In a famous article in 1972, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer put forward an elegant argument for strong duties to contribute to charities. The argument begins by considering the ‘Pond’ situation. In this case, you are walking past a pond and see a drowning child. You can wade into the pond at no risk to yourself, and easily pull out the child. Should you do so? As Singer observes, most people think that you have a powerful duty to do exactly that. (And so, of course, do I.)
|Simple yet powerful: Singer's 'pond' argument is a classic|
of modern ethical philosophy.
But now add the extra factor that you are wearing expensive clothes, and that dry-cleaning them will cost you a couple of hundred dollars. Is there any change in the nature or importance of the duty in this case? Surely not. Everyone agrees that it is still your moral duty to wade into the pond and rescue the child.
What do we conclude from this? Singer suggests a few different results, but for our purposes we’ll just consider the principle that, when the cost to you is pretty small, and another’s life is at stake, then you morally ought to pay that cost and save their life.
At first glance, this principle can seem innocuous enough. But as Singer points out, it has surprisingly radical implications. For, in a way, the ‘pond’ situation is one that confronts us every day. Overseas, people caught in famines and conflicts do not have access to food, water and basic medical care. If we donated enough money to charities like Oxfam and the Red Cross, then we could save those imperilled lives. And the monetary cost to us is comparative to our losses in the pond case. Taking into account all the difficulties that foreign aid has in getting resources to those who need them, Singer estimates that we can probably save one life for an investment of about $1000.
Now if it is wrong of a passer-by to decide not to wade in to help the child if they are wearing an expensive suit, then – surely – isn’t it equally wrong for each of us every day to decide not to give like amounts to charity? (Of course if we continue to follow this line of thought, eventually we will start giving away so much money we might undermine our own means of existence and capacity to work productively. At that point everyone (including Singer) agrees we should look after ourselves.) Aren’t we being inconsistent in expecting the rescuer to help the child, but not ourselves taking comparable actions to save others?
There is an enormous philosophical literature that has arisen in response to Singer’s argument, and there are lots of different ways it can be critiqued (and, in response, defended). But here I just want to focus on one problem I have with it: The apparent cost to the self-interest of the duty-holder in this case is offset by powerful self-interested gains. First, I’ll argue there are gains. Second, I’ll argue they are important in assessing the pond situation.
Singer’s description of the pond situation describes the potential costs and gains in very material terms – that is, in terms of the dollar-cost to you of dry-cleaning or replacing your clothes and shoes. But there is much more on offer than this.
First, there is the capacity to feel the power we have in the world. As Nietzsche argued at length, in many different ways a fundamental driver of human behaviour is the will to exert power in the world, and to see the changes we have wrought to the world. The pond situation offers a profound opportunity in this respect. As you wade out of the pond, you are holding in your arms a life that would have ended were it not for you. You can apprehend in no uncertain terms the profound effect of your action. And for the rest of the rescued child’s life, every thing they do will only happen because of what you did. Now giving money to international charities simply does not provide this feeling of power in the same, direct way as rescuing the child. Our charitable giving is mediated through the actions of countless other people – like the humanitarian actors themselves. We might be unsure whether our money really had the desired effect in this case or not. And we don’t know exactly who we have saved. It is only in an abstract, indirect sense that we can feel the significance of what we have done, not in the immediate, determinate way we create change in the world by rescuing the child. Rescue shows us in the most visceral, overt way the power we have in the world. And every human being, for good or for ill, likes to feel that power. We want to know we matter.
Second, there is heroism. Most cultures tell stories about heroes. They are objects of our admiration. By rescuing the child, we fit ourselves into these stories, casting ourselves into the role of hero. From the first moment a child picks up a comic book or ‘Famous Five’ story, they will fantasize about being the hero in tales such as these. Rescuing the child offers the priceless opportunity to make those fantasies come true. Giving to charity does not. Indeed, sometimes when I teach Singer’s argument to undergraduates, students come up to me afterward saying how it would be a dream come true for them to be able to rescue a child in such a pond-like situation. It wouldn't just make their day; it would make their year!
Third, there is excitement. Rescuing the child is exciting stuff. Will you get there in time? Will you have to do CPR, and will you remember how to do it? And there is a story here. How did the child get into this position? Where are its parents? People spend thousands of dollars and travel the world in the hopes of having exciting adventures, and having great tales to tell of their adventures. It may sound grim to say it, but the fact is that charity is just not exciting in the same way rescue is.
