(Nick’s Notes: With many thanks to my friend Jason Byas for his help in providing these links and feedback!)

Peter Singer (Sing-her? I hardly even know her!)

The situation is this:

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.
I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: 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? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

First off, what makes the child-drowning scenario so appealing for people to use?

It seems like it’s the uniqueness of the situation. The idea that this is an odd situation to occur and that if we didn’t do it then we’d have little reason to be able to defend our actions morally. But things like global poverty and disease and widespread effects of disease and all of the complicated reasons why the disease exists and not only exists but is widespread most likely isn’t going to be fixed by just giving money to charities. And some may argue  that the kids IQs will go up due to better nutrition because of better access to food, etc.

And even if it’s true that their IQ will rise this doesn’t necessitate better living conditions because the people with better IQs might still be systematically dis-privileged due to political powers. It would make sense given that often the people who are most affected by disease are the poorest of people and thus the people with the least amount of ability to fight back. Just being able to live won’t make a government’s despotism go away. It may make it less burdensom in some important ways but it doesn’t solve that issue.

Now, of course, giving these children more vitality in their life, improving their IQs, etc. are all praise-worthy things but by themselves they simply may not do much in the end to meaningfully change anything of their conditions. And even if you’d try to argue otherwise I suspect that in the end there’s no real way to say either way without engaging in idle speculation about many things that are simply outside our frame of reference.

Whereas with the child-drowning situation we don’t need to speculate about what’s going to happen if we save the kid or what our $5 gum will go too. But the level at which the third world charities are operating at are much larger.

As Bryan caplan argues:

Singer is quick to move from the moral obligation to rescue a Drowning Child to a moral obligation to rescue lots of strangers. But suppose we revise his initial hypothetical: Instead of one Drowning Child on a random day, there’s a new Drowning Child every day. Indeed, suppose there are Drowning Children as far as the eye can see, 24/7. What then? Now it seems clear that a policy of rescuing strangers is above and beyond the call of duty. And sadly, as Singer himself points out, this is the world we live in.

So it’s simply not practical to try and rescue all of the strangers or at least act as if the situations are comparable in scope or effort, they simply aren’t.

Or as Matt Zwolinski argues:

It’s reasonable to think that people have a moral obligation (even an enforceable one) to save any drowning children they come across because the expected cost this obligation imposes on any given individual is vanishingly low, while the expected social benefits are high. If, however, we held that people had the same obligation to rescue starving children abroad as they do to rescue drowning toddlers in ponds, then the costs to individuals would be immense. We can live a rich, normal life being fully committed to rescuing every single drowning child who crosses our path. A commitment to rescue every starving child in the world, in contrast, would consume our life.

There then seems like there isn’t any way to persuasively argue that people should dedicate their lives to what amounts to misery just because some other people aren’t having a good life themselves.

Given all of this it seems, arguably, times where, yes, spending the $5 is better than saving a child in the third world’s life.

Lastly, although it may be tempting to distance ourselves from “dirtying” our hands with poltical approaches, this view point seems to me to be a big negative here. Because what interacts with these charities as they try to distribute resources? Inevitably governments will. And moving away from analyzing how that organization will interact with the charities means opening yourself up to blind spots. Most noticeably it may mean that the $5 you donate could go to the charity and the kid fine but multiple things could happen after to nullify, deaden or even worsen their condition. The government could improperly distribute the resources if the charity has to give control over them, they may impose severe or even just multiple minor restrictions on the charity that make the $5 you spent a lot less effective than appreciating a good painting worth $5 that also goes to a starving artist who needs that $5 and it goes directly to them and so on.

In the end, these situations aren’t morally analogous as Singer and other utilitarians or consequentialists want to argue. The drowning child relies on the uniqueness of the situation while people suffering in the third world is like a 24/7 child-drowning problem. There’s no end in sight to this and consequentialism and utilitarianism seem to, in the end, want us all to suffer, so we can make a certain part of the world a (possibly) better place.

Part of the reason for this moral distinctiveness is that the child is uniquely dependent on my actions, the children in the third world are not. The child will live or die if I act/don’t act but the children in the third world may live, get better, the companies may figure something out, governments may make it so that donations do negligible good, the charity may be inefficient, there may be no good charity to pick from, etc. etc. etc. There are so many confounding factors to the third world country child in contrast to the child-drowning case that at this point it just seems intuitive which is makes more moral sense to do on a given basis.

