singer claims this is a demanding moral principle. It would forbid you from buying most luxury goods, extra clothes, video games, tickets to opera, etc., and instead require you to donate most of your money to saving lives.

But the central problem with Singer’s thought experiment is that it is *not* analogous to the situation we find ourselves in. In Singer’s drowning child thought experiment, I save one life at some personal expense, and then move on with my life. I don’t remain in perpetual service to others.

What Singer needs, for his thought experiment to be an actual analog of our current situation, is something like this:

Many Drowning Children

You’re walking alone one day, when you come across millions of drowning children. The children you save will for the most part remain saved, though some might fall back in. However, no matter how many you save, there will always be more about to drown. You can spend your entire waking life pulling children out of pools.

Singer’s entire argument rests upon people’s moral intuitions in the One Drowning Child. But One Drowning Child doesn’t do the work he needs it to do, because One Drowning Child isn’t analogous to the situation Singer thinks we actually find ourselves in. Instead, what Singer needs to do is determine what people’s moral intuitions are in Many Drowning Children. Even if you judge you must save the one child in One Drowning Child, you might not judge that you must dedicate your life to, or even spend a huge amount of time on, saving children in Many Drowning Children.

Note that I am not claiming that Singer’s conclusions are wrong, just that his argument for those conclusions doesn’t succeed.

As an aside, it’s interesting that Singer spends much of his time trying to debunk the use of intuitions as data in moral philosophy, when one of his two most famous and important arguments relies heavily upon intuitions and casuistry.

  • Matthew Hentrich

    Well, I’m just not quite sure at what point I’d feel comfortable saying ‘I think I’ve saved enough drowning babies today. I’m heading out, sorry for the rest of you.’

    • Jameson Graber

      Well, how do you resolve the problem in your daily life? How much of your time and money do you allow for yourself, and how much do you insist on giving to the poor? This really isn’t so hypothetical.

      • Matthew Hentrich

        Well, as the author astutely points out, the original analogy isn’t entirely solid – we don’t really have a reason to think that giving 500 dollars to a charity is guaranteed to save a baby’s life anywhere. If the correlation were that stark, I might feel the need to contribute considerably more income than I do (which, I already do contribute some on a monthly basis). So, I think people objecting to Singer’s analogy would do better to consider that point more than arguing that, at some point, we’d just be better off letting some babies drown.

        • Jameson Graber

          I guess I agree with that. But I admit that when I hear people talking about the life you can save with donations to blah blah blah, I ask myself whether I am, in fact, letting someone die so I can go off and live my own life. It’s tough dealing with the ambiguity.

  • Jeremy McLellan

    The fatal flaw in Singer’s argument is that no one who owns an iPhone would notice the drowning child.

  • Jake Monaghan

    I think you’re right. Anthony Appiah makes a similar objection. James Rachels similarly (and famously) defends the view that (the bare acts of) active and passive euthanasia are morally equivalent by relying upon intuition and then complains about how we shouldn’t trust intuition.

  • stevenjohnson2

    The counter-example of many drowning children fails, because it omits the many pedestrians you would surely find around such a large body of water. I don’t know whether the counter-example is technically incoherent, but millions of drowning is an absurdity, not merely unlikely, like the Singer example. The only way it makes the slightest sense is as a metaphor for a social system that harms many children. But in that case the costs of repairing/replacing such a vile system would be made bearable by spread them among many adults, thus neutralizing the objection.

    • Jameson Graber

      “But in that case the costs of repairing/replacing such a vile system would be made bearable by spread them among many adults, thus neutralizing the objection.”

      Something like this is surely correct, but it isn’t that simple, is it? The more people you involve in this project, the more difficult coordination becomes. I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “one child, one savior; many children, many saviors,” because problems like these become infinitely more complex at higher scales.

      • stevenjohnson2

        It’s correct that, as a first approximation at least, all systems will fail sometimes. One individual might be obligated to rescue a drowning child and end up bearing all the costs themselves. (Incidentally, sometimes the rescuer will be voluntarily given monetary compensation by the parents but they are almost invariably highly compensated by communal praise and esteem. These two posts seem almost to consider money as the sole value.This is very peculiar indeed, since rescuing a drowning person is a dangerous business, a point I’m not sure should have been excluded.)

        But actually there is still a benefit to all pedestrians from this obligation. After all, any pedestrian on one day may be another be the parent whose child is drowning. And even those pedestrians who have no children were once children who could have benefited from an obligation for pedestrians to rescue drowning children. This business of mutual obligations that help us to live is ongoing and communal, not a literal business of personal contracts.

        • Jameson Graber

          OK, but I wasn’t referring to the situation in which “One individual might be obligated to rescue a drowning child and end up bearing all the costs themselves.” I was referring to a situation in which a million individuals might be obligated to rescue a million drowning children. Then there’s a huge question of feasibility. In addition to coordination, what about proximity? Another reason the drowning child example seems so intuitive is because you’re actually, physically walking by. But if we’re talking about third world poverty, there’s no sense except the most abstract in which we’re “walking by.” So the situation changes a lot once you start talking about very large scales. Even if you divide the moral responsibility among a large number of people, that doesn’t alleviate other complicating factors.

  • But surely you’d be obligated to save some children in the “Many children” version, right? You can’t just throw up your hands and say, “Well, since I can’t save them all, I’m not going to save any.” The question then becomes how much time and effort you are obligated to devote to rescuing.

    • Jason Brennan

      I agree. But that doesn’t do the work Singer needs it to do.

      • Tim O’Keefe

        But it might do the work for the “10% solution” Singer proposes, right? Singer himself puts forward the “give away 10% of your income” proposal as a pragmatic fallback that more people are likely to adopt, even though it falls short of your actual moral obligations, but in “many children,” you could use Matt’s reasoning above to motivate 10% (or something like that) as obligatory.

        • Jason Brennan

          It might. But the 10% point isn’t a principled response or derived from Singer’s argument. It’s just a plausible amount we can motivate people to give, probably for no better reason, ultimately, than that we happen to have 10 fingers.

          • Alex Guerrero

            Liam Murphy tries to motivate a principled stopping point in his “Moral Demands and Nonideal Theory.” The basic idea is that you are morally required to do what you would be required to do under conditions in which everyone was doing what they ought to do. You are required to do your fair share of the collective beneficence project. This has never seemed particularly plausible as a stopping point (I’m supposed to just save 25 of the kids and then am permitted to walk away, even if I know that no one else is actually going to help?), but it does have something intuitive going for it, particularly if we imagine ourselves to be in worlds that are substantially better than our own terrible world.

          • I remember liking Richard Miller’s paper on this subject too, which also argues for a kind of moderate duty of beneficence, though by a somewhat different route.

          • John Halstead

            This seems pretty implausible in the one drowning baby case though. The fact that a thousand people are ignoring the drowning baby seems to me to make no difference whatsoever as to whether I am obligated to save the baby

        • niav

          What if we all give 10% of our monthly income, and while this saves some children, it also encourages the parents in question to make even more children who will drown without our help?

          What do you do if the equation is imbalanced, in the sense that for every 10% of our income, you save x% children but they produce y% more, and y>x?

          And ultimately, we get quickly to a point where we just get poorer and our capacity to help diminishes, while their capacity to make drowning children has greatly increased? Would we not be guilty of that?

          All this crap anyway hides the issue. Singer is plain wrong.

          Prosperity never comes from handouts, but from stable patterns of specialization and trade. You cannot fix the mess in 3rd world countries by sending them money.

