This post is a supplement to my previous post on Peter Singer’s argument on the life you can save.
Most of us would not hesitate to save a drowning child when there is minimal cost to us, but we do hesitate when giving to charity will produce the same effect. Borrowing a technique from Derk Pereboom, I give 5 scenarios and ask the interlocutor to point out the relevant difference.
- A person saves a drowning child by getting in the water, but he has to pay $20 to get his suit dry cleaned.
- A person can only save the drowning child nearby by pressing a button that will save the child, but pressing the button will charge $20 to his credit card. (It is a weird situation, but play along.)
- The same situation as (2), but this time you are watching the child on the other side of the world through a computer monitor.
- The same situation as (3), but this time you only get a text message confirming the saving.
- This time you donate $20 to a charity from a computer, which will save a child’s life. You get the reports of saved lives from a newsletter.
The idea is that most people will say that the person is obligated to save the child in situation (1), but somewhere along the line (I guess from (4) to (5)) the act turns from a mandatory obligation to a supererogatory act.
I suppose one difference between (4) and (5) is that there is no limit to what you have to give. In other words, your personal sacrifice will be never-ending. Why stop at $20? But we can rerun the thought experiment by modifying (1) to say that the drowning situation is reoccurring, and each time he will have to get his suit re-dry cleaned; and, again, ask the interlocutor to point out the relevant difference.