David Boonin explains more about the unique dependence going on here:

The reason that your act of sending money to UNICEF does not provide uniquely directed aid is simple. When you send UNICEF some money, it does not treat the money as a discrete sum to be used for a discrete purchase to be given to a discrete individual. Rather, UNICEF adds the money to the other money that it already has. Having more money rather than less, in turn, has an effect not just on how it spends the particular amount of money it received from you, but also on how it spends some of the money it received from other people. And this, in turn, means that when you send UNICEF enough money to ensure that one fewer child dies prematurely, there is no particular child at whom your aid is uniquely directed.

You could argue the “perfect scenario” or “unique dependence” on the third world child but this is almost de facto impossible in practice due to the existence of the third party: the charity. This isn’t keeping into mind governments, competing companies or charities, culture, how much different this’ll actually do, etc. There are just too many variables for it to be a safe bet that’ll it’ll result in good consequences or be a useful heuristic.

Or as another commentator on the Bryan Caplan thread commented:

The fact is that foreign aid is very hard to orgsnize [sic]. There are big informational and/or incentive problems at every stage: in choosing a charity, in how the charity chooses projects, in how they deal with the governments of poor countries, in how they handle staffing, logistics, and compensation– and there may be a trade-off between competence and willingness to volunteer– and in creating special kinds of dependency among target populations and undermining communities’ traditions of self-reliance. I am not saying international private charity is bad, but that it is tenable that it does little good at the margin, perhaps such a small fraction of the initial value that you would help the world’s poor more by buying made-in-China trinkets.

Indeed, if I wanted to be snarky about it I could posit that the advocate in this situation is being a pretty bad utilitarian or consequentialist here.

Why? Well, because which situation is more likely to generate positive results or consequences at this point? The one with many confounding factors and intervening variables? Or the situation that has unique dependence involved in it? The one that’s a one-one relationships seems clearly more practical and morally relevant to us as individuals. While the third world child would probably be helped better than creating potential dependence systems (which charities could conceivably create) by systematically trying to change the way a society relates to itself.

This is, obviously, a much bigger practice and probably requires feet on the ground. But like I said, if you’re serious about something then I think it makes sense to go all in, rather than donate a measly $5.

This commenter in Bryan Caplan’s thread is actually making an argument against someone who I agree with but still manages to, overall, make a point in my favor:

If we’re going to start with moral intuition, I don’t think it makes sense to discard it when it becomes inconvenient. So let’s take the premise that we have an obligation to help that drowning child. The logical extension that we have a responsibility to help children in faraway countries dooms itself on practicality: it doesn’t scale very well. But I don’t think it makes sense to say that you then didn’t have the original obligation to help the drowning child. You can reconcile the two situations by saying that the person who holds that obligation is the one who is in the best situation to help. So I have an obligation to save the drowning child in front of me and some person in China has the obligation to save the drowning child in from of him in China. Then, the solution scales.

Indeed, the solution scales. But even in *that* situation the solution is more likely to be along the explicitly political lines than the allegedly (and I am suspicious of this allegation, for the record) “a-political” or “distantly political” act of funding charities in third world countries.

As mentioned before, you can’t get away from politics as an absolute rule, possibly not even as a useful heuristic. You can only grapple with it to some extent and I suspect distancing yourself and possibly even ignoring, aren’t the ways to deal with it effectively.

Finally, Singer makes a response to some of this:

At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.

Singer seems to be fundamentally missing the point here though. The cost is too high if it won’t have our intended effects. If we wish to save lives but it only prolongs the misery more is that a price worth paying even if it’s a low-cost endeavor? If enough money gets gouged up by the given charities overhead costs and only one child is saved instead of (say, for the sake of argument) we wanted five saved, is it still worth the low cost? In that case, perhaps. But the program surely isn’t doing it’s job and neither are our donations. It seems like then that there should be alternative ways to instigate more long-lasting and meaningful changes than relying on institutional ones.

There are also reasons of organizationalsim, institutions qua institutions, problems of high overhead mixed with knowledge and incentive problems that may strike at large firms in particular. This isn’t even including the problems with the non-profit industrial complex, problems with hierarchy and the list goes on and on.

The fact that there seems like so much going against the funding of these programs against the simple (in this scenario anyways) act of saving a drowning child makes the situation a lot more clear to me about which is more praise-worthy and why the two cases are morally distinct. I hope it’s helped shed some light on the situation for you as well.