The Drowning Child Analogy

Has Modern Technology Expanded Our Moral Obligations?

Ed Noble
Thoughts And Ideas

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Photo by Lucas Favre on Unsplash

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote an essay in 1971 titled “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” It included a now-famous analogy designed to probe our ethical obligations in light of modern charitable opportunities.

Singer asks the reader to imagine they are walking to work one day when they pass a shallow pond, in which a small child is drowning. In order to save the child they must wade in and ruin their clothes, as well as risk being late for work. Singer then asks, do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Almost everyone would say yes, the importance of saving a child outweighs any cost of muddy clothes and lateness.

Then Singer continues, asking if it makes a difference if there are others walking past who do not offer any help. Again, most people will agree that no, this should not make any difference; the fact that others do not act does not change what I ought to do.

Once these obligations are clear about the drowning child in front of us, Singer asks us to consider if it makes any difference if the child were far away in another country, but in equal danger, and you are equally within your means to save the child at no great cost and no danger to yourself? Surely distance and nationality should make no moral…

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Ed Noble
Thoughts And Ideas

I write about philosophy, psychology and ethics. I live and work in London, having previously studied physics. Started writing in lockdown.