‘Drowning Child Scenario’ Exposes Moral Hypocrisy — Part I

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Feb 17 · 5 min read

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.

Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

The first of two articles on how moral intensity analysis doesn’t always lead to ethical outcomes.

The drowning child scenario is a moral thought experiment created by renowned bioethicist and philosopher Peter Singer. Singer created the scenario to demonstrate what truly moral behavior would look like in a principled society. A consequence of this scenario — intended or not — was to reveal how virtually everyone in modern industrialized society leads an indefensibly unethical life.

The drowning child scenario consists of a series of questions that are designed to test the moral compasses of respondents and force serious introspection. The order of the questions is not as important as the underlying implications. Here is a rough version of the scenario to try on yourself.

As the name suggests, the scenario puts you on your way to somewhere when you happen upon a child drowning in a lake. And the first question is: Would you try to save the child?

Most people of course answer yes. But then several circumstances and conditions are added to test your moral integrity.

If You Try to Save the Child, There Will Be a Cost to You

First, you are told that if you try to save the child, there will be a cost to you. Suppose, for example, that there is no time to empty your pockets or get undressed. So if you enter the water to save the child you’ll ruin your clothes and the cell phone in your pocket. Would you still make this sacrifice to help the child?

Most people still say yes. Next, you’re told that you’re with a group of people, say five of your friends. All of them are unwilling to help this child, and they suggest that you stand down as well. They argue that you weren’t the one to put the child in peril and therefore it isn’t your problem. Would you still try to help the child?

Again, most people say yes.

Next, you’re told that last week you happened upon a different child who was also drowning, and you saved that child. So your friends tell you that you’ve already done plenty of good in saving the first child. Would you still try to save this second child?

Yes again? OK.

If You Try to Save the Child, There Is Only a 50 Percent Chance You’ll Be Successful

Then you’re told to assume that, if you try to save this child, there is only a 50 percent chance that you’ll be successful. In other words, it might work, but the child is far out in the lake, and there is a fair probability that you won’t get to him in time. Would you still try to save the child?

Another yes? Alright.

Now you’re told to assume that the child is not an American. This is the point where we depart from realism a bit, but humor it for the sake of the experiment. Suppose you saw on the nightly news that the government was looking for some illegal immigrants, and you happen to recognize one of them as the child drowning in the lake. Would you still try to save that child?

Most compassionate people would still say yes.

The final question changes the facts slightly, and it is perhaps even less realistic in context, but it will serve an equally important purpose in the end. Suppose that rather than happening upon a child yourself, you are out shopping. You suddenly get a call from a friend who tells you that he is at a lake watching a child drown. He says he can’t swim but you can help save the child if you race over there now. You will do so if you trust your friend’s account enough to act on faith.

Again, never mind more obvious solutions like calling 911; just assume for the sake of the scenario that you are the closest person who can help. But you can’t see the child and all you have to go on is the phone call from your friend. Do you still try to help?

Most people answer “yes” to all the questions in the drowning child scenario. And here, at the end, is where the thought experiment reveals its point, however painful it may be for most people to absorb.

Every Few Seconds, a Child Dies Due to a Preventable Cause or a Treatable Disease

We know that every few seconds a child dies somewhere in the world due to a preventable cause such as hunger or a treatable disease. We also know that just a few dollars donated to a worthy charity can save the life of one of these children by providing basic food, clean drinking water, vaccines and medicines.

So if you did indeed answer “yes” to every question in the scenario, the only conclusion is that you should be offering every resource at your disposal to help children dying around the world, just short of what you yourself need to support the survival of you and your family.

This means that, in theory, all the money you spend on movie tickets, new clothes, haircuts, cell phones, TVs and all other non-essentials should, according to your own answers to the questions of the drowning child scenario, go to help dying children. And if you don’t do this, you’re not living a life consistent with the moral principles you claim to espouse.

I use this thought experiment a lot in the college classes I teach. The mental gymnastics that occur after unveiling the conclusion are always entertaining. Many students tend to recoil. They take personal offense at the perceived insinuation that they are not “good people.” Then they proceed to deploy a list of defenses to try and rebut the claim and vindicate themselves.

It should be noted that the drowning child scenario is not intended to be a tool for passing judgment about how “good” a person is. But insofar as the rebuttals are concerned, the genius behind this thought experiment is that it is precision-engineered to preempt all of the most common defenses.

In the second part of this article, we’ll examine how most excuses for not donating everything one can afford to charity fail in the face of the drowning child scenario.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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