    • Theresa Klein

      But what if of the millions of drowning children, some of them are children you personally know. Wouldn’t you save the drowning children you know best FIRST, then declare your duty filled?
      I.e. give money to charity locally and within your own family circle, before you give to distant charities.

  • I would propose a variation; you are walking down a crowded sidewalk past a large curtain when a stiff breeze lifts a corner and you see a large group of children silently drowning. Should you dive behind the curtain to save as many as you can on your own, try to convince other people near you there are children to be saved or start trying to tear the curtain down?

  • Jameson Graber

    For exactly the reason Jason cited, I’ve never seen why the drowning child thought experiment convinces anyone. The intuition most of us have when thinking about the drowning child is, hey, this is a sudden emergency that can and should be dealt with quickly. You can afford to let go of one pair of nice shoes. To go from that intuition all the way to “let’s not ever buy luxury goods” is a leap of epic proportions. With respect to third world poverty, the thought experiment seems to indicate that we each should do our small part–give maybe 1% of our income to a charity dealing specifically with the third world, and then move on with the rest of our lives.

    More fundamentally, I think there’s a problem of scaling. One child, one savior–there’s very little complexity there. Hundreds of millions of children, hundreds of millions of saviors? How do we coordinate? Once the problem grows to that scale, coordination becomes a nearly unsolvable problem.

    To me this is why Hayek is so important, by the way. Implicit in his critique of socialism is a keen awareness of the problem of scaling from small to large numbers of people. Intuitions at a micro level just don’t work on a global level.

    • John Halstead

      You overstate the coordination problem. We have a number of ways of giving which will knowably save many lives. You could give to those charities today if you wanted.

      • Jameson Graber

        I do, as a matter of fact, give to said charities. But still, that’s a terribly ambiguous word, “knowable.” How many people know it? Presumably when you pass a drowning child, there’s not much doubt what has to be done. But if it weren’t for me putting some faith in people like GiveWell, I’m not sure how I could even know what my options are to save people from third world poverty.

        Maybe I do overstate the case; it just depends on what the goal is. If the goal is to do some good, then sure, we can do that. If the goal is to actually cure the whole world of poverty, I’m a little more doubtful.

        • John Halstead

          Obviously you alone cannot solve world poverty. The question is simply how much good you can do with your money. You have to put faith in authority and testimony for all social scientific knowledge (if you are not a social scientist). The choice is between complete scepticism and listening to reliable experts.

          • Jameson Graber

            “The choice is between complete scepticism and listening to reliable experts.”

            That is absurdly binary. Of all things, a monetary investment is the perfect example of something that is not all or nothing. Listen to reliable experts, sure, but invest exactly how much of my income in what they say?

          • John Halstead

            i’m saying if you doubt advice on effective charities then you have to doubt advice on pretty much everything in social science.

          • Jameson Graber

            Is this still relevant to the problem of coordination?

          • John Halstead

            I think the point is that current charitable giving coordinates the actions of disparate people to (we hope) benefit the recipients. If we have little or no reason to accept the social science on effective giving, then we have little or no reason to accept any social science. i.e. social science on effective giving is no worse than other social science. If the social science on effective giving provides us with good evidence (as I think it clearly does), then we are currently solving and will probably continue to solve, any coordination problems.

          • Jameson Graber

            “If the social science on effective giving provides us with good evidence (as I think it clearly does), then we are currently solving and will probably continue to solve, any coordination problems.”

            If I’m overstating the coordination problem, I think you’re overstating the solution. As far as I’m aware, the social science doesn’t tell us that these charities are solving world hunger. In fact, I have the impression that economists think open markets are doing a much better job of that than anything else. Moreover, I know that social scientists believe a lack of law enforcement, not lack of giving, is the biggest obstacle right now to alleviating third world poverty.

            So it’s not a question of how much faith you put in the results of social science. It’s how much hope those results actually give us.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            “The question is simply how much good you can do with your money.” If that is the question, then the answer may well be to not give any of your money to charities and instead purchase goods made in poorer nations so as to lift people out of poverty using markets.

  • I agree that not too much weight should be placed on the pond example (though it’s nice and accessible for popular audiences). And it’s worth noting that in ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Singer himself merely presents it as an afterthought — an “application” of his (I guess putatively self-evident) principle of sacrifice.

    It’s also not clear that your “Many Drowning Children” case provides any sort of counterexample to the theoretical principle, since if you were to “spend your entire waking life pulling children out of pools” that *would* presumably involve the sacrifice of some “morally significant” goods and freedoms, and hence would not be required by the principle. (Admittedly, Singer is not as clear about the limited iterability of his argument as he should be.)

    • Jason Brennan

      That’s right, but I think it’s a challenge to what Singer seems to think his conclusion implies rather than what the conclusion strictly speaking implies.

      • Jason Brennan

        Actually, on further thought, this seems to be the puzzle:

        I think it’s morally significant that you have the prerogative to do things that are themselves morally insignificant.

        So, suppose I’ve saved 55 lives, and then want to call it a day so I can watch football. I don’t think it’s morally significant for me to watch football. But it does seem like it’s morally significant for me to have the personal prerogative to watch football. On an act-by-act basis, Singer’s argument seems to work–there’s always more reason to save a life than do any number of the meaningless, insignificant tasks we fill our time with. But then as a whole, it’s seems very significant to give up that *time* or freedom (the time or freedom we spend on meaningless, insignificant tasks), though what we do with the time and freedom is, by hypothesis in this case, insignificant and meaningless.

        • Paul Kelleher

          Richard W. Miller argues along similar lines, in response to Singer, in “Beneficence, Duty, and Distance”: “No [individual] purchase prohibited by Singer’s principle is morally significant, but the loss imposed by enduring commitment to the principle is” (p. 371).

          • Yes, I think Miller’s “principle of sympathy”, from that paper, is really just a clarification of how the “no morally significant sacrifice” principle should be understood, when applied across time. It’s then not as demanding as Singer makes it out to be. (But it does demand more than most people actually do.)

          • Paul Kelleher

            Right. As Miller puts it, “the crucial difference between the principles [Singer’s Principle of Sacrifice and Miller’s Principle of Sympathy] is what gets scrutinized: the impact, on particular occasions, of particular choices, or the impact of an underlying attitude on a life as a whole.” I think you’re right that Miller could have described his view as rejecting *Singer’s* Principle of Sacrifice, and replacing it with *Miller’s* Principle of Sacrifice (since Miller disagrees with Singer about which sacrifices are and are not morally significant). Instead, Miller describes it as rejecting Singer’s *Principle of Sacrifice*, and replacing it with Miller’s Principle of Sympathy.

    • Jason Brennan

      Also, pace Singer, I think the Drowning Child thought experiment does a huge amount of work for him. The reason people are provisionally willing to accept the premises of his main argument (“If you can stop suffering…”) is because these principles appear to explain their intuitions in the Drowning Child case.

      • Well, that’s the question. I think the theoretical principle (“If you can prevent something morally bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, you ought to do so”) makes for a pretty plausible axiom in its own right. And that is how Singer himself initially presents it. So it seems a bit uncharitable to insist on interpreting the argument as an induction from a single case, rather than in this more axiomatic fashion.

        • Jason Brennan

          I agree that’s how he presents his case. However, I disagree that that this is why his paper seems to work. I think the reason it’s a famous paper is that people like the thought experiment, and then think their intuitions in the thought experiment commit them to his conclusions. (Or, at least, they worry they do.) I can’t prove that easily, but I think the thought experiment is what does the work for him in persuading so many people.

