The Drowning Child: an Experiment in Morality


Over at Philosophy Experiments, a site of The Philosopher’s Magazine, one of the experiments is drawn from Peter Singer‘s “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.” Here is the basic scenario.

Your route to work takes you past a shallow pond. One morning you notice that a small child has fallen in and appears to be in difficulty in the water. The child is crying in distress and it seems is at risk of drowning. You are tall and strong, so you can easily wade in and pull the child out. However, although you’ll come to no physical harm if you rescue the child, you will get your clothes wet and muddy, which means you’ll have to go home to change, and likely you’ll be late for work.

In this situation, do you have a moral obligation to rescue the child?

After you probably answer “yes,” you are then asked a small handful of potentially qualifying questions. Would it make a difference to your sense of obligation if you had recently had your bike stolen in the area and might well again? How about if there were others around who might well effect the rescue themselves, though they appeared not to be acting? What if the chances of success were not assured? What if you knew that there is a high incidence of drowning among children, and regardless of your efforts in this instance, many other children were nonetheless bound to drown in similar circumstances? And, finally, what if the child were not right in front of you, but a far distance away, but you could be transported to the location, at no significant cost to you, in time to make the rescue? Would any of these factors mitigate your obligation to attempt to save the child?

I answered no to all. My obligation, I believe, is absolute and diminished by none of the qualifying circumstances.

Ah, but then there was just one question more>

We just want to ask you one further question, but this time it isn’t specifically to do with the drowning child scenario. Here it is:

Are you morally obliged to make a relatively small donation, perhaps to the value of a new shirt or a night out at a restaurant, to an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam within the next few days (and even if you have previously made such a donation, perhaps even recently)?

I answered no.

Would you believe I was told I was mistaken?

Now, of course, the calculation behind all of the qualifying circumstances became clear. Each is intended to replicate the kinds of rationales that people use to explain their not contributing to charities and other collective efforts to aid people in trouble far from home, people who are outside of that, as Singer calls it, “expanding circle” of moral responsibility.

This activity is based on a thought experiment devised by Peter Singer that aims to show that if there is a moral obligation to rescue a drowning child (without sacrificing anything morally significant – i.e., at no great cost to the rescuer), then there is also a moral obligation to make a small donation to an overseas aid agency. As Singer puts it,

we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: 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 – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

Well, now, I feel, not obligated, certainly, but compelled to disagree. I do not disagree with the greater point Singer is attempting to make, about our expanding circle of moral obligation. I have written about the role of technology in increasing the range of what I term our affective associations, which inevitably contribute to our sense of moral connection to others. It is the reason I believe libertarianism – as sympathetic as I may be to its empirical and philosophical origins – an entirely antiquated notion of social organization, one that at its worst  (recall the cheers among some at a GOP debate when Ron Paul seemed to acquiesce to the notion of letting an uninsured individual die untreated at the hospital door) now presents itself as thoroughly inhumane.

However, I think the framing of the donation question to be faulty, and, so, to invalidate the conclusions drawn from it. I think the problems are two. One is the anonymity – the abstraction – of it. Note that as constructed, it does not even mention a human being. I guess the human is an implied one, but that matters. The other problem is with these terms:

within the next few days (and even if you have previously made such a donation, perhaps even recently.

Consider the following chain in which we have a developing sense of affective connection. We may think it almost certain, as I do, that there are other planets with intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe. We all know that bad things happen to good life forms, so it is likely that misfortune is occurring even as I write. We do not actually know such a planet exists, or of it, so any feeling for the misfortune or “feeling” of obligation is as abstract as possible, likely even absent. If we know of the planet’s existence, each of these factors – affective connection and sense of obigation –  may be considered to increase in varying degrees in different people. If we know something about the planet, if we can communicate with its inhabitants, if we can travel there, if we can know inhabitants in their specificity, even if not, but then again still more, their individuality, each factor will increase in intensity for most people and in our common ethical considerations. Now let’s bring matters back to earth.

In the experiment’s presentation, whereas the drowning child is concrete and individual, regarding the charitable donation we have the utmost abstraction. Shouldn’t matter. No, it shouldn’t. But.

According to the CIA World Fact Book, over 55 million people die a year, 151 thousand a day, 6300 per hour, 105 per minute, 2 per second. According to UNICEF,

About 29,000 children under the age of five –  21 each minute – die every day, mainly from preventable causes.

With every breath we take, someone is dying somewhere. Life is wonderful. Life is awful. It’s full of death. Every second.

In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party,” the young Laura is sympathetically and morally aghast that her family intends to proceed with its garden party in full knowledge that a man in the village has died by accident. The story has many class themes, but certainly its greatest – informed by just those questions about the unknown planet above – is how we live in the presence of death.

