Drowning children

By Eric Crampton 26/08/2015


Jason Brennan says Singer’s standard requires too much.

Recall that, in Singer’s thought experiment, if you’d be willing to ruin your $500 iPhone by jumping into a pool to save a drowning child, you should also be willing to spend $500 to save a child’s life. Since there are plenty of charities in the third world that can save lives at fairly low cost, people are not consistent if they would do the former but do not do the latter.

Jason ably points out a problem:

But the central problem with Singer’s thought experiment is that it is *not* analogous to the situation we find ourselves in. In Singer’s drowning child thought experiment, I save one life at some personal expense, and then move on with my life. I don’t remain in perpetual service to others.
What Singer needs, for his thought experiment to be an actual analog of our current situation, is something like this:
Many Drowning Children
You’re walking alone one day, when you come across millions of drowning children. The children you save will for the most part remain saved, though some might fall back in. However, no matter how many you save, there will always be more about to drown. You can spend your entire waking life pulling children out of pools.
Singer’s entire argument rests upon people’s moral intuitions in the One Drowning Child. But One Drowning Child doesn’t do the work he needs it to do, because One Drowning Child isn’t analogous to the situation Singer thinks we actually find ourselves in. Instead, what Singer needs to do is determine what people’s moral intuitions are in Many Drowning Children. Even if you judge you must save the one child in One Drowning Child, you might not judge that you must dedicate your life to, or even spend a huge amount of time on, saving children in Many Drowning Children.
Note that I am not claiming that Singer’s conclusions are wrong, just that his argument for those conclusions doesn’t succeed.

I’m reminded of a time I was walking our then four year old to daycare. We came upon an earthworm on the sidewalk. The rain had ended and the worm would likely die without intervention. We picked up the worm and put it onto the lawn. Then we turned the corner and saw several hundred worms on the sidewalk. She prepared to start picking them all up, and I instead brought her on to daycare. There are only so many hours in a day.