Singer’s Dilemma : Would You Rescue the Child?

Imagine a pleasant evening. You are dressed in your favourite clothes, and are on your way to attend your friend’s wedding reception. On the way to the reception you have to cross a bridge. As you are about to get on to the bridge you see, what appears to be a child’s head and shoulders, in the water below. And after a moment, you also notice him thrash the water wildly for a few seconds. You slow down instinctively – realizing that he is drowning; and that being an adult you can rush in and rescue him without risking your life.

However, if you were to do this, you would completely ruin your clothes, your mobile phone and other valuables you may have with you. Would you still rescue the child?

Now, say one of your close friends tells you that she was once in the same situation, and she chose to walk away from the drowning child – who, she knew, would die – because she did not want to ruin her clothes and phone. What would you think of this person?

Imagine a second scenario now. You are headed to a store inside a huge mall – you feel the TV you bought 2 years back has become ‘outdated’; there are some new features available in the latest models, and you wish to buy one of those. However, as you are about to enter the store, you see an advertisement put up by a very well-regarded NGO, saying that by donating Rs. 25,000 you will not just save 2 children (who would otherwise die because of extreme-poverty related illnesses) but also pay for their education for 3 years.

Would you give your money to the NGO? Or, say you were accompanying a close friend to the store; and she ignores the advert and chooses to buy the new TV instead, what would you think of her?

If you are an average person, in the first scenario, you would perhaps think that it would be very wrong – inhumane perhaps – to not save the child (just so you do not ruin your clothes and other small belongings, which would not be worth more than a few days of your earnings). But in the second scenario, while your friend’s act may not have significantly boosted her esteem in your eyes; you would perhaps not blame her for choosing to buy a new TV for herself instead of saving 2 lives – Who doesn’t buy TVs after all?

So, here is something to consider: In the first scenario, even though there was more effort and, let’s say equal financial ‘loss’ involved; we would almost certainly expect ourselves (and others) to save that one child’s life. In the second scenario, however, most of us would think that it is okay for one to spend money on the latest luxury good; and not save the lives of 5 children (whose lives could be saved using that same money, and with perhaps lesser personal effort on one’s part).

The two scenarios described above illustrate a moral problem which was made famous by an Australian moral philosopher, named Peter Singer (see his paper The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle). That this moral problem exists (or in other words, that our responses would be as contradictory as described above, in such scenarios), is something hardly anyone objects to.

But, why, is this the way most of us think? What causes us to brand the first (person’s) behavior as inhumane or even monstrous; and the second (person’s) as ‘normal’?

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