Monday, 21 May 2018

The Ethical Structure vs the Drowning Child

This is the second in what I hope will become a series of short(ish) articles in which I address ethical problems and dilemmas from the perspective of the Ethical Structure – as introduced in the Morality as Playing Games series.


In Peter Singer’s drowning child scenario, you are on your way somewhere when you pass a shallow pond or in which a child is drowning.  You can quite safely rescue the child but if you do so you’ll be mildly inconvenienced and you may ruin your clothes.  Should you rescue the child?  It’s a small cost to you but you save a life.  You’d have to be a moral monster to walk past the pond and let the child die.

Compare that to a child dying in Africa due to war or famine or malaria (sadly enough, there’s always at least one trouble spot or another).  You could dip into your wallet, extract a few dollars (a small cost to yourself) when passing a chugger and save a life.  Are you a moral monster for failing to do so?

Perhaps you might think that a few dollars won’t save a life, that too much disappears in administrative costs. GiveWell suggested in 2015 that at about $US3,300, you could save a child’s life.  It’s true that that’s a lot of money to take out of your wallet, and it’s rare that you come across a child drowning in a lake while children die in Africa at a rate of about 6 million a year (only counting those under five) – that’s more than 16 thousand a day, or 679 an hour or 11 a minute.  Not all of these die of malaria, of course, which is what you will be preventing with your $US3,300.

But if you put away $US13 a week then you could save a child every five years, which is more frequently than you could reasonably expect to save a child from drowning, unless you are lifeguard or spend your time lurking around pools and ponds.

Are you a moral monster for failing to put aside such a small amount of money?

Peter Singer would have it that you are.  If you are a well-to-do sort, who easily spends an extra $US10,000 on a car than you really need to, because it’s styled as a sports car, and you update your car every three years, then you are letting a child die each year that you could have saved.  If you waste money on a holiday, you are effectively killing a child, if you buy expensive meals, or wine, or jewellery, you are effectively killing a child.  And you should feel guilty.

The thing is, we don’t really.  Or not many of us do.  There’s a huge difference between an abstract child in a foreign land who we might or might not be able to save with our malaria nets, or our donation of a goat, or our supply of medicines and the child drowning right there, in front of us.

To walk away from a child we know to be drowning and we know could be saved would make us a moral monster.  To fail to hand over money to someone who may or may not use that money to buy something that may or may not be given to a child who may or may not die without it does not make us a moral monster.

A variant of the drowning child scenario has you on your way to an important job interview with no time to spare and you’re in your best clothes, which are worth more than $US3,300 (or the clothes and lost work opportunity combined are worth more than $US3,300).  As a utilitarian, you could say that the best option is to let the child drown and commit to giving money to an effective charity that will save another child for you.  But you won’t, because that child drowning in front of you is visceral.  If you let her drown, you are a moral monster.

Because this is a thought experiment, we can fiddle with the knobs and consider a situation in which saving the child will cost you as much as saving five other, distant children (who you can save with total certainty).  And because you’re such an ethical person, you’re actually on your way to save those five.  If you stop to save the one, the five will die.

This is basically the trolley problem in reverse.  You have the opportunity to switch metaphorical tracks to put the metaphorical trolley on a path to kill five, but you save one in the process.  You’d be a moral monster if, in the trolley problem, you deliberately killed five to save one (well, unless it was your mother, maybe – but there’s a fair chance your mother won’t be happy about surviving in that context).

But … the child is drowning in front of you and the others are distant.  Chances are, you’ll save the drowning child.  Why is that?


In terms of the Ethical Structure, it’s entirely clear that you “should” save the drowning child and you have no obligation whatsoever to save a distant child – at least unless you are in the company of Peter Singer acolytes.

Survival is the name of the game and whatever action (or inaction) you decide on, it must promote your survival.  A cost to you with little or no benefit does not promote survival.  Therefore, shelling out a largish sum of money to save a child you will never see and no-one will really know you saved is not efficient.  Even if you intend to give the money away somehow, you’d be better of spending it close to home to show your neighbours what a good person you are.

The drowning child on the other hand is a perfect opportunity for you to demonstrate your worth.  Now, you might have noticed that I have at no point indicated that there is anyone around to see your heroics and in fact there is an implication that isn’t (because they could save the child allowing you to save your clothes).

Even if there is no-one to see you abandon the child, you’d still (in terms of the Ethical Structure) have an ethical imperative to save her.  This is because an essential part of the concept of the Ethical Structure is that you survive, up to and including the need to be able to betray others before they do when it comes to the crunch.  The more trustworthy you are, the less likely you are to be betrayed by other trustworthy people, so you are in a sort of arms race of trustworthiness signalling.

There is only person who is 100% committed to signalling your trustworthiness and that person has to be utterly convinced that you are trustworthy, so that the lie can be told convincingly – and that person is you.   For this reason, you will convince yourself that you are the type to save a drowning child even if no-one is there to laud you for it, because you want to be the sort of person who will save a drowning child and not the sort of person who others would likely choose first to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the group.


The above might sound awful, the idea that we might only save a child for selfish reasons, but the positive from it is that selfish motives can push us towards prosocial actions.  The drowning child doesn’t care much whether the person saving her is acting selfishly or selflessly, so long as she is rescued from harm.

A follow-on question is how can Peter Singer’s good intentions be realised?  We all want to be taken to be good people (or recognised to be good people, if you prefer) but we are all selfish to a certain extent.  Very few of us are going to give up significant material comfort in order to maximise the number of lives we might save.  But we easily can be persuaded to be more selfish.

My suggestion therefore is to focus in on the benefits of an expanded circle of ethics.  In what ways can we benefit from preventing death in foreign places?  Singer has done some work already by pointing out the issue, making it possible for people to signal their worthiness by saving children from malaria in Africa (although there are diminishing returns as more and more people get on the charity boat, to the point where there will most certainly be freeloaders).  But I think we can go further. 

Lands in poverty are incubators of disease and discontent.  Wealthy people are less likely to comb the nearby jungle for bushmeat (a key vector for diseases like ebola).  Wealthy people are more likely to be educated and will understand the difference between a viral and a bacterial infection, so won’t take antibiotics in such a way as to promote the development of superbugs.  Wealthy, content people take fewer risks, they tend to prefer peace over war – they have more to lose.  We might not solve all problems by helping those less fortunate than ourselves, but there are definitely a raft of perfectly selfish reasons why we should have a go.