The ‘Drowning Child’ thought experiment was first posed by philosopher Peter Singer to challenge his students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need. Though the problem is simple, its implications are complex and difficult.
In his experiment, Singer asks students to imagine that their path to school takes them past a shallow pond. “One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”
. . . you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning . . .
He then asks students if they have an obligation to rescue the child. Of course, all of them say they do. The importance of saving the child is wholly incommensurate with the trivial consequences of dirtying one’s clothes and being late for class. None of us would consider these to be valid excuses for not saving the life of a child.
He then asks, “Does it make a difference that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.”
But then he asks the much harder question: “Would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation.”
Perhaps you already see the cloud moving toward us, for Singer then points out that we are all in this person’s position, “we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world . . . .”
. . . here is where the objections begin . . .
And here is where Singer’s simple thought experiment comes alive, for he has taken it from the abstract to the very personal. It is now a problem, a personal problem: The Drowning Child Problem. For here is where the objections begin; here is where personal engagement begins; here is where the experiment touches our lives, forcing us to ask who we are, how we are related, and what is the good.
And it is right here, in the gripping tension of this question, that my blog begins. I hope you will follow along as I explore the implications of Singer’s questions and some of the exciting activities, organizations, people, and ideas that have arisen from it. I will give particular attention to Effective Altruism, a movement that I will explore in detail in this blog.
All Quotations are from Peter Singer, “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.”