Peter Singer is among the most influential living moral philosophers. His work deals with our moral responsibilities toward others — particularly people in developing countries and animals mistreated by humans.
This piece presents his “drowning child” thought experiment, which has motivated many people to spend considerable effort trying to help others as much as possible. It remains one of the simplest and most compelling arguments for practicing effective altruism.
The version of this essay has been lightly edited. You can find the original here.
To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university 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.
I then ask the students: Do you have any obligation to rescue the child?
Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child.
Does it make a difference, I ask, 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 we should not do what we ought to do.
Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: 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.
I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond. We can all save the 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. And overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.
At this point, the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved?
These questions can all be answered. But I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small — compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help — that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves, even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.
I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves. At the end of the nineteenth century, W.E.H. Lecky wrote of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family and ‘soon the circle ... includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man [sic] with the animal world’. On this basis, the overwhelming majority of my students seem to be already in the penultimate stage — at least — of Lecky’s expanding circle.
There is, of course, for many students and for various reasons, a gap between acknowledging what we ought to do and actually doing it. But I shall come back to that issue shortly.
Our century is the first in which it has been possible to speak of global responsibility and a global community. For most of human history, we could affect the people in our village, or perhaps in a large city, but even a powerful king could not conquer far beyond the borders of his kingdom. When Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire, his realm covered most of the ‘known’ world. Today, when I board a jet in London leaving what used to be one of the far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire, I pass over its opposite boundary before I am even halfway to Singapore, let alone to my home in Australia.
Moreover, no matter what the extent of the empire, the time required for communications and transport meant that there was simply no way in which people could make any difference to the victims of floods, wars, or massacres taking place on the other side of the globe. By the time anyone had heard of the events and responded, the victims were dead or had survived without assistance. ‘Charity begins at home’ made sense, because it was only ‘at home’ — or at least in your own town — that you could be confident that your charity would make any difference.
Instant communications and jet transport have changed all that. A television audience of two billion people can now watch hungry children beg for food in an area struck by famine, or they can see refugees streaming across the border in search of a safe place away from those they fear will kill them. Most of that huge audience also have the means to help the people they are seeing on their screens. Each one of us can pull out a credit card and phone in a donation to an aid organization which can, in a few days, fly in people who can begin distributing food and medical supplies. Collectively, it is also within the capacity of the United Nations — with the support of major powers — to put troops on the ground to protect those who are in danger of becoming victims of genocide.
Our capacity to affect what is happening, anywhere in the world, is one way in which we are living in an era of global responsibility. But there is also another way that offers an even more dramatic contrast with the past. The atmosphere and the oceans seemed, until recently, to be elements of nature totally unaffected by the puny activities of human beings. Now we know that our use of chlorofluorocarbons has damaged the ozone shield; our emission of carbon dioxide is changing the climate of the entire planet in unpredictable ways and raising the level of the sea; and fishing fleets are scouring the oceans, depleting fish populations that once seemed limitless to a point from which they may never recover. In these ways, the actions of consumers in Los Angeles can cause skin cancer among Australians, inundate the lands of peasants in Bangladesh, and force Thai villagers who could once earn a living by fishing to work in the factories of Bangkok.
In these circumstances, the need for a global ethic is inescapable. Is it nevertheless a vain hope? Here are some reasons why it may not be.
We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfilment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market, whose only message is: Consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: Once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.
We tend to see ethics as opposed to self-interest. We assume that those who make fortunes from insider trading are successfully following self-interest — as long as they don’t get caught — and ignoring ethics. We think that it is in our interest to take a more senior better-paid position with another company, even though it means that we are helping to manufacture or promote a product that does no good at all, or is environmentally damaging. On the other hand, those who pass up opportunities to rise in their career because of ethical ‘scruples’ about the nature of the work, or who give away their wealth to good causes, are thought to be sacrificing their own interest in order to obey the dictates of ethics.
Many will say that it is naive to believe that people could shift from a life based on consumption, or on getting on top of the corporate ladder, to one that is more ethical in its fundamental direction. But such a shift would answer a palpable need. Today the assertion that life is meaningless no longer comes from existentialist philosophers who treat it as a shocking discovery: It comes from bored adolescents for whom it is a truism. Perhaps it is the central place of self-interest, and the way in which we conceive of our own interest, that is to blame here. The pursuit of self-interest, as standardly conceived, is a life without any meaning beyond our own pleasure or individual satisfaction. Such a life is often a self-defeating enterprise. The ancients knew of the ‘paradox of hedonism,’ according to which the more explicitly we pursue our desire for pleasure, the more elusive we will find its satisfaction. There is no reason to believe that human nature has changed so dramatically as to render the ancient wisdom inapplicable.
Here ethics offer a solution. An ethical life is one in which we identify ourselves with other, larger goals, thereby giving meaning to our lives. The view that there is harmony between ethics and enlightened self-interest is an ancient one, now often scorned. Cynicism is more fashionable than idealism. But such hopes are not groundless, and there are substantial elements of truth in the ancient view that an ethically reflective life is also a good life for the person leading it. Never has it been so urgent that the reasons for accepting this view should be widely understood.
In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people going short of food in Rwanda, the desire to sample the wines of Australia’s best vineyards pales into insignificance. An ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying food and wine; but it changes our sense of priorities. The effort and expense put into fashion, the endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the added expense that marks out the luxury-car market — all these become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective long enough to put themselves in the position of others affected by their actions. If the circle of ethics really does expand, and a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will fundamentally change the society in which we live.