  • Clayton Littlejohn

    “As an aside, it’s interesting that Singer spends much of his time trying
    to debunk the use of intuitions as data in moral philosophy, when one
    of his two most famous and important arguments relies heavily upon
    intuitions and casuistry.”

    I don’t see why this is interesting. We all spend much of our time trying to ‘debunk’ the attitudes of others, especially those that figure in arguments. When we’re doing this, we tend to rely on attitudes and arguments. Some intuitions are good. Some aren’t. The same with opinions. The same with arguments.

    • Rye

      I agree. Singer doesn’t say that all intuitions are unimportant, anyway. His approach to intuitions is more in line with a ‘reflective equilibrium’ kind of process, rather than categorically excluding intuitions as data in moral philosophy.

  • Fritz

    As Jameson Graber suggests, Singer is scaling up from an instinctive reaction. It may be an almost-universal reaction, but it’s hardly the basis for a moral imperative about how one should respond to the fact of widespread misery. I’ve asked before, and I’ll ask again: Who is Singer (or anyone else) to say that I should put the well-being of distant strangers above the well-being of my children and grandchildren.

    • Clayton Littlejohn

      I don’t think Singer is trying to get you to accept this on authority. I take it that Singer is offering considerations for, well, your consideration. He hopes that once you get the issues in view clearly, you’ll agree with him. It’s also no part of his view that the well-being of distant strangers should get priority over the well-being of those near and dear to us. He never says that if there were two drowning children that you should save the one you know or love the least. He probably assumes that his readers are the kind of people who can sacrifice things that are trivial to save strangers from significant harms. If his readers could honestly say that they couldn’t make these sacrifices without endangering their own children, his response wouldn’t be that they should endanger their own children. (At least, not in the stuff that I’ve read.)

    • John Halstead

      He’s not saying that. You may be permitted to favour your relatives. The question is whether you should treat their welfare as thousands of times more important than people in Africa and Asia. Shoudlo you provide them with things which don’t improve their welfare (Porsche Cayenne) or should you save roughly 500 years of life?

  • John Alexander

    It seems to me that Singer has recast his original argument(s) to one that is more practical given certain levels of income that can sustain a flourishing life. His argument in The Life You Can Save is certainly less demanding that the one presented in some of his earlier writings, e.g., The Singer Solution to World Poverty. It seems that his basic argument now is that one can take a certain life style, say one derived from an income of 75K, and then ask if one could still maintain this lifestyle by redirecting some of the income into charitable actions. I think his main point now is that at some point one’s lifestyle is not diminished by directing some of these funds into charitable actions. I think that he would now argue that doing so in fact would make us happy and contribute to our living a life worth living. He wants us to think about our choices on how we distribute our income. If I am in a position to buy a larger, or a 2nd TV or save a life, then it does seem that I should have a good reason for choosing one over the other.
    Regarding his use of intuitions, I think that he uses them as starting points, not justificatory points. He is uses them to uncover a set of moral principles that are justified, not on intuitions, but some form of utilitarian thinking. Of course, he might be wrong in this, but to say he simply relies on intuitions to justify his position is I think missing his point.

    • niav

      No, we get the point, it’s just that some of us don’t agree with it.

      I personally think that Singer’s Solution to World Poverty would lead to Dire World Poverty.

      It’s exactly our excesses, what we do above and beyond our comfortable existences that moved us forward and made us rich. To limit ourselves to mediocrity sounds like a slow death sentence.

      The most important thing to note is that poverty has always been the norm for most people who ever lived – and still is. The western world is unique. We should cherish this, it made us free and rich.

      • John Alexander

        Are you claiming 1) that our choice is between living a life of excess or mediocrity and 2) that because we are ‘free and rich’ it is morally permissible to have people living in poverty? It seems that your argument rests on the assertion that having people living in poverty is a necessary condition for others to be free and rich; a necessary and unavoidable cost so to speak. If 1 and 2 is what you are defending, then I am very interested in reading your defense.

        • niav

          Not at all – one has nothing to do with the other.

          We aren’t rich because the others are poor. They’re poor because of themselves.

          What I tried to explain is that being poor is the norm. It’s quite special that we’re rich. Making ourselves poor won’t help the poor.

          Also, by “excess” I don’t specifically mean buying the second TV, although that does help. The western civilization does all sorts of excess – in scientific knowledge and research, technology, music, freedom, discovery etc.

          After all, Europeans went and discovered China. It occurred to no Chinese to make the trip back.

          • John Alexander

            “We aren’t rich because the others are poor. They’re poor because of themselves.”
            Really? It seems to me that one could argue that vast numbers of people are poor because their land was exploited by colonization, or their jobs where replaced by machines, etc. I do not know anything about you, but I know that I benefitted by being born a white male in the US whose father was a professional (not a worker) and not a non-white in Africa, Asia, or North America.

          • Swami Cat

            Sorry to jump in, John, but perhaps this link will help.

            This was the discussion on this site on June 4th. I strongly recommend reading this paper by Dan Moller. Here is the only ungated link I could find.


            To summarize it though….
            1). The trajectory of pretty much every society since the advent of agriculture is that any advance in living standards is quickly absorbed by higher population ala Malthus. Thus living standards sucked and were static over millennia.
            2). Economic historians explain the recent prosperity in the west primarily to culture, institutions, technology and science
            3). Many prosperous nations had no hand in colonialism (Canada, Switzerland)
            4). Those who did exploit via slavery and colonialism showed no growth trajectory change when abandoning it.
            5). The champions of the institutions of growth such as Smith were among the most vocal critics of exploitation.
            6). The trajectory of the “have not” nations was actually markedly UP, not down (or neutral). Average living standards and population began increasing, showing signs of drafting upon the productivity advances of the West.

            Exploitation was not something new. It has been the norm for ten thousand years since agriculture began tying us to land. What was unique post 1776 was uninterrupted economic growth and prosperity for those adopting the Institutions of markets, science and open access government. The early adopters did become strong and did abuse their power, effectively replacing the incumbent exploiters. But the exploitation was not and cannot be the explanation of prosperity. Zero sum games tend to negative sum outcomes (pie shrinks). The explanation of global prosperity and improved human wellbeing is positive sum games as generated by science, representative democracy and free enterprise.

            The article by Moller is great though. Do read it if you have time.

  • Chris Nguyen

    Huemer discusses this in The Problem of Political Authority (2013). There is a section dedicated to the drowning child example and the general obligation to give.

  • Jason K

    Peter Unger addresses this and other objections in his excellent book “Living High and Letting Die”.

  • Swami Cat

    This may be way off topic, but…

    If all these kids are drowning all the time, I would suggest the following mix of potential solutions:

    1). Teach kids to swim
    2). Don’t allow kids to get near pools before becoming proficient swimmers.

    The silliest solution is to have people dedicating their waking lives to becoming full time volunteer lifeguards for other people’s children.

    Converting the drowning metaphor back to poverty indicates that the key is enabling kids parents to be self sufficient and perhaps also encouraging these parents to delay bringing drowning kids into existence (until they are prepared to become the lifeguard and swimming instructor — oops there is the metaphor again).

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not dissing effective charity (my family actually volunteers several hours a day to causes helping impoverished orphans — seriously!). However the focus — if we want to eradicate drowning — is on economic self sufficiency. And I probably do as much or more good buying an iPhone 6 built by the kid’s parent as I do sending her food or clothing.

    • John Halstead

      We’ve done this one before. It is massively implausible that buying an iPhone 6 will do more to relieve world poverty than the world’s most effective charities. You can literally give poor people that money through GiveDirectly.

