by Tim Sommers
Suppose on your way to work every day you pass a small, shallow pond. One day as you approach it, you hear a commotion and cries of “Help!” When you get close enough, you can see a small child is drowning in the pond. You could save them. The only problem is you are wearing new shoes for a big meeting today and they will get very muddy, probably ruined, if you save the child.
Should you save the child?
It seems like you should, right? At least, morally, you should. Peter Singer who came up with that example wanted to derive a very simple principle from it.
The Singer Principle: If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.
What might be significant enough to make you hesitate to save the child? What if you might lose your job over it? And what if, when you lose your job, you and your family will quickly become homeless? What if the pond were deeper and you might drown yourself trying to save the kid?
You’re on your way to the movies. You’ve got your ticket money and your popcorn money. Let’s say $20. You run into an old friend of yours out front collecting money to save people from some far away catastrophe. You have complete faith and trust in her, so when she tells you that every $5 will save the life of one person, you believe her. And when she tells you that the catastrophe is likely short-lived and there’s no reason to think that anyone you save will die soon after. One life? $5. Two lives? $10. Do you give her anything? Your popcorn money? The whole $20? Do you go the ATM and withdrawal all you have? Would you be willing to remortgage your house?
If you find these examples too dry, consider instead Oskar Schindler. In real life, he saved over a thousand people from the Nazi death machine. In the film version of his life, he is presented as a very stoic, soft-spoken guy. That is, until the end, when he has to flee from advancing Allied forces. Just as he is getting into his car, out of the blue, he breaks down.
Schindler: “If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just… This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… And I didn’t! And I…didn’t.”
Here’s a question I have asked over and over to classes across the years. Suppose for some reason, it really doesn’t really matter why, you could either save (a) 1,000 people far away, in another country, suffering a famine, or (b) 500 Americans on a plane that’s about to crash, or (c) your best friend. Who would you save?
What’s interesting to me is that, in all the times I have asked this, I have gotten the same basic result. Everyone says either (c) their best friend or (a) the 1,000 people. No one, literally, no one, says (b). Why?
Not everyone goes straight to utilitarian reasoning; i.e., the morally right thing to do is whatever maximizes utility – meaning, happiness, welfare, or well-being. Forget your best friend versus a 1,000 people, one philosopher told me he would let millions of people die to save his two granddaughters. On the other hand, the minute you do buy into the math, how are you going to save 500 people when you could save 1,000? No one has ever said to me, ‘Because the 500 are Americans!’
And yet in real life we say that implicitly all the time. How many people died in Iraq? Five thousand US service people. But, no, wait. How many people? Between 200,000 and a million depending on which estimate you believe. A million. That’s mind-boggling, right? If we could have fought that war in such a way that fewer than 100,000 Iraqs would die, but twice as many – 10,000 U.S. service people – would also die, would we? Should we? Offered that choice what do you think most people would’ve voted for?
One way in which Peter Singer has taken his utilitarianism into the real world is by advocating for, and starting an organization that advocates for, what he calls “effective altruism”. If you go to their website, on the front page, they say that what they are for is… “(1) Using evidence and reason to find the most promising causes to work on”; and “(2) Taking action, by using our time and money to do the most good.”
But that’s just the pitch. Here’s what you’ll find if you go deeper. Effective altruism says that (3) You have an obligation to find the highest paying job you can and make as much money as possible. (4) Then you are obligated to give most of it away to help as many people as possible who are worse-off than you.
I’m not an effective altruist, but whenever I hear people criticize it, there’s definitely a part of me that says, yeah, right, everybody has an excuse. You are all just selfish and lazy. Me, especially.
But I want to mention just two of the many objections that have been raised against it. My favorite objection is this. If everyone is scrambling to get the highest-paid job to make the most money to give away, where are we going to get poets and artists and people who study the cultures of pre-colonial Madagascar.
On the other hand, there’s the “Baby or the Botticelli?” Venice is going under. Luckily, you are escaping by boat. You look to your right and see a baby in a basket being swept away. You look to your left and see a (somehow) undamaged canvas. It’s “The Birth of Venus”. There’s only one in the world. There won’t ever be another. You can only save one. The baby or the Botticelli? I have never met anyone who would save (or, at least, were willing to admit that they would save) the Botticelli. So, that’s a problem for art, I guess.
Here’s another objection. Suppose you work for a hedge fund that allows you to make enough money to donate millions every year. But suppose it buys and sells companies that run sweatshops, pollute, and contribute to global climate change. Maybe, you just shouldn’t work there – rather than work there and give the money away. Maybe, being elected to office, despite lower pay and such, would allow you to make real changes and not just contribute to the corrupt system. Effective altruism seems to ask us to adapt to the system which is the underlying cause of the suffering which we intend to offer limited relieve to.
I don’t have any tidy package in which I want to wrap this all up. But I will make one last point about the problem with utilitarianism and these thought experiments. They all assume that you know what is going to happen. But you don’t. Maybe, especially on an everyday level, we shouldn’t try to calculate and recalculate the exact costs and benefits of everything, every time we go to do something. Maybe, we should just stick to common sense rules – at least some of the time we have an obligation to help others but/or we shouldn’t sacrifice too much, especially so much we won’t have anything left for the future.
But if you walk past a drowning kid, yeah, save them; unless, there’s a Botticelli you could save instead.
(1) I have a question for you. What should we call the person who comes up with a philosophical thought-experiment? Are they the author? That seems to miss the point. It’s not about the words they used. Developer? Too kinetic. It sounds like they make video games. Inventor? A little grandiose. And besides these are often variations on earlier examples. Thoughts? Please, comment with suggestions.
(2) Best answer ever to best friend, plane, or 1,000 people question. An 80-year-old man said he’d save the 1,000 people. I said, “Why don’t you want to save your best friend?” He said, “Because he’s a real piece of s**t and he’ll be dead soon enough, believe me.” Then he laughed.