Consequentialism, Current Events

We’re Obligated to Save Many Drowning Children: In Defense of Singer

Jason wrote a nice post the other day on Peter Singer’s famous drowning child thought experiment. In short, Jason argues that showing that we’d be obligated to save one drowning child at the cost of ruining the iPhone in our pocket isn’t enough to establish that we’re obligated to perpetually spend big chunks of our disposable income on life-saving aid. Rather, we’d need to show that we would be obligated to constantly save many drowning children (so many that you will never be able to save them all). And, as Jason notes, even if you think you must save one drowning child, you might not think that “you must dedicate your life to, or even spend a huge amount of time on, saving children” when many are drowning.

Jason says that this doesn’t show that Singer’s conclusion is wrong, just that the drowning child thought experiment doesn’t establish that conclusion. So here’s my attempt to show that Singer is right–that is, to show that we are obligated to save many drowning children even at a significant personal cost.

To see why, let’s change the analogy a bit. Suppose UPS has just delivered the new TV you ordered. As you’re about to pull into your driveway, you’re horrified to discover that your brakes don’t work. You can either do nothing and keep your hands off the wheel, in which case you will hit and kill (or at least severely injure) a child playing in the street or you can swerve into your new TV. It’s obvious what the right thing to do is: save the kid at the cost of your TV. The next day, after getting your brakes fixed, you’re driving home and see that this time UPS has delivered the new watch you ordered. But it turns out the mechanic did a bad job on the brakes and they’ve gone out. So once again, you’re faced with a choice: do you let the car hit and kill (or at least severely injure) another child playing in the street or do you swerve into the watch? Clearly, you should save the kid at the cost of your new watch. “But I sacrificed my TV yesterday and so it’s okay for me to save my watch today” isn’t a good enough excuse to justify the death of the child. Now imagine that this scenario replays itself every day, with a new delivery and another child. At what point will you let a child get hit in order to save your Amazon order? You would probably think it very wrong to not sacrifice most, if not all, of your daily Amazon orders for the sake of saving the lives of neighborhood children. So then shouldn’t we also think it very wrong not to sacrifice most, if not all, of our luxury purchases for the sake of saving the lives of children across the globe?

Update: In the comments, it was suggested that the car accident would be a case of active killing whereas letting a child drown (or die of starvation) is passively “letting die.” In the thought experiment above, I specified that you would keep your hands off the wheel and let the car continue on its path to make it the case that you are in fact letting the child die rather than actively killing her. In any event, you can modify the scenario to make this distinction clearer and the conclusion stands. Imagine that one of your neighbors has the car with the terrible brakes, but each day you can prevent the car from killing a child by tossing your large Amazon box in its path. Even in this case, it is clear that it would be very wrong to not sacrifice most, if not all, of your deliveries to save the children.

  • eccentric-opinion

    It’s a very questionable whether not hitting a child and saving a drowning child are morally analogous. The former is non-aggression/non-maleficence/etc, while the latter is a duty to benefit someone. There are numerous ethical theories that can ground a distinction – some of them consequentialist ones.

    • Ed Ucation

      Yes, I agree with this. A much better example would be if you are walking by a lake on your way home each day, and each day some kid is drowning in the lake as you are walking by. Now, in a real life situation, after this happens a second time, you bet you would do something else about it, like call a council meeting to find out why kids keep drowning in that lake. Then, the town council would decide what to do about it, such as building a fence, putting up signs, and educating the town kids. So I think any sort of daily repeating scenario such as this would be handled in a way to stop it from re-occurring, rather that to keep addressing it anew every day.

    • Chris Freiman

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve added an update to address this worry.

  • Suppose you can save as many children as you want to, but in order to do it, you must give up every modern convenience and substantially reduce your children’s quality of life, both now and in the future – permanently. Are you obligated to do so?

    The fact that we can imagine analogies that obligate us to help others is not particularly interesting, since most of us already agree that we should help others. But is there a moral theory or a valid analogy that sets out reasonable limitations on our obligations to suffering strangers?

