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.