‘Drowning Child Scenario’ Exposes Moral Hypocrisy — Part II

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Feb 21 · 6 min read

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

Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

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

In part I, I introduced Peter Singer’s “drowning child scenario” and explained that it is designed to reveal moral hypocrisy at work in first-world societies. The moral conclusion to be drawn from the scenario is that people with disposable income should be donating as much of it as possible — everything that one can afford — to charities in order to help those who are at risk of dying from preventable causes.

People tend to resist this claim, however, and invoke all kinds of reasons why they don’t accept the premise. But the drowning child scenario is specifically designed to cut the legs out from under these common defenses. Let’s review how.

Some Argue that They Can’t Afford to Give to Charities that Help Dying Children

First, some argue that they can’t afford to give to charities that help dying children. But in the scenario, they said they would gladly sacrifice their clothes and cell phone to try to save the child. This was the “imminence of harm” moral intensity factor. If you have a cell phone in your pocket right now, this is evidence that you could, hypothetically, afford to help more than you do.

Some argue that they don’t give to charity — or they don’t give more — because others don’t give at all. This is the “consensus of opinion” moral intensity factor. But in the scenario, our respondent — you — said you would help the child notwithstanding the fact that your friends were unwilling to help. In fact, they even urged you not to help, and you ignored their advice.

Others argue that their moral position is solid because they already give some money to charities. But in the scenario, you acknowledged that you would help the drowning child even though you had saved another child the previous week.

Assuming this holds true no matter how many children you’ve rescued, you’re still claiming a moral prerogative to help the next child you encounter. In other words, unless there is a point at which you would say “I’ve helped enough children and I will let the next one die,” this argument fails.

Others Argue that They Don’t Give to Charity because They Don’t Know If It Will Help

Others argue that they don’t give to charity because they don’t know if it will help. This is the “probability of harm” moral intensity factor. It is a very common argument. Usually it comes in the form of an all-too-often deserved criticism of charities that spend more of their contributions on executives’ salaries and frivolous purchases than they do on the worthy causes they purport to serve.

However, in the scenario you were asked if you would still try to help the drowning child notwithstanding the fact that you have only a 50 percent chance of success, and you said you would.

In other words, even if the odds of your efforts being effective came down to the flip of a coin, you still said you would try. So the claim that you don’t give to charities because you can’t be sure your contributions would actually help holds no water.

Besides, if this really were the only concern preventing you from helping dying children, there would be an obvious alternative solution: You could get on a plane, fly to a third-world country and help them yourself. But of course, the money you’d spend on your own travel would reduce the amount going to help the children.

The Concept of Organized Charities Is to Make Efficient Use of Mass Contributions

The concept of organized charities is to make efficient use of mass contributions from the many donors who participate. Each person can ultimately decide whether he or she trusts charities so little that they would rather do it themselves. But one thing is for sure: failing to do either leaves one with no moral footing whatsoever.

It’s also argued by some that they don’t give to charities that help children abroad because they’d rather help Americans first. Patriotism is understandable and even admirable in some circumstances.

In principle, an American life has no less value than a non-American one, so there is no objective moral argument to be made against this choice. But this defense requires that you already give every penny of your disposable income to charities that focus on American welfare; that’s pretty unlikely.

Even if that were true, in the drowning child scenario you said that you would help the child even though he might be an illegal immigrant. So declining to help because “America first” is not a defensible position.

Some Argue They Don’t Give because They Can’t Trust the Claims about People in Peril

Finally, some argue that they don’t give because they can’t trust the claims made about people in peril whom they don’t know and can’t see. This is the “proximity to harm” moral intensity factor. In the scenario you were asked if you would drive across town to save a child based on nothing more than a phone call from a friend.

Granted, you could argue that you trust your friend more than you would a stranger making claims about people in peril. But given the overwhelming evidence of starvation and disease around the world — turn on a TV on any given day and you’re virtually guaranteed to see commercials with real video and pictures of such circumstances — it’s a far stretch to question whether these things are really happening.

Notwithstanding the apparent hypocrisy revealed by the drowning child scenario, most people in first-word societies spend most of their disposable income on creature comforts, not on saving the lives of truly desperate people. And just so this article is not perceived as a kind of holier-than-thou admonishment, I freely admit that I am just as guilty as anyone else in 21st-century America. I enjoy my clothes, my car, my house, my cell phone and all the other amenities that make first-world living more comfortable. So if hypocrisy is on the docket, I stand squarely with the rest of the accused.

But where does that leave us? Is the drowning child scenario just an exercise in human guilt? Is it nothing more than a tool designed to make us feel bad about ourselves and the selfish decisions we make? Speaking only for myself, I think there’s more to it than that.

As I said in Part I, the drowning child scenario is not a measuring stick for assessing how “good” people are. Granted, guilt is certainly an understandable feeling in the aftermath of this thought experiment. But I also think the drowning child scenario is a way for us to understand our biases and self-serving tendencies.

I don’t think it’s likely to compel many people to suddenly disavow their own lifestyles and turn to lives of selfless sainthood. But I think it serves as a “bucket of cold water” that we may need from time to time in order to recognize what’s really going on in the world, assess what’s really important, and recalibrate our moral compasses accordingly.

I know that after first discovering the drowning child scenario as a student, its conclusions persuaded me to increase the amount that I give to various charities. To be fair, I still don’t give all that I absolutely could and I’m still not perfectly comfortable with that.

Each time I discuss the drowning child scenario in my own classes, I think about the lives that I might be able to save somewhere if only I forewent some material pleasures in my own life. But however slightly, the drowning child scenario continually pushes me to be a better person, notwithstanding how uncomfortable that process might be. And to that extent it has served a moral purpose. I can only hope that it inspires you to do the same.

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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