      • niav

        Actually buying the iPhone (or some other product manufactured in a poor country) is so much more likely to relieve poverty than charity than it bears no comparison.

        Manufacturing means investment, jobs, productivity, skills etc. The good stuff.

        Literally sending money sounds like an abysmal strategy to me.

        Are you going to send it as regularly as a paycheck? Are you sure it’s getting to those in need, and not taken by some warlord? Are you sure it’s going to be used well, to pay for schools, housing and medicine, or are they going to buy Kalashnikovs with it? Are you sure you just won’t encourage idleness? I know plenty of people who wouldn’t lift a finger to work if you were sending them money to live on.

      • Swami Cat

        I agree with niav,

        See my comment directly above. We must avoid taking a static view of a dynamic problem, and thus misdiagnosing it. I agree completely that a well directed charitable contribution does more immediate good than buying something. However, the only way out of the long term problem where impoverished people reproduce is to get these people (their parents) to join the global network of production as self sufficient actors. Full stop.

    • Johjn Alexander

      Singer would agree – teach children (people) to swim (or grow food, etc.) But, while doing so, save one if you see it drowning or starving.

      • Swami Cat

        Thanks for the reply JA,

        But there is always another child, thus we become full time volunteer lifeguards for other people’s children.

        As Mark Friedman explains well above, the only real way out of the situation is to grow the size of the pie and get these kids’ parents enmeshed into the constructive network of global production. That is the problem which Singer should focus on if we really want to solve it long term.

        Voluntary zero sum redistribution does not get us to a solution — indeed Malthusian constraints (and studies on the effectiveness of most aid) suggests it often feeds the problem. We need to take actions which invite their parents into the global production network.

        As above, I am happy to donate time and money to effective charities, but I think buying more phones and speaking out for global capitalism is the actual path out of the problem.

        • John Alexander

          “But there is always another child, thus we become full time volunteer lifeguards for other people’s children.”
          Should we not be ‘lifeguards’ for each other? I have a moral duty to my family to not cause them unnecessary and avoidable harm. Do I have the same moral duty to my neighbors? What about people living a block or two away? At what point do I not have any direct moral duty to another relative to causing unnecessary and avoidable harm? Is this not the issue that Singer is raising, or at least one of them that needs to be addressed?
          One issue that has not been addressed re Singer is that he does base his position on a distinction between needs and wants. He also seems to argue that a person wants should not be satisfied if another persons needs are not being met. This, as well documented, leads to many issues and concerns. But it does seem to bring out an important consideration re spending; if I have a good TV and want another for my bedroom should I get this other TV or spend the money in adding those in need? We can look at this in terms of the ‘pie.’ According to Singer there is enough food for everyone to have healthy meals. It is a question of distribution. Consider: I want to take my family out to a restaurant for a good meal. I have more than enough money to do so. There are four people in my family, but I have more than enough money to feed them at any restaurant that I am aware of. (Good for me, huh?) Anyway let us say that the meal cost $400.00 or $100.00 per person. Should I then take $100.00 and send it to aid those in need. I can certainly afford to do so. Do I violate the moral standard of not causing unnecessary and avoidable harm if I refrain from sending this money and subject to moral condemnation, or is sending the money simply a supererogatory act; one that is nice if I do it, but not blameworthy if I do not? BTW; obviously no one associated with the restaurant is harmed by my action. Is this not what Singer is really asking us?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            My answer, at least, to moral cosmopolitanism. It is permissible to favor our neighbors over strangers: http://naturalrightslibertarian.com/2012/08/must-libertarians-be-cosmopolitan/

          • Swami Cat

            Similar to my reply above to JA, I have no idea what these rights and duties are of which you speak. Do you have a link on your website which answers where these mystical entities arise from?

            My two cents is that we evolved in groups which reinforced reciprocity. As such our moral instincts tell us to take care of our neighbors first. For our own good, and the thriving of our neighbors, this is a wise strategy. If we are global consequentialists then this may be less effective than choosing to first help distant people in more precarious circumstances.

            This line of thinking is well represented in the book Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I hardly think I am alone in believing that we have certain rights merely as a result of being persons. Indeed, I would say that this is firmly entrenched element of common sense morality. As to “where they come from,” my personal view is that they come from the same place as the laws of mathematics or logic; they are just part of the landscape. If you find this idea incredible, I suggest you start with Michael Huemer’s book, Ethical Intuitionism. Employing a different metaphysics, I think Kantian ethics can get you roughly to the same place. But, I claim no special expertise in this area.

          • Swami Cat

            Yeah, I am sorry, but I do find it both incredible and unconvincing. It seems like a rhetorical trick to justify or rationalize one’s intuition. My intuition suggests X, so I suggest we have rights or duties to guarantee X. It almost seems like a philosophical version of it is right because God said so (and he also made math and logic).

            My take on it is that rights are sacrosanct conventions — conventions which are so important that we should not even consider violating them. Thus we invent a fiction that they are real and objective aspects of the landscape. The fact that philosophers and laymen have been fooled by the fiction just points to the power of our evolved intuition.

          • John Alexander

            Thanks Mark
            Singer does not deny that we will favor or family and friends over complete strangers; at least in his more recent writings this seems to be his position. So while we can agree that it is permissible to give the $100.00 to Joe, the questions I would raise are 1) does this do the most good and/or 2) are additional funds available for you to help Joe and a complete stranger.
            Let us leave 1 aside and look at 2 (as this seems to be Singer’s recent approach) and is the one exemplified in my dinner example above. Is there a point where we are obligated to help strangers given the resources available to us? I help my neighbor, but still have funds available to spend on something else. At this point, it does seem to be a reasonable moral question to ask if there is a way to look at 1 and ask if, for example, I buy another TV, which I really do not need although I may want it, or should I give this money to someone whose life will be saved by doing so. This is relevant to Singer’s Principle of Comparable Worth; is the value of the TV to me greater (or at least equal too) the value of the life that would be lost if I buy the TV? I do not need the TV, but that person does need her life, so it seems (to me anyway) that I should, in the obligatory sense of this term, give that money to save the life. In an important sense (and this issue has not been discussed) if I do not give the money to that person then I do cause that death insofar as that person would have lived had I helped. I may not be the cause of the situation that person is in, but I do affect outcomes by my decision. And this is another point that Singer makes; we are responsible not only for what we do, but for what we decide not to do.
            So I leave with the question: is there a point where we are obligated to help complete strangers? To Singer’s most recent argument: would my flourishing life be lessened if I gave a % of my income to help those in need? But, I would also add ( and I think Singer does too), is my life enhanced by doing this action?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            In my view, assuming (and this assumption will often be false) that our attempt to help complete strangers will be efficacious, there does come a point at which we are morally obligated to do our fair share. However, I deny that it would be morally permissible to force people to donate. And, FWIW, I reject Singer’s principle of comparable worth in favor of the traditional distinction between between causing harm and failing to alleviate harm.

          • John Alexander

            Hi Mark
            I agree that we should not force people to give. Even Singer thinks it is a choice that we need to make on our own.
            I think one can reject the PCW and simply use the notion of causing harm to guide our actions. For example; John causes harm to Mary by putting her in a closet and starving her to death. Does John cause harm to Mary by not feeding her if he finds her starving in a closet? I am not sure that consequentialists can accept the distinction between causing harm and failing to alleviate harm if the latter lets us off the hook, so to speak. (I am not sure deontologists can either for that matter.) Causation applies to y if y happens only if x happens, such that if x did not happen y would not have happened. If that is so then it seems to follow that if John finds Mary starving but does not feed her, he is the cause of her dying. Would you accept this?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I am confused by your case. Since John caused her the original harm, John is also responsible for not alleviating the harm. The relevant case is this. John locks her in the closet, and Sam, an innocent person learns she is there. The two people are not equally morally responsible.. Sam did not lock Mary in the closet. She would die whether or not Sam happened to come along. Sam does not make her worse off. The fact that he happened along does not make him responsible for her death in the same way as John. This does not absolve Sam of great blame for failing to save her If he easily can, but John is primarily to blame.

