Would you lose $500 to save a drowning child? We explore a thought experiment that just may save someone’s life.
Imagine you’re walking to work in the morning down a quiet rural road to the side of the road there’s a pond and pass by every day. Only today, something is different. Today you see a small child in that pond.
He is alone, he’s flailing his arms, and if you don’t act quickly it looks like he is going to drown. Luckily, the pond is shallow. You can wade in, grab the child, and bring him to safety without putting yourself in any danger at all.
Unluckily, you’re wearing a very expensive set of clothes, and there just isn’t enough time to take them off. So even though saving the child is perfectly safe, it is going to cost you at least $500 to replace your suit and shoes. There’s no one else around, so the decision is yours alone to make.
Do you wade in, save the child, and ruin your expensive clothes? Or do you decide that $500 just too high a price to pay for the life of someone you don’t even know and walk on by.
If you’re like most people, the answer is obvious. Of course you save the child. Anyone that would would let us small child die just to keep their nice clothes from getting wet would be a moral monster. As peter singer, the philosopher who originated this drowning child thought experiment argued, if you had the power to prevent something really bad from happening to someone else just by suffering something merely slightly bad yourself, then “taking the hit” is the right thing to do.
Now of course most of us will never come across a drowning child on her way to work but all of us do find ourselves living in a world where over six million children die each year from preventable causes. And while none of us have the power to help all of those children, almost all of us have the power to help some of them. By donating a small amount of money much less than $500 to an effective charity through a site like GiveWell.org, you could literally save someone’s life. But that brings up another question.
How do we make sure aid efforts do the most good and the least harm?
Matt Zwolinski is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego. He is also a co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy, a member of the editorial board of Business Ethics Quarterly, and a blogger for Bleeding Heart Libertarians.