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How to think about a drowning child

A discussion about the relative merits of utilitarianism, universalism, and the ethics of saving a drowning child


The philosopher Peter Singer asks the following question: If you walk past a pond and see a child drowning, should you wade in and pull the child out, even if it ruins your clothes and makes you late to your first class?

If you’re familiar with Singer’s utilitarianism, you know where this argument is headed. Yes, we agree, we are morally obligated to save the child. Singer’s reply: “Would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost — and absolutely no danger — to yourself?” If we agree that it makes no difference, we are inconsistent: We say we would save the child in the pond, and we say that it doesn’t matter if the child is in a pond in front of us or across the world, yet we are doing nothing to save the child across the world. There are two situations in which we deem ourselves equally morally obligated to act, but we are inclined to act in only one of them.

In WH Lecky’s expanding circle of human concern, our concern for people starts with ourselves, and then expands to our family, our nation and eventually the world. Singer, citing Lecky, suggests that we who accept the moral equivalence of the dying child in another country and the dying child in front of us have already arrived at the final step of this expansion. We just need to translate our concern to action.

But if we’re not translating our concern to action, then it seems our concern hasn’t really expanded —we haven’t really been convinced by the argument. And we haven’t been convinced because Singer (in this thought experiment, at least) has skipped an important step.

If our interaction with such ethical ideas stops at a level where we are theoretically persuaded but disinclined to act (as it is apt to do if we never take another ethics course), we are not only unlikely to end up being the effective altruists Singer prizes, but to make no significant refinements to our ethical outlook at all.

I turn now to the step I think has been skipped over, radically shifting our focus from children drowning in ponds to children drowning in wells. This shift introduces a host of philosophically significant confounding factors that will deepen our understanding of what’s going on.

I’m kidding — it’s the same scenario. But let’s hear it now not from Singer, but from the fourth-century BCE Confucian Mencius.

“Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: Anyone in such a situation would have a feeling of alarm and compassion — not because one sought to get in good with the child’s parents, not because one wanted fame among one’s neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of the child’s cries” (Mengzi, 2A6).

Note that Mencius doesn’t say what one would do — he stops short at what one would feel. The consideration of our feeling is, I think, the step that Singer’s thought experiment glosses over.

Compassion, Mencius suggests, is one of the four “sprouts” of human goodness, which can be nurtured into an ethical life. But of course such nurturing does not happen automatically, and Mencius realizes well the problem of translating feeling into action. In another story (1A7), a king sees an ox being led to sacrifice. “I can’t bear its frightened appearance,” the king says. “Exchange it with a sheep.”

A sheep is smaller and less valuable than an ox, so the commoners are understandably upset. As Mencius observes, the king’s feelings of pity extend to the ox that he sees, but not the sheep it is exchanged for, nor the commoners who are harmed by his choice.

When the king asks him what to do, Mencius’s solution to this foretells Lecky’s circle of concern: Extend the reach of your feelings from one’s elders to one’s children to the children of others, and then eventually to the whole world.

But how do you “extend” a feeling like compassion or alarm? Your alarm at the child in the well is in no small part due to its salience, it’s “right-in-front-of-you”-ness, and it would take either an enviable imagination or a steady diet of documentaries to sustain this alarm or compassion across the world.

I mention a steady diet of documentaries in jest, but it points at an answer: Our basic ethical feelings must be extended by making more things salient to us. The suffering of the ox was salient to the king, that of the sheep was not, and so the king could ignore it. The suffering of the child in the pond/well is salient to us, but not that of the child across the globe, or even perhaps the hungry child of our custodial staff.

The king in Mencius’s story, to his credit, has a genuine interest in extending his ethical intuitions. Many of us, I suspect, are less interested — for fear perhaps of getting ourselves into a situation in which we feel compelled to do something drastic like giving away most of our money — which we really don’t want to do. So we avoid Singer’s argument and comfort ourselves by reading critiques of utilitarianism and effective altruism. We avoid getting ourselves close to knowing about things that might compel us to change our lives.

I’m not presenting an argument for effective altruism — my aim is much more modest. I want to suggest that, regardless of how our ethical intuitions might expand into more full-fledged ideas of morality and justice, we need to be genuinely interested in extending the scope of our basic ethical feelings — our feeling of alarm at the child in the well, for instance.

And instead of a logical expansion like Singer’s, we might be better served by somehow bringing injustice, inequality, and suffering right in front of our awareness. That is, we might try to make them more salient to us — so that they engage our feelings as vividly as the child in the well, move us just as powerfully and perhaps lead us to action.


Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’

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Adrian Liu '20 is Editor of Opinions. Previously, he was Editor of Opinions in Volume 257. He lives in Sacramento.