Updated: Feb 6, 2022
In his 1972 article Famine, Affluence and Morality, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer posed a hypothetical scenario that has had a major impact on the world of moral philosophy. [i] The scenario describes the following situation: you are walking through a park near a shallow pond when you see a drowning child. If you do nothing to help him, he will drown. You can save the child by jumping into the pond, walking to him, and lifting him out of the water. If you do so, you will ruin your shoes and pants. Peter Singer asks us: do we have a moral obligation to save the child?
The answer to the question is quite obvious to everyone: yes, we have a moral obligation to save him. The sacrifice of spoiling our clothes is very small, and saving the child's life is clearly worth such a sacrifice. And even if there were other people around the pond, but not helping, this would not relieve me of my moral obligation to help and save the child.
Now let's imagine that this child is in the same situation, albeit a kilometer away. You are driving a car and you see the child drowning in the distance. But thanks to your car, the effort to save the child is exactly the same as if you saw it when you were walking. The most reasonable thing is to say that this distance does not exempt us from the moral obligation to help.
Singer continues his argument by mentioning that, in that case, we are accepting that making a small personal sacrifice is justified if the gain is large, such as saving someone else's life. Singer sums up this conclusion with the slogan: "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." [ii]
While the argument so far doesn't seem particularly interesting, accepting it has huge practical consequences and ramifications for behavior in our everyday lives, as we will see below.
This is because Peter Singer rightly points out that, in today's societies, we are in this shallow pond situation all the time, and yet the vast majority of people do nothing to help. Let's just think about how many people live in developing countries, like the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these people do not have access to basic resources such as food, water, or medicine. However, this situation has a solution, and millions of people could be lifted out of extreme poverty with our economic contributions, without involving a great personal effort for us.
While people in developing countries are not at the same distance as the hypothetical example of the boy in the shallow pond, this should be morally irrelevant to us. Although it affects us differently in terms of our psychological and visceral reactions, it should not affect the moral status of the person suffering. A person's rights don't disappear if they get further away from us. This is a principle of fairness, equality, or universality that is present in most acceptable ethical theories: all things being equal, physical distance is a morally irrelevant factor.
In the Effective Altruism movement, we think that the rise of globalization (world markets), international interconnectedness, and the possibility of global banking have radically changed the face of the Earth. Today, there are numerous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with projects in all developing countries, which can help others in a similar way that we could help the child in the shallow pond, if only we gave them more resources, such as money, to buy products that people may need. Those products range from food, water, medicine or materials, to hiring experts that can build infrastructure or push for new laws. Therefore, the argument that we are at a great distance from poor or needy people no longer works. We can help from a distance without great effort or personal cost. Today, with a credit card and a website, we have the possibility of saving other people's lives, wherever they might live. (See how here!)
Charitable organizations in different countries allow us to help others in very important ways. A small sacrifice to our lives, such as not buying the newest phone model, not buying a bigger television, not going on a vacation, with its associated travel and hotel costs, or abandoning a particularly expensive hobby, would allow a family or a small community to significantly improve their well-being, and in many cases save other people's lives.
But Singer's argument runs even deeper and is more provocative than this, as we have said that we have a moral obligation to help. Therefore, people who live without helping find themselves actually being ignorant or deceived about their moral duties towards others. We generally think of helping others as an act of charity. But, if Singer is right and the people who are not helping are in a situation analogous to someone who is not helping the child drowning in the shallow pond, they are committing the grave act of letting other people die by omission.
If the act is not merely charitable, but a moral obligation, we should radically change the way we view most people. Generally, charitable NGOs send a thank you letter to those who donate. But, according to this criterion of obligation, we should actually morally reproach the attitude of those who don't donate, while the people that are donating are simply fulfilling their moral obligation.
Those who waste money buying a new car, renovating their electronic devices when their current devices still work well, or buying an unnecessarily large or luxurious house, should be morally reproached by the majority of society for not fulfilling their obligations. Obligation to fulfill a moral duty that, deep down, is undemanding. We have a moral obligation to despise unnecessary consumption and give that money to people who can really use it for morally more important causes that really improve the world, such as the well-being of the neediest, marginalized, and forgotten.
Current international aid does not nearly correspond to or demonstrate the value we place on human lives. For example, governments currently give 0.2% and 0.7% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to Official Development Assistance (ODA). This can be interpreted in many ways, including:
a profound failure when it comes to prioritizing causes,
an immoral and selfish interest on the part of the developed world in not helping improve the living conditions of people in the less developed world,
not being aware of our moral obligations, and/or
a morally wrong and unacceptable criterion that considers the lives of local people as much more valuable than those outside the borders, despite the fact that those outside our borders are in situations of much greater need.
However, these facts have an explanation. Our categories of what is morally mandatory arose in a world that is deeply unjust. Justice systems are concerned with maintaining the status quo, and will not bring about a radical change in our societies without a social movement that supports it with insistence and vigor, as happened in the social movements of women's suffrage or the abolition of slavery.
People also have no great interest in promoting a new status quo where their immediate and selfish interests are undermined. Most people prefer to defend their privileges and luxuries, and not uphold moral principles that go against their own selfish interests. However, we should all make an effort to change the world for the better.
[i] Singer, Peter (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 229-243. The full article can be read here.
If you want to know more, you can also download Singer's book "The Life You Can Save" for free at The Life You Can Save website.