          • John Alexander

            You are right; I should have used two different names instead of relying on different scenarios. You are also correct that John may be primarily to blame and also that Sam shares in the blame for the death if he does not act, etc. Interestingly, the only way that Sam can be blamed is if he does have a causal role in Mary’s death so he does make her worse off if she dies as a result of him not aiding her. I think that is Singer’s point. In an important sense Sam can become a primary agent for being reasonable for Mary’s life if his actions determine which outcome will occur. We can be negative sanctioned for what we fail to do if it plays a causal role in the outcome. That seems to be the point of the drowning child thought experiment. Hence Singer’s stringent requirement to aid those in need.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            In the scenario we are discussing, Sam does not make Mary’s situation worse. She would be in exactly the same fix if Sam had never been born. So, I see no way under any plausible notion of the term that he can be said to “cause” her death, although he is culpable for not intervening if he can easily do so. Being blameworthy for not acting is a fundamentally different thing from the ethical perspective than having responsibility for the crime. Which is why in this country we punish criminals but not third parties who fail to assist the victims. We don’t seem to be making much progress here, so you are welcome to the last word.

          • Swami Cat

            Hi John,

            “Should we not be ‘lifeguards’ for each other? I have a moral duty to my family to not cause them unnecessary and avoidable harm. Do I have the same moral duty to my neighbors? What about people living a block or two away? At what point do I not have any direct moral duty to another relative to causing unnecessary and avoidable harm? Is this not the issue that Singer is raising, or at least one of them that needs to be addressed?”

            Where are these mystical “moral duties” of which you speak? Seriously. You are just making them up. If you mean “sacrosanct* social responsibilities which have been well proven to be essential to the flourishing of large groups”, then please say so. If so, your argument is consequentialist and I can respond. If you believe mystical duties really exist, then I have no idea how to respond.

            My argument is indeed consequentialist. I believe the long range path out of the Malthusian trap of extreme poverty is to invite the parents of these kids into the productive network of free enterprise. Any other action is at best a stop gap, and if we overdo the stop gap, we risk undermining the entry into the network. Don’t give people fish if it interferes with teaching them to fish.

            If we care about kids, we should quit focusing on mystical moral duties and actually take a look at what has tended to work and not work. We should do more of the stuff that works. If the mystical moral duty interferes with the actual long term well being of kids, I suggest the duty should be thrown out, not the kids. Do you agree?

            “We can look at this in terms of the ‘pie.’ According to Singer there is enough food for everyone to have healthy meals. It is a question of distribution.”

            You are making the same mistake as Singer. You are assuming the food. The food has to be grown or created as does the shelter, clothes, medicine and schooling. The only solution is not redistributing what has already been created, it is also to invite the parents of the kids to join the global network of division of labor and exchange known as free enterprise. They too can specialize in producing something of value for others and exchange it. This increases both the size of the pie and the size of the slices for the previously impoverished. No more drowning kids!

            What is so counterintuitive about this idea that the Pope, Singer and others fail to grok it?

            * with sacrosanct defined as conventions which are so important that we should consider them as above consideration. They are non-negotiables.

          • John Alexander

            Thank you for your response Swami Cat.

            I am not advocating a rights or duties point of view; I am arguing that there are consequences of accepting the normative principle I stated, or the ones that I think underlie Singer’s position. It is the nature of these consequences that determines how one should act and that generates the duty to act as required by accepting the principle as an action-guiding one. I am sure you have action-guiding principles. I would be interested in what they are.

            The point I was trying to make was that if one is a parent then there are certain expectations of how he or she should treat their children. We can distinguish between good and bad parenting at the extremes, e.g., providing food or starving their child. If parents should provide food to their children then it seems that this can be extended to neighbors whose children may be going hungry (for whatever reason). The point that Singer is making, as I am sure you are aware, is what morally significant difference is there between my child starving and a stranger’s child starving. If it is simply that one is mine and the other is not, then that criterion needs to be defended as justification for not helping when we can at little or now cost to ourselves in terms of living a flourishing life and I do not see this happening.

            BTB, I do not think that Singer, or I, assume the food. We are simply stating what seems to be factual – at present enough food is being produced to feed everyone a reasonably healthy diet. If that, in fact, is true, then it is a question of distribution and what stands in the way of making sure that people have enough food and/or training. I certainly agree with you that more needs to be done then simply throwing money at hungry people. But, in order to teach someone to be self-sufficient (whatever that means) that person needs to be alive.
            Anyway, I do not think that we are really that far apart. I would be interested in your response to my going out to dinner example above. Is it an obligation to give the $100.00 or is it simply a supererogatory action? If it is supererogatory, at what point, if any, do obligations arise?

          • Swami Cat

            Thank you, JA,

            The heart of all the question lies in the trade offs. I agree completely that you can’t teach a dead kid to fish. But on the other hand, if we use all our excess resources to provide gifts rather than to consume, then the people working to fill our consumption desires/needs themselves require hand outs to avoid starving. We have a negative feedback loop which is worse than what we started with and getting worse over time*.

            I believe the $400 meal contributes in minute ways to the employment of millions of people (using the logic of “I Pencil” — even the smallest, simplest items we purchase in modern economy are the coordinated cooperation of countless people scattered across the globe.) Millions of expensive meals, requires millions of specialized productive workers all serving each other via a form of reciprocity and comparative advantage. Value self amplifies and millions of parents support their own kids.

            Thus both paths — charity and consumption — have consequential value to others. The first has more immediate and apparent benefit — keeping a soul alive. The second has more diffuse and unseen benefits.

            Thus my recommendations:
            1). The most important thing we can do is to protect and extend the logic of non zero sum games as represented in markets. There are strong and powerful forces trying to emasculate the engine of prosperity, often in the guise of widespread wellbeing. The fact that Singer seems oblivious to market’s value is troubling to say the least.
            2). The next important thing is probably to give to extremely high value charities. To fund this I would suggest redistributing from all the BS charities which people actually give to. Choose wisely.
            3). Become gainfully employed in providing products and services your fellow man’s needs. Add and create value for yourself and others.
            4). Consume products and services produced by the cooperative efforts of the other seven billion people.
            5). Avoid exploiting others and thus creating harm. This includes cheating, stealing, coercion and most importantly it includes the poison of privilege — biasing the rules in favor of yourself over others.

            If I was to try to summarize, it would be that the fundamental solution to poverty is to quit thinking in terms of redistribution and start thinking in terms of reciprocity. It’s not “take this dollar”, it is “here is a dollar to fetch that Christmas turkey for my family.” Complex global markets obscure the dynamic, but the same principle applies.

          • John Alexander

            Swami Cat
            Nice summary with which I agree (for the most part). Working out the details is what is important given the nature of markets and human nature (as it presently is). Now this is completely outside this discussion, but what role does our commitment to environmental sustainability play in determining how we respond to your points? I do not expect an answer, but I think that we do need to contextualize this in the broader context of human beings being one subset that makes up the overall environmental system. We might benefit one subset but harm others. Is this permissible and if so under what conditions? Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

  • Here’s an odd take:

    Suppose that instead of money, we spend years of our life. Suppose that in order to save lives, we must spend a certain amount of time saving them – pulling children out of pools and so forth, but at no financial expense to ourselves. Suppose it is relatively easy to save any particular child, so the marginal cost of saving one more child is also very low, and that time itself is the only cost involved.

