The Drowning Child

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who created a thought experiment called The Drowning Child, in 2009.

In this thought experiment, we imagine ourselves walking down the street. Suddenly, we notice a girl drowning in a lake. We have the ability to swim, and we are also close enough to save her life if we take action immediately. However, doing so will ruin our expensive shoes. Do we still have an obligation to save her?

Peterโ€™s answer to this question is yes. We do have a responsibility to save the life of a drowning child and price is no object. If we agree with him on this statement, it leads us to a salient thought-provoking question: If we are obligated to save the life of a child in need, is there a fundamental difference between saving one who is right in front of us and one on the other side of the world?

In his book, The Life You Can Save, Peter argues that there is no moral difference between a child drowning in front of you and one starving in some far off land. The cost of the ruined shoes in saving a drowning child is analogous to the cost of a donation in saving a starving child. And if the value of our shoes is irrelevant to us, the price of the charity should be irrelevant too. If we save the nearby child, we have to save the distant one too. He, in fact, even put his money where his mouth is, and started a program to make people donate to charities across the world.

There are definitely some arguments against this thought experiment. Most of them rely on the idea that a drowning child is in a different type of situation than a child who is starving in another part of the world, and that they require different solutions which impose different obligations.

Most of us would innately rescue a child drowning in front of us – it would be rather monstrous to compare a childโ€™s life to a pair of shoes! But how many of us really pay attention to charities? How many of us actually donate to charities? How many of us take a second to sympathise a child who is starving in a city overwhelmed with poverty? What is the difference?

โƒ SaaniaSparkle ๐Ÿงš๐Ÿปโ€โ™€๏ธ

164 thoughts on “The Drowning Child

  1. Your blog post is so thought-provoking as many others have said. Saania I am grateful you stopped by my blog so that I could find yours. I really like it and I’m glad we’ve now met! :). I look forward to reading more of your posts! โค๏ธ

    Liked by 6 people

  2. An interesting dilemma. Much to think about. The world is sagging due to overpopulation. Does that mean we should NOT help any child to survive? And then, are we, ourselves, worth more than another human anywhere?
    I love your blog because I took classes in philosophy and find it particularly interesting. Keep thinking….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The point of helping other less fortunate people on the other side of the world is well taken. The trick is to find the charities that do the most good because obviously we canโ€™t support them all. Here are two charities I recommend that do a very good job: Water First International and Plan USA.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. You know from very small, I was consumed with this kind of question in my mindโ€” how do people live, knowing that people are starving and dying? I’d see things on the news and it would traumatise me.

    I’d read novels, and factual books, and wonder in my mindโ€” how can the author put so much into creating a book such as this, which is such a luxury of time and resource to create, and yet everything they are talking about was enabled by having this immense about of luxury compared to what some other people have. I couldn’t reconcile the author’s obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness, with the fact that they were living in ignorance of these sufferings. That was my naive and innocent viewpoint!

    Of course, I came to realise that I was one of those people who’s destined to spend their life helping people, and most people simply don’t empathise this intensely. And for me, being the kind of person who needs things hands-on and the result of their efforts visible in front of them, I would have naturally got into things like volunteer lifeboat service, or going to some country and helping to build things. Knee injuries greatly restricted my options in life, but I’ve managed to start this current journey towards fulfilling my only goal of directly helping people. I just couldn’t function anymore without spending all of my energy on that, and I’m finding my way towards satisfying things that I can do within the physical limitations :).

    Anyway, I’d say the difference between those two scenarios is immediacy, and immediacy will always be more compelling to us, instinctively.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Love this post, very interesting indeed. I feel like that since the drawing girl is in sight, we are obligated to help regardless of the value of our shoes but since a child starving on the other side of the world is not seen, they are not seen. Out of sight, out of mind plays a factor in this!

    Also, I know I run a personal finance blog and our genres are different, but would you be open to having me on as a guest blogger and doing a post please?