Let’s say the child is not a single child, but many, in a boating accident. At some point might our savior – me, you – reach a point of exhaustion? Oh, agony. Keep returning to the water until one drowns oneself? Perhaps. Maybe you collapse on the shore, unable to go on. The equivalent in the charitable donation analogy is that while one donation might be of no consequence financially, we see that there is cause to contribute at every moment of every day. Why then in the “next few days”? Why not right now, and now again, and again? What is “recently”? Last month? Yesterday? How close to broke do we have to get before we might be considered financially exhausted?

When, in the knowledge of all this misfortune and death, is it permissible to think for a bit, better, about life? And maybe there is something we can do better, too, than dropping a check in the mail, with sufficient guilt-freeing frequency, “to anyone who may be about do die.”

It isn’t that simple. It isn’t that neat.


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7 thoughts on “The Drowning Child: an Experiment in Morality

  1. Great article that raises a good number of good questions.

    One remark, though: equating Ron Paul with libertarianism and mixing in GOP crowd is overdoing it a bit. While RP may have taken a few slogans from the book, he is hardly a sane libertarian. And GOP – oh well, thankfully (as far as the above mentioned are concerned) I am not an American citizen.

    1. A significant number of Americans consider Paul a libertarian, and they have been working assiduously to gain influence over the GOP convention. Of course, I understand why he wouldn’t appeal to you, and you are happy not to be an American citizen. From an Israeli perspective, it must seem the U.S. has been teetering in some dangerous far right directions. 😉

  2. The analysis and mental gymnastics here are terrific for a layman like me. I enjoyed it (and the repartee). The only thing I have to add is a touch of ‘philosophical’ humor. Putting it succinctly, these chaps taught me more than my Philosophy 101 professor.

    “… and Marx is claiming it was offside.”

  3. Although I’m not the biggest fan of Singer, I think he addresses your main concerns here in two places. First, in the original question:

    “However, although you’ll come to no physical harm if you rescue the child, you will get your clothes wet and muddy, which means you’ll have to go home to change, and likely you’ll be late for work.”

    So he limits it to minor changes, and so if you were giving away too much the question would change, so there is a limit to how many resources you have to give up, although he isn’t clear on where that is. The second is in one of the follow-up questions:

    “What if you knew that there is a high incidence of drowning among children, and regardless of your efforts in this instance, many other children were nonetheless bound to drown in similar circumstances? ”

    This, I think, eliminates your comment about how far you have to go as well. You answered that there being others who would die anyway would not change your obligation in this case, and yet you use that argument to question your obligation in the donation case. So the question is: if you can, you should; you can, so you should.

    However, there is an interesting question in the move from specific to abstract, which is that if you know that you can’t save all of them, who do you save? In the initial case, it was one child specifically, and it is implied that you couldn’t save all those myriad others. Here, you again can’t save the myriad others … but then you have to choose who you should help. How does or can one do that?

    However, I do think that the questions don’t unreasonably establish that you certainly seem to think it reasonable to sacrifice small costs when someone’s life is on the line, and then violate that at the end. The only question remaining seems to be how many you should try to save.

    1. Your response explains why I focused – though, perhaps not with sufficient attention – on the words “a few days” and “recently.”

      I am not arguing against the entailed obligation to contribute to such charitable efforts entirely. I am challenging the vagueness of those parameters. Yes, Singer limits the nature of any required sacrifice, but what would constitute that excessive degree of financial sacrifice in charitable donations will obviously vary very widely. On what grounds can one argue, generally, that the donation must be made within only “a few days,” or that a recent donation – last month? yesterday? – is no excuse from making that next one perhaps only a few days later?

      I then raise the issue of the numbers involved, again not to make an excuse based on a level of futility against the overall numbers, but because those numbers restart the clock on “a few days” and “recently” every day and even every moment. “A few days” and “recently” simply are so indistinct, especially on a rolling, renewable basis, that they do not provide any meaningful boundary of moral obligation. It is sufficient, I think, to say that the all the questions answered affirmatively, one is obligated to make such a charitable contribution – or to perform some morally equivalent act – but the vague time parameters are entirely unsupported.

      1. But I think that Singer’s push there is to basically make the point that if you are able to save a drowning child without any major sacrifice you wouldn’t use the argument of “But I saved a drowning child yesterday, so I don’t have to do it today”. By the same token, if your choice is between buying a CD today or giving that money to Oxfam, it’s not a good argument to say that you didn’t buy a CD and donated to Oxfam yesterday. If you are obligated to give that money to Oxfam, you are still obligated to give that money to Oxfam.

        I agree that Singer needs to outline better what the limit is, and also needs to address a lot of issues over whether this obligation really does entail in those conditions. However, in this case I think he presumes that the conditions that trigger the obligation are all in play and so that the days comment only applies to whether that changes that obligation, and I think Singer would say that that in and of itself doesn’t change the obligation.

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