    Then, how much time is it morally permissible to spend on yourself? How many children can I choose not to save so that I can pursue a life of my own?

  • Lee

    Peter Singer thinks it’s acceptable to kill a human who is incapable of anticipating the future. I see no reason to entertain any philosophical questions from him ever again.


    • Person

      Why not? Do you have a decisive refutation of that position?

      Do you think it’s wrong to kill all nonhuman animals? If not, why not?

      If you think it’s acceptable to kill some nonhuman animals, should we dismiss you immediately without argument as well?

  • John Alexander

    “Singer’s entire argument rests upon people’s moral intuitions in the One Drowning Child.”
    I disagree; I think that his argument rests more upon his Principle of Equal Consideration – that everyone has an equal interest in not being needlessly and avoidably harmed – and his Principle of Comparable Worth – that the value of the harm being eliminated (reduced) is equal to or greater than, the cost of what it takes to eliminate (reduce) the harm. I think that the drowning child experiment is designed to focus attention on these underlying principles. One can always ask of an intuition, ‘is it one we ought to have.’

  • LibertarianJim

    It seems to me that the thought experiment is constructed wrong. In the first instance, the destruction of the iPhone is incidental to the saving of the child. If you had a cheap Samsung phone, it would have only cost, maybe $50. An ObamaPhone nothing at all. It wasn’t the phone that did the saving nor how much you spent on it. The phone was destroyed by the immersion in water as it would have been if the person had fallen in the water with or without saving the child.

    It also presumes that eschewing the purchase of an iPhone will somehow save the lives of children. Many (perhaps most) of the world’s children who die unnecessarily, do so because of local politics … not because of lack of effort by the wealthy countries.

    So what is the object of the thought experiment? Is it simply to make us feel in some way guilty? To become embarrassed by our wealth?

    Let me pose another thought experiment: How many children in China, Vietnam, India, and other Far Eastern countries have been lifted out of poverty and hunger BECAUSE we bought iPhones? How many would slip back into poverty if we stopped buying them?

    • CT_22

      Thanks for this post. I’m really tired of these thought experiments that just beg the question. Giving money away is not synonymous with saving a drowning child.


    1. If people generally believed that they were morally obligated to give away most of the wealth they create, would nearly as much wealth be generated via entrepreneurship? Answer = no, and so there would be a much smaller “pie” to start with, and the global poor might be worse off than they are now. Singer’s argument fails even on strictly utilitarian terms.

    2. From a deontological perspective, those who create wealth (or receive it from those who do in voluntary transactions) are entitled (following Nozick) to dispose of it as they wish. It may be praiseworthy to give much of it away, but that does not make it immoral to keep it.

    3. Assuming that we “ought” per Singer to give much of our “excess” wealth to the global poor, we can add that to the very long list of things we “ought” to do more or less of. So what? For his purposes, Singer needs an argument showing that it is unjust not to donate as he suggests, and I haven’t heard anything resembling this.

    The Drowning Child thought experiment doesn’t usefully engage any of these objections to his larger conclusion.

  • John Alexander

    I have been reading some of the comments made against Singer and I think that Singer would agree with many of these observations, but think that many are missing a key point; that there are many issues involved, each of which need to be addressed, but while doing so we should aid those in need. For example, there needs to be population control, but starvation, although a natural way to accomplish this, seems to be a less moral way of accomplishing that goal then some other possible practices. Same thing applies to training people to be self-sufficient, etc.. I think that it is important to look at his arguments from a more pragmatic point then simply arguing that it has the negative outcomes listed by many. I am sure that all realize that nothing new has been introduced in any of these comments that has not been in the literature for decades in one form or another. But, many seem to be missing, or ignoring, the point that Singer does not seem to hold to the stringent requirements of his earlier papers; his recent work does take into account many of the objections that have been listed and is more nuanced than the more stringent argument of his earlier papers. I think if might help if we think in terms of the spirit of his argument, not the strict logic of it. So, the question then becomes (for Singer) if one has the income to live a good life which would include caring for one’s family and friends, having some luxuries, etc., at what point should we ask ourselves, do I need more or should I give some to aid those in need. Because of the ‘should’ it is still an argument on what is morally required of us, not simply some supererogatory act on our part.

    Question: is it a moral requirement to provide the means necessary for the education and training needed to provide the foundation for people to be self-sufficient, or is acting to provide such a foundation simply a supererogatory act? If it is not a supererogatory act then is the principle you would use to defend the requirement to provide the means, etc., sufficient to ground an argument to aid those in need while we accomplish the other goal?
    I would also point out that I do not think that Singer worries much about what other philosophers think of his position; after all we are simply doing what philosophers do. I think that he is more interested in addressing these issues to the general public is such a way as to generate a discussion and to motivate people to think and act. So, I would like to know how those that disagree with Singer think we should address the issue he raises; how should we deal with those I need?
    Last point (for now:-)): Is not a thought experiment designed to elicit the type of dialogue that we have seen here? If so, then Singer’s experiment seems a good one.


      As ugly as it may to watch, the status quo is doing a pretty amazing job of alleviating global poverty: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/amazing-chart-shows-thanks-to-capitalism-global-poverty-is-at-its-lowest-rate-in-history/article/2562224. The main obstacle to even better outcomes is the widespread absence of the rule of law. You can give people in (say) the Sudan all the money you like, but this doesn’t keep the local dictator, war lord or militia from killing the recipients and taking it. So we should do what we can, which may not be much, to promote the rule of law. A more generous immigration policy would also help. Otherwise, encourage people to give more if you like, but otherwise leave us alone.

      • John Alexander

        I have been puzzling over you saying “otherwise leave us alone.” Do you mean that we should not force anyone to act? If so, I agree. But, if you mean that one’s position ought not to be challenged, then I disagree.
        Now to throw a curve into the discussion – at what point, if any, do we have a moral obligation to intervene in the internal actions of a sovereign nation? What if a state meets Rawls’s criteria for being an ‘outlaw’ state or one that does not have the means to provide for the basic needs of its citizen’s (his drowning child)?


          Of course you can criticize, and other people can say you are misguided. I only object to coercion. As for your question, it’s a good one, but I don’t have any easy answers. There is a vast literature on the subject, some of it written I believe by Prof. Teson, one of the authors on this site.

  • Swami Cat

    As Mark F., Niav and I are arguing below, the root cause of this argument is that Singer is clueless on the long term solution of the problem. He needs to read or reread his Julian Simon.

    Here is his commentary from his FAQ:

    “Q. How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that the world has too many people?

    A. It’s not so clear that the problem really is too many people, rather than that some people have a lot more than they need, and others not enough. But that’s a large question that I won’t go into here. I do agree that continued global population growth will eventually bring disaster.”

    Um, no, that is most certainly not the problem and this misdiagnosis explains why Singer is leading us astray on the solution. The problem is that some people have yet to join the network of global division of labor and exchange as productive members. They need to join into the positive sum network and produce value for themselves by producing value for others. Then, we have minimal numbers of future starving children.

    This may come across as mean spirited, but misdiagnosis does actual harm. When the Pope, and Singer, and all the well intentioned folks over at Crooked Timber recommend we dismantle the engine of universal prosperity, they are part of the problem not the solution. The nastiest types of problems are those which are so complex that actions which make the problem worse are mistaken for solutions, thus creating a negative feedback loop.

