The drowning child: is it ethically wrong not to donate to charity?

In chapter one of ‘The Life You Can Save’ by Peter Singer, he starts off with the introduction of his much-debated analogy of the Drowning Child, which was first mentioned in his essay ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ in 1971.

In this, Singer introduces us to a scenario: imagine that you are on your way to work. Passing by a park, you see a small toddler about to drown; there are no other people around. If you do not save him, he will die. If you do, you will ruin your clothes and be a few hours late for work. What do you do?

Our instinctive response is, of course, to save the child. After all, how can the value of a few pieces of clothing and the consequences of being late to work possibly compare to the value of a child’s life?

However, as Singer argues throughout the chapter, that seems to be precisely what we are doing.

In another example Singer gives us, a boy in Ghana dies of measles. This leads us to question whether he was killed by measles or poverty. After all, he could have been cured, but his family’s poverty meant that they couldn’t afford the healthcare we have access to; if one of us Carthusians contracted measles, there would be a very low chance of death.

In giving us two stories or analogies, we may come to realise that we seem to hold double standards towards saving others.

In the case of the drowning child, it seems fair to assume that most of us would save the child even if it meant getting our new, expensive clothes dirty. In fact, if we do not save the drowning child, we would be condemned by society. Yet, the cost of those same pieces of clothing we would hypothetically be willing to ruin to save the drowning child may have been used to save many children like the boy that died of measles in Ghana (after all, organisations such as Oxfam or UNICEF, which aim to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life in such poverty-stricken places, could save more lives if they had more funds). However, not donating to charity is, by contrast, not considered to be all that immoral. Does the fact that the boy in Ghana was not dying right in front of us really leave us less responsible for him than for the drowning child? If all lives are equal, then surely there is no difference between saving the child right in front of us, and the one continents away.

Like the drowning child, he was someone we could have saved, and at little cost
to ourselves.

Jenny Li (W)