Fourth, and building on all of the former points, there is glory. As Adam Smith observed in his work on the moral sentiments, many people want to get the acclaim and admiration of others for doing the right thing. That doesn’t mean they want to ‘fake it’. They don’t want only the admiration without the reality (this is merely a love of fame, rather than a desire for true glory, as Smith puts it). Rather, they want to actually do the right thing, and to be known and admired for doing so. The pond situation offers a fantastic opportunity for this. Because it is an interesting, exciting story, people will want to hear it – and because you are the hero in the story, you will be the centre of attention and the object of admiration. Newspapers often carry reports of good Samaritans who saved others, and in so doing provide a motivation to future Samaritans. The pond situation offers the opportunity for glory in a way that charity simply does not.
Fifth, as well as social appreciation, there is the appreciation of specific people. In the pond case, this is the appreciation of the parent or parents of the child. Imagine you yourself are the parent in question. You have lost your child for a moment. You look around in sudden concern, realising the dangers surrounding you. You are near a road, near a pond, there are strangers around. Where is your child? Are they okay? Suddenly you see a complete stranger wading out of the pond, carrying your just-breathing child. What is your reaction?
My overwhelming feeling, I think, would be one of profound gratitude. How can I ever replay them? This isn’t to say I would open up my wallet to them, as I would worry that could cheapen the importance and nature of what they have done. But I certainly would seriously consider if I can somehow show my immense appreciation for their action. Being an object of such gratitude is a wonderful social experience – even if there are no further social and material consequences that might flow from it.
Sixth, building on all the prior factors, in cases where costs have been incurred, there may be real opportunities for others to deal with them. As a parent of a rescued child, I at least would insist on paying for the dry-cleaning of the rescuer’s suit. And imagine that you missed or were late to an important meeting or interview because of the rescuing. Is there any better excuse imaginable than that you stopped to save a drowning child’s life? What manner of person would not go out of their way to reschedule the meeting or interview? And if it was a job interview, how could the interviewers fail to be impressed by the quality of the potential applicant?
Now, of course, it could be argued that all of these personal, social and potentially material benefits (or at least, reductions of costs) are in some sense irrational, and that in all consistency we really should personally and socially apply them to charitable giving as well. But even if this is so (and I doubt it), the fact remains that rescue has all these advantages, and charity does not. Saying it is irrational or inconsistent does not alter the social reality that rescue has these benefits and that charity does not.
Suppose we grant that acts of rescue do have all these of these real and potential benefits. Why does it matter?
My point is not that these benefits are so great that, in any given case, it will always be in one’s self-interest to rescue the child. This is not an ‘egoist’ argument for being a Good Samaritan. Rather, my point is that if we are to take Singer’s argument seriously, then we need to accurately tally the costs and benefits in each case. Because of all of these sorts of benefits, the real, sum-total cost (the decrease in our ‘expected utility’) of rescuing the child is much smaller than Singer estimates. Because it is smaller, the sacrifice expected of the person is not as great. As such, when we apply the same moral arithmetic to cases of international charity, we will get very different answers to the ones Singer puts forward.
But perhaps this misses the point. So consider the following objection.
When we are standing on the bank of the pond, it is hardly as if any of us will really calculate all of these benefits. Rather, we simply see the drowning child and realise we can help. With no further consideration, we wade in and save the child. The benefits may subsequently occur but – it may rightly be objected – it is unlikely they formed any part of our reasoning at the moment of action.
I agree this point is a valid one. But I still think the benefits matter. They just matter in a more indirect way. The benefits mean that whenever we hear stories of rescues, we get used to them ending happily – indeed, we think they should end happily, and we act to make this happen. We shake the hand of the person who rescued the child and buy them a beer. We reschedule the appointment they missed. We listen in admiration to their story. And because of all this there is never any caution or qualification applied to the norm of rescuing. We don’t hear innumerable stories about how the rescuer lived to regret their action, or failed to live up to their other responsibilities because of the costs they incurred. For most people, I agree it is true that the above-noted benefits are not their primary reason for rescuing the child. But the benefits still play a role in empowering the person not to need to have any second-thoughts about this situation. The benefits don’t motivate the principle, but they remove obstacles that might otherwise weaken our responsiveness to it.
If this is right, then one of the reasons we are horrified by the person who walks by without saving the child is simply because there are no countervailing considerations that could justify their doing so. Our society has created, as it might be put, a well-functioning norm of rescue, with myriad rewards and cost-mitigation factors set up to ensure its consistent functioning. And this is important in the context of rescue, because we cannot afford for people to have to weigh up costs and benefits in such a case. We need them to be willing to jump into the pond, and to trust that society has got their back. A well-functioning norm achieves this. If a person cannot be relied on to act on a norm in a situation like the pond one, then it is hard to believe they are capable of acting on a norm in any situation. The amount they are willing to respect and care for others is almost zero.
And this means that if we are interested in improving the lot of those suffering from famine and the ravages of conflict, then we are better served trying to create social and personal rewards that can flow to the people who help them. The more we can make real the benefits for doing such important moral actions, the more we smooth the way for such action, and allow it to feed into a life-well-lived.