    The root cause of most starving children is entropy — it is built into the fabric of the universe. The solution (in part) is extended networks of reciprocity and cooperation known by its advocates as free enterprise and by its enemies as global capitalism.

    If we really care about starving children, the MOST effective action we can take is not to give to charity, or buy another iPhone (though both add value), it is to write a convincing letter to Singer and the Pope explaining what the real solution is and pleading with them to become part of the solution rather than the problem.

    • niav

      With respect, I think that failure in this problem is baked into the leftist/statist mindset, including Singer’s and the Pope’s.

      Aren’t they the same people who push for “buying local”, to give just a small example? “Buying local” is the worst thing you can do to the poor in far away countries, on top of being a bad thing to do unto yourself.

      Aren’t the “progressives” concerned with “Fair Trade”? Isn’t this a scheme to milk from western shoppers to the 99% benefit of intermediaries, and the detriment of poor independent producers who cannot satisfy the program certification requirements?

      Don’t we have plenty of politicians who understand economics only as basic mercantilism? Don’t they constantly argue in favour of trade barriers, exchange rate wars etc.? On top of pushing for constant wars in some of the most poor and culturally regressive parts of the world?

      No letter would convince them of anything. This is not about helping anyone, this is about control and asserting the moral ground.

      • Swami Cat

        I was thinking the same thing about “buying American” as I wrote it. I keep thinking about how ABC national news constantly waves the flag of moral superiority about buying American goods. 99% of their viewers feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it — almost as good as recycling. The nastiest problems are those where our “solutions” feed the problem.

        So, do you think Singer and the Pope and the smart people at Crooked Timber are incapable of grasping the solution? Or are they not really interested in a solution?* (Of course another possibility is that we are incapable of understanding or uninterested in the solution).

        * it is possible that they are uninterested in the solution not because they are bad, but because they value other things more, such as egalitarianism.

        • niav

          Well I have no idea what the solution is myself. “Be like Switzerland”, I’d say.

          If the population of Sudan would decide, tomorrow morning, that the rule of law, respect of life and property, a constitutional democracy, freedom, honesty and hard work are the way of life, I have no doubt that in 10 years they’d have a very prosperous country.

          Of course, that is impossible, due to the existent human capital and culture. So chances are that 10 years from now on it will still be something much closer to a hell-hole than Switzerland.

          And by the way, seeing the solution (if such a thing were possible) has anything to do with being smart or not.

          The smartest person cannot comprehend – by far – the dynamics of a chaos system so incredibly complex as human societies. In a way, being smart can be detrimental. Intelligent people overvalue intelligence, and thus tend to think they can design solutions for problems they don’t (and can’t) understand. Hence academics offering businesses hilarious left-wing solutions such as higher wages to increase employee retention and productivity.

          It’s something to do with being wise. Learning from the experience. I think it’s a very slow, largely uncontrollable, organic process.

          As far as I’m concerned, we’re helping third-world countries plenty. They free-ride on the technology we develop, for example (and it would be good if they’d do it more)(*). They free-ride on our culture (and it would be good if they’d do it more).

          I’m not at all convinced that giving them cash is helpful in the sense of a solution, and I’m pretty sure that giving them a lot of cash would be very counter-productive.

          (*) I went to Africa recently and at one point a guide went out of her way to explain how his plant, when boiled, cures cancer, and that plant, when rubbed on the eyes, cures blindness etc. It would be good if they’d embrace modern medicine more. Yes, some plants are beneficial (not quite as she put it). They were researched, and the useful substances became, ahem, actual medicines.

          • Swami Cat

            Your phrasing makes it seem like you disagree, while your comments pretty much amplify or extend what I am saying. In other words, I pretty much agree.

            I still find it really perplexing that these people are unable to grasp the nature of positive sum games. I’ve read a thousand explanations written over the course of the last 250 years, but it really is odd. It is like a moral or intellectual version of color blindness.

            As to the solution, it appears we are already well along the path to saving most drowning kids. The data on eliminating severe poverty worldwide shows that we have made more progress for more people at a faster rate than ever before in the history of humanity. How this gets somehow spun into an indictment of modern capitalism by progressives is still a mystery. It’s not green…it’s red!

          • niav

            I don’t disagree with anything you said (particularly the last post, I’m in full agreement) – apologies for any misunderstanding. I just cannot really answer your previous question. “Progressive” thinking is something I often do not comprehend at all.

          • Swami Cat

            And I really, really try to understand it. I try to read various progressive blogs and try to join the more rational conversations in places like Ordinary Times and Crooked Timber. Unfortunately familiarity only breeds contempt. The more I interact the less respect I have for their logic, values and motives.

          • reason60

            Would you be surprised if I were to say that your comments about positive sum games echoes some of the thoughts in the “Liturgy of Abundance” articulated by Walter Bruegemann?

            Which is to say, that every single person in the world could live a life of comfort and abundance, if only we were to live peacefully and cooperatively.

            Which, as Jesus would say, is the entire fucking problem. Because we, individually and collectively, choose not to.

            I find it remarkable that political theorists constantly argue about which theology of the marketplace is best, when right here in your and niav’s comment, we get right to the heart of the matter.

            Which political philosophy would lift Sudan out of poverty into abundance- socialism, or unfettered capitalism?

            The answer of course, is both, and neither.

          • Swami Cat

            Hi Liberty (Roger here),

            We are lifting places out of poverty — or more accurately, they are learning to join us in the collective lifting process. More people escaped severe poverty in the last generation than ever before in history, and they are doing so at an increasingly fast pace.


            We need to continue to take the medicine which is working so well. This includes markets and charities. Socialism is a decadent dead end which killed hundreds of millions and deserves all the respect of Naziism, Feudalism, Slavery and piracy.

          • reason60

            Yes you are correct that many people are choosing to form more cooperative societies with less warfare and destruction.

            The fixation on economic systems is what I take issue with however.

          • Swami Cat

            Economic systems are indeed just one type of cooperative system. But it tends to be the one that allows people to feed their own kids, which is what we are trying to accomplish here. We are saving their kids because their institutions are so messed up that they can’t save them without us. Don’t get me wrong, I am fine with democratic socialism or whatever it is they call relatively free markets with big safety nets in the Nordic countries. They do need markets or modified markets of some type though.

  • martinbrock

    For Singer, the drowning child scenario is an allegory that we can’t take too literally. For Brennan, it’s a diversion that he takes literally to avoid the point or to score cheap points against a celebrity intellectual.

    The problem with Singer’s argument is that I can’t actually save children by avoiding the purchase of an iPhone. The world is full of millions of desperate children in fact, if not all drowning; however, before I can save one of them, I must find him. To find one of these children, an iPhone could be very useful. If I decide right now to dedicate as many resources as necessary personally to saving one desperate child, I would almost certainly begin with a web search. After the web search, I need a plane ticket out of Toronto, since I’ll not likely find the child here.

    Singer might object that I could find a desperate child on the web and wire money to someone who could help him, and he might be right about that; however, if people generally set themselves this task, an industry would appear overnight to take money from these people while helping few children. We know this industry would appear, because it has already appeared in response to state programs and NGOs aiming to help desperate children.

    In other words, the information channel between me and the desperate child is extremely noisy, precisely because it is already crowded with people seeking to help desperate children. That iPhone is my very best hope for penetrating all of this noise and finding and finally rescuing the desperate child, but even so, the prospects for success are poor, and the cost is much greater than the cost of the iPhone.

