Peter Singer’s Drowning Child thought experiment: If, on the way to the office, we saw a child drowning in a pond, would we think that we have to save it? Would it change anything if we were wearing a new suit and if we came late to our business conference because of saving the child?
Long before Google gave us the slogan “don’t be evil,” philosophers have been thinking about what “good” or “evil” behaviour really means. We think that we recognise evil when we see it – but do we really? Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment is an attempt to clarify that question.
The philosopher Peter Singer invites us to a thought experiment: If, on the way to the office, we saw a child drowning in a pond, would we think that we have to save it? Would it change anything if we were wearing a new suit and if we came late to our business conference because of saving the child? This case, he says, illustrates that we have a duty to help others if we can do so with a relatively small investment from our side.
To make Peter Singer’s drowning child example more realistic, let’s say you buy a colourful, cheap shirt from an Indian shop in some Western metropolis. Nothing bad about that. Not as bad, surely, as the really terrible things people do, like forced child labour or slavery. Except that this shirt, likely coming from India or Bangladesh, has probably been produced with child labour. The buyer is, after all, the one for whose benefit these industries were created, and therefore a part of the criminal circuit that keeps those children working. When the shirt, fashionably cut and attractively coloured, beckons from the retailer’s rack or the Amazon catalogue, it doesn’t come bundled with the pictures of the kids whose lives were destroyed making it. But perhaps it should.
Am I evil when I buy such a shirt? Probably not. Am I good? Probably neither.
Immanuel Kant wants us to treat others “as ends in themselves,” rather than only as means to our own ends. What does this mean?
When I take a taxi or a bus, I am certainly treating the driver as a mean to my own end of getting to my destination. I don’t really care who the driver is, if he’s happy, if he likes me, or whether his child is in hospital after a terrible accident. But I’m not treating the driver as a mean only; I’m paying my fare, and thus I give the driver the opportunity to use this money in order to pursue his own ends. He can take a holiday, if he makes enough, buy a new phone, or afford a better cure for his child.
But isn’t it the same with the shirt from India? Do I not pay for the shirt, thus enabling… what exactly? Enabling the circle of exploitation and slavery to go on? The problem is that the taxi driver is a member of my affluent society, informed about his rights, protected by the basic legal framework of my society, who has voluntarily agreed to provide his services to me. None of these are true for the children working in a clothes factory in South Asia. They are members of a poor society, in which survival is not automatically guaranteed. They are not informed about any rights, because they don’t have any, they are not protected by any enforced laws, they surely don’t work all day voluntarily, and they get only a tiny fraction of what I pay for that shirt, which is little enough.
Here is how Peter Singer describes the thought experiment of the drowning child:
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 I should not do what I ought to do. (Singer)
We can probably agree with Singer’s students. Now the question is, why don’t we act in the same way towards children in poorer countries, whose lives are also threatened, and whom we could also save with a very small (for us) sacrifice, say, a donation of a few dollars to some international charity. Does it really matter whether the child is in front of us in that pond, or whether it is half a world away? It’s not like we would have to travel there. There are many trustworthy charities that would gladly take and distribute our money to the needy. Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment leads us to the one, inescapable question:
Why don’t we act?
How far goes my duty to further the wellbeing of others? Do I have to check every one of my dozens of daily transactions to make sure that I’m not taking advantage of anyone in a faraway country? And what about the transactions I cannot exercise any control over? What if my government exploits the citizens of another country in order to provide affordable goods and services to me? This was the basic idea behind colonial empires, and it still is, in many parts of the world, only today it’s called foreign aid policy. Am I responsible for that, too?
It’s hard to say, and it would often be unreasonable to hold an individual responsible for the actions of a government they might not even know about. But to stay with the question we asked at the beginning: how much of a good behaviour would be good enough? What does it really mean to be good in a global society?
Peter Singer’s drowning child example shows that we must be held responsible. He writes:
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.
Let us then try to expand our consciousness, just a little bit, in this direction. Perhaps the next time you want to buy a shirt, don’t go for the cheapest one. Look for a reputable company that does not use child labour. When you buy a cup of coffee, give a couple of dollars more for a fairtrade one. It is just a matter of training ourselves to look at the other end of that supply chain, and the people who give their lives to make ours possible.
Thanks for reading! Cover photo by Dazzle Jam from Pexels