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The image of a drowning child is a vivid one – enough to make it a key example in two very different traditions of moral philosophy. In ancient China, Mencius used the image to illustrate humans’ natural inborn moral benevolence: we would all “have a feeling of alarm and compassion” at such a sight, and not out of any form of self-interest. Thousands of years later, in the early 1970s – when Chinese philosophy was known to the West but it would rarely have occurred to a Western philosopher that he should study it – the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer used the same image. In his famous article “Famine, affluence and morality”, written in 1971 and published 1972, Singer says this:

if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

But Singer puts the image to a very different use than Mencius. Where Mencius aims to reassure us that our natural inclinations are good ones except under exceptional circumstances of deformation, Singer’s aims are quite the opposite. Singer wants to tell us that something is very wrong with our normal way of being in the world. Singer introduces the image as an “application” of a principle that seems like it might not be controversial: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

This principle follows very naturally from the utilitarianism that Singer espouses. Most people today, upon hearing it, would probably think it plausible. But as examples like the trolley problem show us, principles that sound intuitively right often prove problematic. And Singer’s ensuing argument shows that his principle should be much more controversial than it appears:

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.

Singer makes this claim in the context of the Bangladesh famine taking place in 1971. That famine does not continue today, but millions in Africa and Asia still die from starvation and disease in ways that would be easily preventable if sufficient money were available – money that people in wealthier countries have and do not give.

There is here a great challenge to our ordinary ways of thinking and being, ways in which “a wealthy man who gives 5 percent of his income to famine relief is regarded as most generous”. Singer spends the rest of his paper arguing that such a man is not generous at all, but rather a scoundrel in dereliction of his moral duty. For a wealthy man could give away far, far more than 5% of his income and save far more lives than he does, without exposing himself or his family to remotely comparable hardship. On Singer’s view, there is no significant difference between this man, like the vast majority of us non-poor people, and a man who ignores a drowning child because he will get his clothes soaking wet and be late for a movie. He denies the distinction between charity and duty as traditionally drawn, between what it is praiseworthy to do and what we are obliged to do (which traditionally place giving large sums of money in the former category). His paper is in some respect a defence of white guilt: insofar as we do not devote all available resources to uplifting the oppressed, we are bad people and we should feel bad. The same moral principle that requires us to save the drowning child also demands that we live lives like the life that Peter Drucker described regarding a dinner with Karl Polanyi:

we walked a good twenty minutes through tumbledown shacks, abandoned-car lots, and a few city dumps until we came to a solitary old and grimy five-story tenement, the lower floors of which were boarded up. We climbed up all five stories – Polanyi all the while carrying those enormous valises that served him for briefcases. Finally on the top floor and in total darkness, the door was opened and we were greeted by Polanyi’s wife Ilona, her mother, an elderly widowed Hungarian baroness, and the Polanyis’ only child, a daughter then about eight years old. We sat down to dinner immediately and were served what, without exaggeration, I can call the worst meal of my life: old, badly peeled, half-raw potatoes – there was not even margarine with them. This was Christmas dinner!

No one paid the slightest attention to me or the food. Instead, all four, including the little girl, argued vehemently how Karl could earn enough money the following month to pay the bills. The sum they mentioned as being needed was ludicrously small – a fraction of the paycheck Polanyi had just received and actually less than I, living by myself in Hamburg on a clerk trainee’s stipend, found inadequate to get by in the most modest style. Finally I could contain myself no longer. “I apologise for butting in,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but see the amount of Dr. Polanyi’s paycheck when we left the editorial meeting. Surely one can live, and very well, on that?” All four stopped talking and were absolutely silent for what seemed an eternity. Then all four turned and stared at me. And all four said, almost in unison: “What a remarkable idea; spend your paycheck on yourself! We never heard of such a thing.” “But,” I stammered, “most people do that.” “We are not most people,” said Ilona, Karl’s wife, sternly; “We are logical people. Vienna is full of Hungarian refugees – refugees from the Communists and refugees from the White Terror that succeeded the Communists; and a good many cannot earn an adequate living. Karl has proven his capacity to earn. Therefore it is obviously only logical for him to turn his paycheck over to other Hungarians and then go out and earn what we need.” (Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander, 125-6)

It has been argued (for example by Kenneth McRobbie in Karl Polanyi in Vienna, page 386) that Drucker made this description up entirely – that in fact the Polanyis lived nothing like this. That may well be so; it’s not relevant to the point here. Let us assume that Drucker’s description of Polanyi is entirely fictional. The point is that that fiction vividly illustrates exactly how, according to Peter Singer, we all should live; if we do not live in such a way, we should feel guilty about it. Particularly important in this regard is the depicted justification of this lifestyle as “logical”. For this point illustrates Singer’s implicit critique of Mencius. Recall that Mencius says we feel, and should feel, alarm and compassion that motivates us to save a nearby drowning child; as far as I am aware, he does not say we should feel a comparable alarm and compassion that motivates us to give away the vast majority of our incomes to support all the starving people we are aware of. For Mencius, our alarm and compassion toward the near drowning child (not typically extended to distant barbarians of whom we hear only news reports) illustrate the goodness of humans’ everyday state. For Singer it illustrates something very different: our irrationality. We accept the principle that we should prevent bad things from happening in the case of the drowning child, but we refuse the same principle in the case of distant famine. This is something fundamentally illogical, irrational, unjustified.

Singer is right that his proposed revision of our moral views is a drastic and radical. Is the revision itself right? That is a philosophical question of the highest importance, and I will take it up next time.