11 Reasons to Let Peter Singer's Child Drown
I don't hate Peter Singer because he's wrong, stupid, or foolish. I hate him for being persuasive, convincing, and demanding the utterly overwhelming from me.
If you have never read his essay "Famine, Affluence and Morality" you should. Sitting at it's heart is a hypothetical: 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.
Singer goes on to argue cogently that every developing-world starving child is essentially the same as his hypothetical drowning child and that the only moral course is to rescue that child, and as many others as possible. Singer suggests that we are obliged to rescue as many of these drowning children as possible. He extends a "Reductio ad absurdum"1 line of reasoning to the conclusion that we are obligated to donate nearly all of our money to the most effective charity we can find. Then he doesn't dismiss it as "absurd", but instead takes that conclusion seriously, and leaves each of us staring at that ethical reality.
I can't handle that moral reality because it feels correct, and it leaves me in an eternal state of guilt about every non-optimal action I take. The emotional context: "Every time I go to a concert, Singer's child drowns" is just not sustainable.
With awareness that these arguments are born not from unbiased investigation, but rather from self-interest and the need to wiggle my way out of a moral prison, I present 11 arguments against. You should read this with the same incredulity that you read the bankers argument that he is underpaid.
Mixing up the issue
In his example Singer conflates several intense moral issues. It involves children, suffering, urgency, and death all at once. If we break these things apart, we start to see different answers.
What would our moral inclination be if we eliminated death and lowered the stakes: you are walking to work and see a child with a skinned knee crying. You could pause on your way for just a moment and comfort the child (and in this example, you know it would work) but it would make you a moment or two late. The moral imperative becomes much less clear in this case. It does seem like it would be nice to comfort the child, but it doesn't seem like an obligatory moral response.
What if we raise the stakes again, but continue to leave "the sanctity of life" out of the equation. Let's say you are walking down the street and meet a child who has a really horrible cluster headache 2 and for $100, half the price of Singer's hypothetical shoes, you could buy him some of a great new medicine that would treat the headache. Again, even though stakes are quite high (seriously read about cluster headaches), this just doesn't seem like the same moral imperative.
It seems more and more like there is something very core to our moral intuition is tied to the sanctity of life. I suspect that what's happening here is a collision between the commonly held to be sacred values of life and, and the generally non-sacred, or as Singer calls it "morally insignificant", value of shoes. At this level it seems absurd to violate these sacred values. The thing is, that quantity has a quality of its own, and what may not be a sacred value, such as shoes, in a single instance can become one when many are aggregated.
Rao explains this concept well here, beginning with an old joke
Man: will you sleep with me for $1 million?
Man: will you sleep with me for $5?
Woman: WHAT! What kind of woman do you take me for?
Man: we’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.
In this joke, the initial offer of $1 million is actually fake-out code for “priceless.” The joke relies on treating it as an actual negotiable number later, instead of sticking to the fiction that it is a symbolic infinity.
an offer of $1 million is (if you’ll pardon the joke) big enough to be considered fuck-you money. This has a very specific valuation in the priceless economy: it is the price of liberty for the rest of your life. The woman is willing to do for $1 million what she is not willing to do for $5. Not because she has a rational pricing model in mind, but because at $1 million, she is wrestling with a high-minded internal values conflict (liberty versus purity). At $5, she’s thinking about paying for a sandwich. 3
We have essentially the same issue when we deal with Singer's massive pool of drowning children4. With a single child, we are asked to make an exchange between money and values. If we are obliged to devote our life to rescuing children, then we find ourselves in a values vs values conflict.
Singer's example also avoids our complex thoughts on freedom and responsibility by casting a child with no apparent guardian in the victim role. What if we replace the children in these examples with adults? Children are special for us, particularly with regards to self determination and responsibility. This makes them very convenient for simplified moral calculations and by priming us to think of children in the example we are less likely to think of the people in the later examples as fully responsible, or having their own agendas.
An excessive dedication to universalizability
A second, categorically different, issue is Singer’s substitution of physical distance for lack of entanglement.
