Let the Child Drown — Flaws with the Easy Rule of Rescue

If you see a child drowning in a nearby pool, would you jump in and save the child where the cost to you is negligible or would you go on your own way as it is not your responsibility? Many suggest and believe you should save the child as it is the “Rule of Easy Rescue” that has very little cost to you and gives you a much higher satisfaction. Here is a real story of this scenario in practice.

“Rule of Easy Rescue means that if it is in your power to save a life or prevent something bad from happening where the cost to you is negligible, very less, or has comparable moral importance, you are morally obliged to do it.

It does not accurately capture our obligation towards people living in poverty. I would argue there are quite a few flaws in this approach from being ethical, practical and the ability to solve the problem in the first place.

I have summarized my arguments into following categories:

1. Legal Issues: The approach doesn’t take care of the legal issues that might arise because of this rule. Say for example, you want to save the drowning child, but you don’t know how to do it and you might end up hurting the child in the process or you may not be qualified to give the first aid. In that case, you are liable for the injuries to that child and can be sued in the court. So, doing nothing might be the good options as no one can sue for your “Inaction.” On the other hand, it also depends where you are living, every country has their own tort laws, if you are living in Germany, you are obliged to take care of the person in need by German Criminal Code , Russia has a punishment of up to 1 year in prison, Serbia has 8 years, and Spain also consider it under criminal offense not to help someone in need. So, if the Rule of Easy Rescue is enforced by the government or local law to be a Good Samaritan, it doesn’t fulfill our responsibility to take care of the people living in poverty.

2. Timeless: the Second problem with this rule is its timelessness. For example, you are going to the office and see a child drowning in a pond, you jumped into the pond (damaging your clothes and shoes) and rescued the child, but as you’re getting out you see there are ten other children drowning in the pond. How many of those can you save? And how many of those you should save? To make an analogy, with increasing population and poverty in the world, there will be a limitless supply of people in distress or need, and there is no time limit that you can observe to take care of the world. The rule of rescue is very exhaustive and traps you in a psychological-guilt-gratification cycle with no way to get out.

3. Short-Sighted: The rule gives preference to near term, immediately available rescue options over long-term choices. For example, you see a child drowning in the pond, but you are a firefighter going to save dozens if not hundreds of people trapped in a burning building in downtown. What should you do? Stop and rescue the child or let him die or be taken care of by someone else while you peruse your own mission? There are always short-term emotional choices over long-term rational goals; this rule doesn’t account for that.

4. Self-Dismissal: The rule seems to dismiss your-self all together and thus put a very high psychological cost. Why you would worry about the child if he is not related by any means, you are not his parent, spouse, custodian or a government employee to save the child (like lifeguard or firefighter). You are not even responsible for creating a situation to put this child there in the first place (maintenance, construction staff, etc.). You can do your “fair share” of the deal and move on. For example, by giving 2.5 of your wealth (as Islam and other religion say). This rule seems to put you in God’s position, which is very demanding, un-ethical, unrealistic and impossible to achieve.

5. Hard-to-Rescue Rule: Speaking morally, what you would do, if saving a life is not an easy-to-rescue? Would you just shrug it off, what is like when your cost to save a life is more significant? For example, instead of giving your child good education you might be able to save hundreds in an African country or what about having a child in the first place, you would only think of parenting when there is no hunger left in the world? What when you can eat once a day and save a life a day by skipping one meal daily, would you do it? If we quietly think about the other extreme, it makes sense too with all of the intrinsic problems with the first rule like self-dismissal and demandingness.

6. Pathological Altruism: This rule puts you or your benefits in direct competition to that of others. This is a vicious cycle and leads to pathological altruism. No one can fulfill this criterion without hurting himself. Even if you are a genuinely altruistic person (I would also argue that the reward you receive is your ego and the heroism you can claim is the motive); you make everyone else feel worse so while you are making someone’s life pleasant, hurting a lot more in the process including yourself and your family.

I would suggest exploring the solution in the lines of blended-altruism, where it comes down to personal preference and “Ways-to-Rescue” so everyone can chip-in the way he can without altering the social fabric and hurt anyone.