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8. Physical Proximity

VIII. The Child That John Could Save from Drowning Was Only a Few Feet Away from Him; Whereas the Children in the Envelope Case are Miles Away.

Now while it is true that we often help those and are more likely to help those in need who are physically close to us and while it is hard for most of us to stand by and watch a child drown, but many can ignore children in need who happen to live half way around the globe in, say, Bangladesh, the question is not, as Peter Singer points out, 'what we usually do, but what we ought to do, and it is difficult to see any sound moral justification for the view that distance . . . makes a crucial diffference to our obligations.' Or as Peter Unger says 'unlike many physical forces, the strength of a moral force does not diminish with distance.' What do you think? Clearly, the physical proximity of the child in the case of the Shallow Pond makes it psychologically and emotionally more likely that someone who passes by will come to her aid. But can these factors be translated into moral factors? Consider the following:

The Bungalow Compound
Not being truly rich, you own a one-twelfth share in a small bungalow that's part of a beach resort compound in an exotic but poor country, say, Haiti. For some time now there's been much strife in the land, and now it's your month to enjoy the bungalow, and you happen to be in Haiti on your annual vacation. In your mailbox, there's an envelope from UNICEF asking for money to help save children's lives in the town in Haiti nearest you, whichever one that is. In your very typical case, quite a few such needy kids are all within a few blocks of the Bungalow where you are staying and, just over the compound wall, some are only a few feet away. As the appeal makes clear, your $100 will mean the difference between long life and early death for thirty nearby children. But, of course, each month such appeals are sent to many bungalows in many Haitian resort compounds. You throw the material in your wastebasket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more Haitian children soon die than would have died had you sent in the requested $100.

Putting aside all other factors, such as your contributing to the Haitian economy by virtue of the fact that you have a time-sharing arrangement in the country and may (even) as a result contribute some tax revenues, does the fact that some of the children whose lives your $100 might save live within a few feet of the Bungalow Compound make a moral difference in your judgment of such a person, i.e., a person who sends nothing and so nearby children die? No doubt some people might be more likely to contribute in this case than in the original case of The Envelope. Some, too, may be more likely to feel guilty if they fail to contribute, in part, because they vacation in Haiti and, as a result, feel more connected to its citizens. But if you do not think it is in the least bit wrong not to contribute in the case of The Envelope, why would it suddenly become wrong now (in the case of the Bungalow Compound) that the children in need are just 'a few feet away?' (Adapted from Unger)

Women Processing Grain, Mali

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