I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account. The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us
I think there is genuine space to argue against this interpretation of impartiality. The idea that we must view helping an anonymous stranger as morally identical to someone we are deeply involved with is not one I accept as clear. Impartiality can still take situation into context, to turn Singer's own subtle invocation of children against him, I think many of us would agree that it is better to alleviate the suffering of a child than the slightly greater suffering of an adult. Most of us would also say that a person who let their own child drown in order to save two adults they don't know was not acting morally.
Even the Mohist, who strongly advocated "impartial caring" were willing to admit partiality in the case of distance:
"When people near-by are not befriended, there is no use endeavoring to attract those at a distance." This point is also precisely articulated by a Mohist in a debate with Mencius (in the Mencius), where the Mohist argues in relation to carrying out universal love, that "We begin with what is near."5
Singers counter-argument that instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation is largely based on the idea that our ability to act effectively at a distance has been increased, but I think he underestimates our remaining inability to act across social distance.
The Strong, the Moderate, and the Problems With Capture
Singer comes to two versions of his conclusion. The first, which he prefers is:
The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility.
This is the one I find particularly unpalatable because it inherently strips away something that I consider to be quite morally significant: my own freedom. Taken in full it suggests that I would need to dedicate my job, and every waking moment to the service of others6. That I would essentially become the slave of those who suffer.
Singer presents a second version, which I prefer:
the more moderate version - that we should prevent bad occurrences unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant
This is more or less the Giving What We Can model, and one which I find to be far less objectionable. It still has a few very serious issues.
One of the issues with dedicating resources as Singer suggests is that it leaves us in a position to be taken advantage of. Our victimization might even be inevitable over the long run. If we perform Singer's suggested ethical duty and there are even a few sociopaths, who are willing to sacrifice others for their own gain we enable them to harvest a huge portion of the resource diverted to aid. This problem is outlined in great detail in The Dictator's Handbook.
The essential mechanism that drives this vulnerability could be described as follows: Dictators in many developing nations seek to keep their population at a specific level of development. They want them able to work, and produce profit, but not able to think freely or revolt. This leads to them providing government services to the extent that their population can reach the optimum level of development (for the dictator) on a productivity vs risk curve. Aid given, even if it is given directly to the mouths of the hungry, simply causes the dictator to retract some of his support, leaving the experience of the aided individuals comparable.
Singer even partially acknowledges this problem in his responses to criticism, admitting we are not under an obligation to give aid unless that aid is likely to be effective in reducing starvation or malnutrition while providing a specific response to something of a straw-man objection regarding overpopulation. The objection is similar but overly specific, the full response, however, can be generalized to suggest that we are obliged to work on the best tactic we can think of to solve these ill's rather than simply give up.
What if we change Singer's example to fit a more nuanced model of the world in response? In the pond are several drowning adults and children with a few rescue workers but not enough. Above are a few hundred children and adults on a bridge, pushing each-other in a game of "king of the hill". Every few minutes someone falls off and starts drowning.
Are we obliged to rescue the drowning children? For how long? Singer seems to feel like it's totally acceptable to intervene in the most effective way you can. What if:
You go up to the bridge to try to stop the game of king of the hill, and discover that one of the rules of their game is 'only 20 people may drown per day'. Also, they tell you, the king of the hill may change some rules, such as drowning per day limit.
Now saving the drowning seems like a fools errand. What about interceding forcefully to attempt to stop the game of "king of the hill"? If you join in the game to try to win and make it's rules kinder will you be contributing to the problem? What if the children who are getting pushed off the bridge are willing participants? What if it's a game you can't win?
Take to it's extreme this chain of logic ends up as a very dark version of fatalism described powerfully in Meditations on Moloch, an insightful view of the inevitability of death and suffering. I’m not a fan of that perspective either, but we can save that for another post.