  • Meena Krishnamurthy

    This may have already been mentioned, but the objection that you (Jason Brennan) initially raise is sometimes referred to as the “iterative pond case”. Garrett Cullity discusses it in his book The Moral Demands of Affluence, Oxford University Press, 2004. Liam Murphy’s discussion of the “fair shares” view is also relevant here. See his book Moral Demands in Non-ideal Theory, Oxford University Press, 2000.

  • Travis Timmerman

    I agree. Please excuse the plug of my own work, but I make this argument in my 2015 Analysis paper “Sometimes There is Nothing Wrong with Letting a Child Drown.”


  • soupdog

    You are exactly correct that many drowning children is the better analogy. I’ve been teaching it this way for a few years. I don’t mean to take anything away from the value of this post, but what’s striking is how obvious–or how obvious it ought to be–that many drowning children is vastly closer to the proper analogy. And yet has anyone said so in print before? Baffling if not. However, it’s worth pointing out that singer doesn’t argue that accepting the analogy commits you to the principle. He thinks the principle is fairly obvious, and uses the analogy as illustration and to help ward off certain kinds of objections. And of course to prime certain sorts of emotions. There is sleight of hand going on though. The analogy is meant to help show that you are already implicitly committed to the principle. In actual fact it does no such thing, but that’s the con.

  • Seth Edenbaum

    Greed is banality. Self-interest is a given but not a virtue.
    You’d sacrifice more for your friends than you would for strangers.
    The only ethos of service now commonly recognized is in the military.
    The military “solves” the “trolley problem” by prescribing both professional and social relations through rank. Primary and secondary teachers serve as well, but by the time they get to the level of “academics” that obligation is pretty much gone. And the result is more and more useless navel-gazing “research”.

    Liberalism won out over republicanism because republicanism as a virtue ethic is a limits on personal freedom. Liberalism is “universal” because individualistic and this is conflated by the magic of language and self-interest with “science”.

    There is no conflict between republicanism and civil libertarianism since freedom of speech begins in freedom of enquiry, which is necessary for citizens to participate in self-governance. Next, liberalism founded on individual freedom as opposed to obligation sprouted economic libertarianism which is anti-democratic. The author of the post above wrote a book on why some people should not vote. Needless to say, he wasn’t referring to George W Bush or Donald Rumsfeld or the the former directors of Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers.

    And here we are today. What a country.

  • disqus_MQVhaKHrma

    Singer must bother people’s comfortable bubble. Sure he’s wrong, sure he’s wrong, or something along those lines. Conscience be quiet, you too Peter. I am reading William Vollmann’s ‘Poor People’ and wondering about false consciousness among other things.

  • Chris Cathcart

    Say you don’t buy an iphone. Some laborer in China is pushed that much closer to unemployment or a lower wage, putting that laborer’s children that much closer to going hungry. Is Singer capable of thinking like an economist? There are opportunity costs – kind of the point of his hypothetical, but then ignored in its full implications. Capital formation and technology are the means to alleviating poverty; I don’t see how going around trying to feed people without providing the means or know-how for them being able to feed themselves and then some is the solution to the problem. And, of course, his hypothetical serves fine for a one-shot save-a-child moral lesson, but your pushback indicates the problem when aggregating or placing within a wider picture. It *doesn’t* become a morally trivial demand on your time and resources to send all your “extra” money to a charity. Singer has used common sense to undermine common sense, not a good thing for a philosopher to be doing.

    • Chris Cathcart

      Then again, to be uber-charitable to Singer, he’s only trying to test our “intuitions” about the limits of our obligations to help those in desperate need, as compared with the present baseline of people’s actual behaviors. There is something morally despicable (the consumption-sector jobs at Gucci involved notwithstanding) for someone of ultra-abundant means to spend $30K on, say, a purse; it does make a lot more sense for that person to re-invest in a business venture (or indirectly through capital market investment). Singer can really hit a home run by asking whether you can save 50 drowning children if it means ruining your $30K purse; he can really hit a multi-run home run by explaining how putting that $30K into capital formation (a developing-world stock fund, say) will save, on net, some number of children over any alternative course of action you might take with that $30K. C’mon, shouldn’t this already be front-and-center in discussions of Singer’s hypothetical? Where are the economically-informed, truly-global, fully-opportunity-cost-aware thinkers on this?

  • “You can spend your entire waking life pulling children out of pools.”

    I’m no fan of Singer, but that doesn’t sound like not sacrificing anything of moral significance.

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  • SRR126

    The other weakness is the idea of knowing who you are saving and if indeed you are saving.

    When you send $500 to a charity – you should be able to name who you have saved – and indeed – if a real person has actually been saved.

    If you cannot name it:
    “The liar is a person who uses the valid designations, the words, in order to make something which is unreal appear to be real. He says, for example, “I am rich,” when the proper designation for his condition would be “poor.” He misuses fixed conventions by means of arbitrary substitutions or even reversals of names.”
    ~ On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

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  • Michael McGuffie

    The many drownning
    kids is a closer analogy. I have just read Singer’s book and am
    trying to figure it out. Problably better to consider the real
    situation rather that the analogy. If we accept the golden rule
    (“treat other people as we would like to be treated ourselves”)
    , what would we feel if we were in the place of the people in need.

    There is a minimum tht
    we need as people (food, sleep, psychological needs, etc.).
    Satisfying these needs allows us to be able to help other people.
    Perhaps having children would also be one of those needs. Given that
    we are all thrown into the world once only, perhaps there is also a
    basic need to feel that one has got something out of life for oneself
    rather than just lived for others, even if this is just to enjoy
    oneself in a light hearted manner from time to time (we are not,
    after all, merely bees in a hive). Satisfying these needs allows us
    to be able to help other people. What these minimum needs are is a
    matter for individual judgement (although there is some scope for
    discussion at the society level – do people really need very
    expensive versions of things like, for instance, space tourism or
    flying 12,000 miles for a two week holiday?).

    Once those basic needs
    are satisfied, then the remaining resources should (must?) go to
    help people in dire need. This is because, if our situations were
    reversed and we were the people in need, then that is what we would
    wish to happen; i.e. It is to behave in a way consistent with the
    golden rule.

    In the olden days, say
    500 or more years ago, most people’s horizons were more limited
    (mostly to the needs of their immediate neighbours) and most people
    were living on a subsitance level with little if any spare capacity
    to help others. At that time the golden rule was less onerous. Today
    we know of people in an absolute need and that we have the means to
    help them. So we are stuck with the need to help, if we are going to
    treat people in the way we would like to be treated. Would you agree
    to let your child die so that a stranger could have something that
    they could do without?

    This kind of charity
    doesn’t fix the problem of why people don’t have their basic needs
    met in the first place (perhaps because of the failure of capitlism,
    or bad government or some other systemic problem). However we can’t
    wait for the basic problems to be fixed before helping because the
    poor can’t wait and because that is not what we would want were our
    positions be reversed.

    I have read in
    discussions about Singer’s book that this example is not about being
    a good or a bad person. No one asks how much people give to charity
    before forming an opinion on their characters. However, I haven’t
    seen anything on various websites to undermine my provisonal view
    that there is an imperitive to do the maximum possible to end extreme
    proverty. (and by implication spend the minimum on oneself). This is,
    of course, not a very happy conclusion in today’s rich consumer
    society but it appears inescapable. The only solution would appear to
    be to eliminate extreme poverty from the world and thereby free
    people from the concomitant obligation of extreme charity. Can anyone
    suggest a different approach?