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

263 thoughts on “The Drowning Child

  1. Fundamentally the two cases are the same, the only difference being that the drowning child is right in front of you and, therefore, has your immediate attention. It is far too easy to ignore the distant child and then justify your lack of attention afterwards.

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  2. First off, thank you for the nice word about my stuff. Secondly, and more important, i would like to think i asked the same questions as you when i was your tender age. However, i didn’t. Well done girrrl. continue…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You have a lovely blog, Saania! ๐Ÿ˜€ You’re right, if the drowning child is right in front of us most of us would do something to save her. Unfortunately, many people have become cynical about charities, because many of them had been dishonest and had misappropriated funds. :/

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  4. If you can away from the child drowning in front of you, how much easier to turn away from the starving child on the other side of the earth! For me, the simple thing to do is try and save the one I can, no matter where they are. I may not be able to save them all, but I can save those I can.

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  5. This is a very interesting way of looking at childhood poverty and how we can help others. I have not heard of this Thought Experiment before but I really like it. There are so many people at home and around the world that are suffering and dying in silence that we can help. I am going to do some research on Peter Singer so I can put something in my church newsletter about this.

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  7. I’ve just fallen in love with your blog!!! You touch on some very interesting points which make me think long and hard about life. I would dive in and save the child in a heart beat, but my selfish side says why not take the shoes off first? Basically it’s a dilemma between self preservation and acts of kindness because I know that it is ultimately my own responsibility to look after myself since no one else will do it for me. Not sure if it is possible to have it both ways though.

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  8. You can do both, if you can swim, and if you have the means to help monetarily. It’s funny you mentioned shoes. During the Serb/Bosnian/Croat War, when I was communicating with friends in Bosnia, who were suffering badly, I asked them, “What do you need?” They replied, “Shoesโ€”the children need shoes.” (It was wintertime, and it was cold). I shipped about two dozen pairs of shoes, of varying sizes for children. I have no idea if the shoes ever made it to the intended people (I mailed them to an aid organization), or if they were pilfered by post office thieves, which happens a lot, in every country. I just hope some children, any children over there, benefited from the shoes I sent. This is a very good post, thanks for spending the time on it. : ^)

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  9. If this child was my child, I’d feel the utmost responsibility to rescue them from drowning. If I knew of another child who belonged to another pair of parents, and that child was drowning, I’d ask, “Where are that child’s parents to rescue him/her?”

    As in, I shouldn’t be the one to do the job that someone else should be doing.


  10. When something happens right infront of your eyes, itโ€™s more believable. In the current world where a lot of scams are there taking advantage of the good, I personally am a little skeptical about being generous unless I can see it directly or find its from a trustworthy source.


  11. If everyone helps the people nearest them, no one would go without help. And before jumping into water to rescue a drowning child, make sure you know what you’re doing (because if you don’t, you could both drown), and kick your shoes off, no matter if they’re expensive or not.


  12. One argument for not giving to global charities is that you never really know how much if any of your money actually goes to the purported remedy. Too often hypocritical organizers take the lion’s share of funds to maintain a ‘do-goody’ persona pasted on top of upper-middle-class, jet-set lifestyles. Even worse, in some countries, local crimelords misappropriate donation dollars, foodstuffs, and medical supplies for their own twisted purposes.

    You are a young person and probably still a bit starry-eyed due to your youthfulness. That is wonderful and we need optimists. But true philosophers see as many sides as possible… ๐Ÿ™‚


  13. Something to make me ponder! This experiment makes me think of a conversation I had with mom last night. I wrote a long blog post about it this morning, but wondering if it’s too long. Have a wonderful day, Saania!


  14. Saving the drowning child in front of you gives an immediate solution we can see. Sending money to an overseas charity comes with the risk of not knowing if the money/food is going directly into that child’s mouth or to fund some “executive committee.”


  15. Explosive Shoes aren’t nice. But I’m always saying, teaching first help: You have to be save. First look, then call help (everyone has a phone) – then decide. Especially a drowning one, a child too, ist dangerous, is taking you down with him, her, it. Do it only, if you are a very trained swimmer – otherwise (I would! I’m not a very good swimmer) wait a little while. He, she, it will be slow and silent. Then go, then swim! That’s rescue.
    For danger you don’t need explosive shoes.
    Yes, I remember sometime I was in the situation. Swimming with my own child threw the danube. I know, what I’m saying. And yes, I wasn’t waiting. My child, you know. If I think back, breathing fails.


  16. I think it’s an issue of scale. I can save a drowning child; I can’t save the world.

    There’s a scene in the old TV show M*A*S*H where the main character, Hawkeye, talks about how hard the world’s problems seem, but if we all focus on making the patch of life around us better, then the world does get better.

    As always, the trick is getting everyone to buy in. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ


  17. hmmm… very interesting moral dilemma! it does seem like there is not one that is more morally right to save, they are both kids that he has the ability to help. however, there is the possibility that the guy saving the drowning girl was the only guy around who knew how to swim and help her, whereas a lot of people have the ability to donate to charity. thus, he has a greater moral obligation to save the drowning child as he is the only one with the ability to do so!


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