Singer's example brushes the problem of imperfect information under the rug as well. This partially appears in the discussion of distance and entanglement, but it also appears in a different form in the following hypothetical: What if you are going to work on Wednesday, and see Peter's child, dutifully rescuing him. The next day you are going to work by the same pond and see another of Peter's children, again rescuing him. The next day, Friday, you are going to work again, see one more of Peter's children and rescue him. Now it's Saturday. Are you ethically obliged to get up early and drive by the lake to check if there is a drowning child? It would be foolish not to think that it might happen again but it is far from certain. Drowning kids might just be a weekday thing. Are you obliged to search out information about those who might be in need so that you can provide it? How far does this requirement extend? Does hiding your head in the sand relieve any moral obligation?
1) Conflation of children, suffering, urgency, and death in example
2) Example does not hold with lower stakes, but is still universalized
3) Example does not hold with high-but-non-mortal stakes, but is still universalized
4) Singer implies that many non-priceless things together are still not priceless
5) The values of freedom and responsibility are sidestepped by making victim a parentless child
6) Physical distance is conflated with lack of entanglement
7) Singer’s “strong version” does not recognize the value of personal freedom
8) Singer’s adherents are vulnerable to having their efforts misdirected and nullified
9) Initial moral statement is merely intuitive, and should be re-examined if it leads to illogical conclusions
10) Moral Relativism is a real and cogent argument.
11) Suffering may not be equally reflected by matching conditions.
Ultimately, I contend, that when we are faced with an intuitive truth that reductio ad absurdum leads to extreme outcomes, we should go back to our intuition and refine, verify, or discard it. Singer uses some slight of hand to close this door saying: It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further. We are inclined not to check that door again because it seemed closed so firmly by our intuition the first time, and because Singer has basically said "if you can't even meet me at this simple starting point, we have nothing to talk about".
Historically, though, not every culture would have agreed to meet singer at his starting point, acknowledging the obligation to rescue Singer's child. Through most of history, a question that would be asked first is "is the child of my tribe?". We have been gradually growing our moral circle, and we tend to think this is a good thing7, but the only perspective we have to judge that from is within our own moral framework. This argument can be effectively described as "moral relativism"[cite]http://www.iep.utm.edu/moral-re/[/cite], A position I think people dismiss far to readily.
Finally, I offer a forbidden8 question. Does induced suffering have different intensity, or for that matter a different value for different people? Should suffering be evaluated based on subjective experience or comparable conditions?
Are some people more able to handle starvation than others? Is the ability to endure hardship without suffering a trainable skill? We intuitively accept that this is the case with pain... for instance if we were to see both a marine and an eight-year-old scrape their knee, we would accept that the experience of each, as well as their need for relief was quite different. Many applied philosophies9 concentrate on developing our resiliency to difficult situations as the highest practical value.
Is the spoiled 16 year old valley girl who is weeping uncontrollably because she got the wrong kind of car for her birthday actually suffering just as much as a developing nation's 16 year old who's is left hungry yet again? They may not be moral equivalents, but the "suffering of the valley girl" is quite real, and might be more intense than that of the starving. We similarly display different responses to the death of those who are emotionally prepared vs those who are "not ready". There is something to explore about our expectations here. Is our responsibility to equalize suffering, to eliminate suffering, or to equalize conditions? Is it possible that a life of hard conditions prepares one for more hard conditions? Even from a utilitarian perspective, what are the ethical implications of this?
- 1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum
- 2. The term "headache" does not adequately convey the severity of the condition; the disease may be the most painful condition known to medical science: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluster_headache
- 3. http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2014/08/12/the-economics-of-pricelessness/
- 4. that is to say the argument that every child who is underfed in the world is essentially the same as if they were in a pool drowning
- 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mozi#Philosophy
- 6. I view the compete lack of freedom provided to be a common problem in overly deduced ethical systems
- 7. I can’t even begin to explain how weird it is for a moral standpoint to view it’s own change in a positive light. If you stop and think about that for a minute it seems like a very powerful paradox
- 8. http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
- 9. One prominent example is Stoicism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism