Peter Singer on the life you can save

Here is a summary of Peter Singer’s argument for why we should give more to charity.

Imagine a person walks by a shallow pond, and sees a baby drowning with no one but himself to save her.  He realizes that he could save the baby without risk to his own safety, since the pond is only waist deep.  On the other hand, saving the baby would require him getting in the cold pond plus the pond will ruin his shoes and he will have to get his suit dry cleaned.  Suppose this person decided not to save the baby, because it’s not his responsibility: he didn’t push the baby in; he’s not the father of the baby; the baby has nothing to do with him; and it’s not worth the inconvenience of getting his clothes wet.

Now pretty much everyone would consider this person to be a moral monster.  The person is responsible simply by being in that situation; and the good of saving the child far outweighs his inconveniences.   While this pond situation will probably never happen to any of us, an analogous situation to this is happening to us right now.  There is a child’s life you can save at a modest cost to yourself.  Millions of children die each year from lack of food, water, or basic health care.  A modest donation to agencies, like UNICEF or Oxfam, from a middle class person would have a high probability of saving a child’s life in a developing country.

The question is: if it’s wrong for the person not to save the drowning baby, isn’t it also wrong not to save the child in a developing country?   Why should distance matter?  In this day and age we can send aid to the other side of the world without having to leave our chair.  While it’s true that saving a drowning baby in front of you would feel psychologically different than saving a child by entering your credit card number from your computer, if you consider the situation from a rational stand point, it is morally analogous.  Donating to charity is not just a supererogatory act, but it is an ethical requirement.

Suppose some economist figured out that if every middle class person gave 1% of their income, then that would be enough to save most of the lives that could be saved in this way.  Based on this, a person might reason that if he gave 1% to charity, then he would be fulfilling his responsibility since he did his share.   But, let’s go back to the pond example.  Imagine there were actually ten children in the pond, and ten adults standing by.  Suppose half the adults did nothing, and you saved one child.  Would you think that you didn’t need to save the other children because you did your share?

So there’s the summary of his argument.  I find it to be a very strong argument.  I don’t think there is a substantive difference between a person ignoring a drowning baby in front of him, and the average middle class person that doesn’t give to charity.  The only difference is that maybe the middle class person hasn’t reflected on an argument like this.

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