    Boundless obligatory altruism is not a reasonable moral conclusion. At the end of the day, hardly anyone really wants to live like that. So how about a theory of moral obligation for the rest of us?

    • Theresa Klein

      Yes. I think the question of what are the limits of our obligations is much more interesting. The idea that you can extend the single-drowning-toddler case to millions is just facile. Everyone whose doing it seems to either want to prove that everyone should live in endless penury, or else prove that there’s no obligation to save even one toddler.

  • Fritz

    Aren’t you assuming something like a global (or universal) welfare function, which is the sum of all individual states of well-being, and to which the moral cognescenti (e.g., you and Singer) have access, unlike mere mortals who must look to the moral cognescenti for guidance?

  • disqus_QZX8ENhLyb

    I think such “thought experiments” are a useless waste of time and stupid activity.

    Why not try to get to the essence and discover any principles that may exist?

    Am I obligated to do ANYTHING to which I did not willingly agree? NO ! Can I take it upon myself to DO SOMETHING? Yes! If I choose to do so. I could just stand there and observe what happens.

    Quit posing such “ponderous” dilemmas that supposedly have no solution. Waste your time on something else, like saving the world.

    Neither you nor I are obligated to ANYTHING to which we did not willingly agree. You may think not, but it’s true.

    That does not preclude VOLUNTARY actions based upon what’s perceived as the correct decision based upon available evidence at the time and under the conditions of exigency.

    • Simon

      Surely you don’t mean this: Neither you nor I are obligated to ANYTHING to which we did not willingly agree. What? I did not willingly agree not to murder you? So I am not obligated not to murder you?

      • disqus_QZX8ENhLyb

        Such trivia were dismissed in second grade.

        I assume that you have brains enough to subscribe to the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) Otherwise, what are you doing on a “libertarian” website? “Live and Let Live !

        Don’t be silly and absurd. Be rational and serious.

        • Simon

          Yes, I subscribe to the NAP. I presume you don’t. Otherwise why adopt such an aggressive tone? I have no idea who you are or what you believe in. I merely pointed out an error in your argument. This sort of reaction suggests someone with a psychological complex that means they have to react violently if someone points out something wrong that they’ve sajd. Do you really lack self-assurance to that extent? What a shame for you.

          • disqus_QZX8ENhLyb

            The error was your non-sequitur. You may as well have said “the moon is made of blue cheese.” Makes a much sense. Sounds like you must be a “left-libertarian”, whatever that is.

            I won’t attach you anymore. Bye.

      • TracyW

        QZX said “to do ANYTHING”. Refraining from murdering someone is an obligation *not* to do something.

        • AP²

          Can one have an obligation *not* to buy a new TV in lieu of donating to charity?

  • Jonathon Smith

    I really like this thought experiment, very insightful.

    I’ve wrestled with this moral conclusion for a while, and I’m inclined to adopt Singer’s own position on it. Yes, moral perfection requires us to sacrifice to help those in need until sacrificing anymore would make us more needy than them. BUT, no one reasonably expects humans to achieve moral perfection, so lets just give at a level that, if everyone did it, the problem would be solved. Singer pegs this somewhere between 1% – 10% (gross) income donated to help solve the worlds biggest problems. If everyone in the developed world gave at this level, extreme poverty would be eliminated, with enough extra money to address many other pressing problems.

    • Ed Ucation

      Don’t we already all give over 20%? It’s called welfare. I have long argued that this is the most insidious effect of welfare programs. They remove people’s sense of moral obligation to help the less fortunate, because, as a result, people start to think that it is the government’s job to do that.

  • stevenjohnson2

    I suppose you’re obligated to sacrifice your possessions until your financial losses have accumulated to the point you can’t order from Amazon any more…or until they repo your car. But shouldn’t you do something about the neglectful parents? Surely those children playing in the street are in peril from other drivers who can still afford vehicles?