    Liked by 4 people

  6. The later most people would turn a blind eye to because they canโ€™t see the starving child so out of sight out of mind. Also, the think someone will save them eventually. Let that countryโ€™s government take care of it. The drowning child is right there right now so people would react as it is right in front of them. To me, though there is a logistical difference, they are both going to die, just one in minutes, the other in days. And yes, my wife and I donate to those charities on subscriptions. We sponsor both US and international children. Canโ€™t save them all but at least if you help save a couple, it might inspire them to save their brothers and sisters when they grow up

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Toujours une recherche dans les rรฉflexions.
    Always research on the reflexion.
    Powerfull. Question on “what if…”.
    Maybe need in this time.
    This post can be an echo to the two precedent posts.
    What define us Human ?
    Illogical decision (Like Spock ๐Ÿ˜‰๐Ÿ˜) ?
    Or most human decision, save the child ?
    Research open ๐Ÿ˜‰…

    Miss G ๐Ÿ˜Š

    Liked by 2 people

  8. As a human being I should stretch my hand to someone who is struggling hard in front of me. It’s a duty of a every man and woman to save fellow citizens.

    Very nice thought. ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘

    Liked by 3 people

  9. This really pushes an individual to think, “What am I allowed to have…when my resources could save others?” The American Dream almost encourages us to buy the shoes (because we worked hard and earned it) and we think, “if the drowning kid had worked harder or taken swimming lessons they wouldn’t be in that mess.” The Self Made Millionaire storyline ignores the reality of community, teamwork, and helping one another.

    The other powerful question is, “What is a human life worth?” As a Christian the answer should be all human life is worth saving because Jesus died to save the world, but the church still struggles with self-centeredness that is common to all people.

    Powerful story and post.

    Liked by 6 people

  10. Balance is a concern in that everyone going has a sad sad story for my money. Also trying to be about my own future responsible for “mine” requires a whole lot of no, not at this time. Even if my heart bleeds for the tale. I thus avoid animal planet so I don’t hear “in the arms of the angels” again and realize so much of the generating of charity money is a paid business. Why must i pay som one 50k a year to go buy pet food for the animal shelter and their directors to organize awareness parties? That’s part of being old enough to have seen where some funds go. But, the point here is moral obligation or difference?

    No. There isn’t much difference in needs IF we see them.

    Liked by 7 people

  11. A hypothetical like this also comes up in law school and of course the legal answer, at least in countries whose system derives from English common law, is quite different from what might be the moral choice. If you should happen to follow your philosophical bent into the law, you may have future opportunities to ponder the question of to whom a legal duty is owed.

    Liked by 8 people

  12. When I see the food lines due to unemployment and folks not receiving stimulus checks– all because of this virus– that at least inspires me to donate to the local legitimate food banks. We’ve been lucky enough to receive a monthly income and put food on our own table. Providing food for one’s family is more important than paying bills. Can’t wait for normalcy again.

    Liked by 8 people

  13. It’s a good social theory, and I want it to be even better than it is. We are obligated to save a child in vital need, no matter where and if we have the means. And the truth is that we have the means. We might still lose our expensive shoes or the next pair we don’t buy so that we might contribute to children’s causes.

    I appreciate your citing and reviewing this theory. I often think of people who don’t have basic needs realized and how we (everyone else) should commit to a world law that mandates safe water, food, shelter, and education, yes, for children and for all.

    I hope you’re really well.

    Liked by 7 people

  14. Well, it is not surprising that we will sooner save a drowning child from us than we will send a donation to the foundation. Our world is full not only of people of good will, but also of cheaters, who make money on foundations. And unfortunately many of them don’t go to starving children. even if they send it to the government of a given country, the distribution of this good is different. We are afraid that our money will not go to bread for a poor child. Whoever has ever dealt with such activities knows how much fraud there is …, cunning … We also have another example, a woman sitting with a child on the sidewalk asks for money for a child or a dog. Because and animals are used for this. A man drives up later and takes the money, what do you think? It is not easy with this help. And drowning, if you give him a hand, then he is definitely a salvage man, not a rich man with a fat belly. You know that your effort really goes to this child. Hence we have dilemmas, what to do?

    Liked by 7 people

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