Social Justice, Academic Philosophy

Would You Save the Drowning Child?

I’ve got a series of new videos coming out from Learn Liberty on the problem of poverty. The first one was released last week, and introduces the issue with a look at Peter Singer’s “Drowning Toddler” thought experiment. The next three videos will look at different possible responses to the problem, including economic growth, charity, and the welfare state. Look for them soon. Meanwhile, here’s the first!

More on drowning kids at BHL here.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • stevenjohnson2

    The “least harm” criterion doesn’t seem to me to have sufficient justification. We know in the example that the “harm” is $500. But what does “harm” mean in examples of foreign aid? I know people who really think the US spends vast sums of money on foreign aid, conceived as charity not military cooperation/cooptation or disguised export subsidies. And they sure seem to think their minuscule fraction of that is some sort of “harm” greater than $500.

    I also know people who insist that charity is in itself harmful. The “least harm” criterion I think needs to be distinguished from that, if it is in fact distinct.

    Further an efficiency criterion trying to balance “least harm” against greatest good works in unexpected ways. If for example it is deemed by someone that there is some sort of existential threat posed by a foreign government. Using an efficiency criterion, we could find ourselves debating whether drone assassinations are more efficient than economic blockades?

    As for the drowning toddler? Perhaps our real obligation is a social arrangement where parents accept their obligation to take care of their children (because of sanctions for compliance and non-compliance,) and where they can afford to do so, whether personally or by child care. But no system is perfect and there will always be failures. In one sense placing the burden on individuals to step up to address the failures at their own cost is unfair. But in an equitable system, I think you could argue that the risk of being the person who has to make the sacrifice is equal, and thus in that sense, still fair.

  • Theresa Klein

    I would save the drowning child, but then, the drowning child lives in my neighborhood, probably is the child of someone in my community, and might grow up to be a productive person in the community. That kid might be taking care of me in a nursing home on 40 years. His parents might be members of my church (or whatever). This is not the case for children millions of miles away that have no possible connection to me.

    • CJColucci

      And if you’re on vacation in a foreign land?

  • niav

    Yes, in this hypothetical situation I would save the drowning child, but then I’d expect to bill the parents of that child, whom I’d hold responsible for the situation, and recoup the cost of my clothes and other loses I have incurred.

    Children don’t just spontaneously appear in the world, like weather phenomena. They are consciously created by adults, and those adults have full responsibility for their children’s welfare.

    Creating a child doesn’t automatically add a blank-check liability on the rest of the humankind, for safety/education/health care/food/clothes/etc. The liability is held by the parents.

    Foreign aid is charity, not responsibility, and charity is up to the individual.

    • stevenjohnson2

      No system of personal “responsibility,” no matter how gratifyingly ruthless, will ever be perfect. Even if parents were required to have child insurance just like drivers were required to have car insurance, there will still be failures in the system. The real question is, what responsibility do individuals have when the systems fail? I don’t think we can reasonably posit any solution that will be “fair.” At least, not using any notion of fairness, such as no money down, that makes any sense to normally empathetic human beings.

      Instead of a drowning child in a pond, suppose the pedestrian strolls by a house where a plume of smoke is coming from an open kitchen window?

      • niav

        At least, not using any notion of fairness, such as no money down, that makes any sense to normally empathetic human beings

        Money down can very well be a very important part of the “fairness”, where by the latter I take to mean just desert.

        In these hypothetical situations, the helper does the following:

        (a) prevents the harm affecting the 3rd party
        (b) incurs a direct cost
        (c) incurs a potential cost of opportunity (perhaps you were on your way to a really important, time-sensitive business deal that was about to make you a lot of money, and it fell through)

        Any notion of “fairness” that I can think of would involve me paying you back for (b), evaluating and repaying (c), where appropriate, and at the very least being grateful for (a), which may well have effectively infinite value (e.g. my child’s life).

        It’s sort of like in Switzerland, where you can get a fine plus an invoice for the police call-out fee.

        In any case, I think the alternative – “we’ll behave in any way we want and impose unilateral harms and costs on those who can, thus must, help us” – is absurd and, more importantly, counter-productive.

        • stevenjohnson2

          I don’t think the alternative offered is really the alternative. Which is, I think, “Even though we generally do the best we can, sometimes we lapse, and other times our best just isn’t very good and sometimes there is just an improbable series of events in a world where improbably series of events are inevitable but thankfully rare…when things go wrong it behooves us all to do what we can.” Your proffered alternative comes under child neglect laws.

          I’m may be under a false impression. It seems that you are insisting that there must be guaranteed compensation before the rescuer is obligated to act. I don’t know how you can guarantee that. As for the comparison to the Swiss police call-out fees? I suppose if you want to avoid providing police services to poor people this is a great system.

          • niav

            It seems that you are insisting that there must be guaranteed compensation before the rescuer is obligated to act.

            No, I didn’t mention this at all, far less insisted on it.

            Think of getting a bill for services rendered: you either pay it and extinguish the obligation, or you don’t, and then the issuer can drop it (and make a loss) or pursue you, potentially to bankruptcy (if you have no means to pay it).

            So there’s no way to guarantee payment, but there should be a way to guarantee some effect on the ones who benefit, otherwise they benefit entirely at other’s people expensive, and this just about always brings about moral hazard.

          • stevenjohnson2

            In the drowning child case, charges of child neglect seem to me to take care of the moral hazard problem.

    • jdkolassa

      “Yes, in this hypothetical situation I would save the drowning child, but then I’d expect to bill the parents of that child, whom I’d hold responsible for the situation, and recoup the cost of my clothes and other loses I have incurred.”

      Are you being serious or is this a form of severe sarcasm?

      • niav

        Of course I’m serious. If my stupidity, carelessness or sheer bad luck caused a situation in which normally I am about to be harmed in some way (e.g. child drowning, house burning, car being stolen) but you step up and fix it, at the very least I’d expect to pay you back for whatever damage and harm you incurred, on top of having my gratitude.

        If I didn’t, and even more, I’d assert that my stupidity, carelessness or sheer bad luck have unilaterally caused a moral obligation on you to help me out, that’s the same as me simply harming you.

  • geoih

    No, there isn’t an obligation to give more to charity (though any mechanism). The author shows this himself by spending resources to make this video to ask the question.

  • Jason Brennan

    The main problem with Singer’s argument is that the analogy fails.

    The situation I’m confronting is not like that of a lone drowning child, where I can save the kid at some personal expense and then get on with my life.

    Rather, for Singer’s analogy to do the work he needs it to do, he’d have to ask us to imagine we come across a situation in which there are millions of drowning children, such that no matter how many we save, as soon as we save one, there’s always another one needing to be rescued. He should then ask us what our intuitions are in this situation. I doubt most people have the intuition that we must then dedicate our lives to saving children.

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