    • TracyW

      Not to mention that if your brakes keep failing then one day they’re going to fail on the motorway in a situation where you need them to keep you yourself alive.

  • TracyW

    I think in this story your primary moral obligation is to find a competent mechanic.

    • Theresa Klein

      Yes, if you own a car you assume a positive duty to maintain it in a safe manner (and not drive it if it has a repeat history of brake failure). If you insist on driving it, you assume a positive duty to swerve if the brakes fail while it is pointed at a person. No such positive duty is assumed just by being born and happening to live in a world with millions of drowning children.

  • Apropos of the topic, check out the final frame of this recent “Existential Comic.”

    Peter Singer arrested for murder after spending $15 on luxuries instead of giving aid.

  • Jason Brennan

    Chris, I don’t think this analogy works, because it’s already clear that you are liable for the children dying, because you have a responsibility to maintain your car in good order and to drive it safely. It’s already built into common law, etc., that the in the car cases, you count as causing the deaths. You had a duty with regard to the bystanders, you violated that duty, and, as a result, they died. In each of the car cases, had you never existed, the children would be safe.

    What’s not clear is whether you have a duty to save children drowning or dying of starvation. In these cases, if you weren’t alive, the children would still die anyways. So, it’s not clear you’re causing their deaths, and that might change your responsibility.

    • Jonathon Smith

      You could pretty easily construct a variation of this that doesn’t have that problem. Like, you’re walking home and you see the delivery man about to trip on a crack in the sidewalk (and break your TV). You also see a child about to get hit by a car, and you only have time to either save the child or stop the delivery man from tripping, and this happens everyday …

      • Let us further suppose that the delivery man is about to trip on – not a crack in the sidewalk – but three other children, each of whom will be crushed to death by the TV if the delivery man trips; but if they survive, their meat will be used to feed nine other starving children, who are about to be hit by a car driven by the first child, the one at risk of being hit by the first car you saw….

    • Chris Freiman

      Hi J,

      Thanks for the reply. I think you’re right that you’re violating a duty if you continue to drive (even if you try your best to maintain your brakes). However, there seem to be variations that avoid this problem and elicit the same intuition (the one Jonathon Smith gave looks pretty good). Suppose, for instance, that Amazon only delivers to your work address and not your home. As you drive home from work each day, you cross some train tracks. And each day, there is a new child stuck on the tracks. If you toss your daily delivery on the tracks, you’ll slow down the train enough to save the child. Here I would still say you are obligated to sacrifice most (or even all) of your daily deliveries to save the children.

      • TracyW

        But again here there are many more options than throwing away your Amazon delivery daily, such as carrying a block of wood to throw on the tracks instead.

        And, let’s say sometimes I don’t go to work or I stay late at work, and thus am not around to save the child. Am I doing something morally wrong by not even going past the train tracks?

        All these analogies strike me as quite inapplicable because once we start talking about a long-running series of endangered children we can do something to solve the underlying problem, be that fixing the car brakes or putting up fences around the train tracks, which are a lot easier than ending civil wars and introducing clear property rights and a reasonable sort of justice.

  • TracyW

    On thinking about this, I think a real world example might be useful. I have an old school friend who is an oncologist. Since she became a mother she works part-time. Is she morally obliged to work full-time, at least until all the world’s cancer cases are treated? Would she be morally obliged to work full-time if she worked for a rural hospital which struggles to attract qualified doctors?

    It strikes me that the answer is no, even in the rural hospital case. My friend is free not only to cut her hours, but to quit her job entirely. Otherwise that would be slavery, which is wrong.

  • This Is Me Reaping

    “Many years ago, when I was at Oxford, in a cold winter’s day, a young maid (one of those we kept at school) called upon me. I said, “You seem half-starved. Have you nothing to cover you but that thin linen gown” She said, “Sir, this is all I have!” I put my hand in my pocket; but found I had scarce any money left, having just paid away what I had. It immediately struck me, “Will thy Master say, `Well done, good and faithful steward’ Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”” -John Wesley. Thought it was relevant.

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