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12. Unique Potential Savior

XII. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond John was the only one who could save the child at that moment; whereas there are many others much wealthier than I am who could send money to UNICEF.

To many people, a promising difference between the two contrast cases is this: John is the only one who can save the child from drowning, i.e., using a bit of jargon to highlight tthis feature of the Shallow Pond case, John is her "unique potential savior." But, in the case of The Envelope, there are more than enough well-off people to get the distant children saved; using kindred jargon, in that case there are "multiple potential saviors." Because John is the child's unique potential savior, mightn't he have a great responsibility toward the the child? But because you're only one of many multiple potential saviors, you might not have much responsibility toward the Envelope's children. That's why, in that case, your behavior, tossing the envelope into the wastebasket, isn't wrong.

But, to our moral common sense, isn't this nonsense? You know full well that, even though they can do so, almost all the other well-off folks won't aid the needy children. You know that, for all they'd do, even if a good many of them contributed to UNICEF, there'd still be children in dire need. So, while many others who sent no money behaved badly, you did, too. Consider the following variant of the Shallow Pond case:

Multiple Potential Saviors in Gucci Shoes
The path from John's dorm room to Shiffman passes a shallow ornamental pond. On his way to the Human Rights class, John, who is walking along with three of his friends, all from the Human Rights class, notices that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. His friends notice this, too. If any one of them wades in and pulls the child out, it will mean getting their clothes muddy and either missing the Human Rights class or delaying it until they can find something clean and dry to wear. Imagine, too, they are also wearing a brand new pairs of Gucci shoes which they are "breaking in" for the first time. Assume that it is evident from the circumstances that there is no time for anybodyto take off their shoes if there is any hope of saving the child and that John and his friends can "see" that this is so. If anyone tries to save the child, their shoes will become wet and be ruined beyond repair. To replace the shoes will cost the person $100. If all four of these people pass by the child, then, while they'll make the Human Rights class on time, the child will die straightaway. All four (including John) head straight for the Human Rights class and, as expected, the child dies.

Is John's conduct any less bad, because three of his friends behaved badly, too. Perhaps there is "comfort" in numbers, so it is possible to say to oneself, "I may not be helping children in need, but I am not the only one, not the only who is failing to help, there are many others who could help, far wealthier than I am, and they aren't helping." But is this "comfort" any moral consolation? (Adapted from Unger)

Women Planting, Mozambique

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February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
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