Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2003
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A

Introduction to Philosophy

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


These notes are intended to help you think about ways of tackling the question for the final paper topic in INTRO TO PHILOSOPHY (PHIL 1A). The notes are not intended to answer the question or, necessarily, to settle one or another controversial issue touched upon by the question posed by the examples of The Shallow Pond and The Envelope, but to function, rather, as a guide through a maze of quite complicated issues. You will find some notes to be helpful, nonetheless, if only as a focusing device and to help you to decide what route to take through the mass of possible moves you mgiht make. You should feel free to circumscribe your answer to the question, to concentrate on certain issues, presumably the ones you believe are the most germane, the most important, to the exclusion of others. Thus, some notes that follow may be of little interest to you. Here quickly (once again) is the question posed for the final exam.

"Consider the following:

The Shallow Pond

The path from John's dorm room passes a shallow ornamental pond near the center of the campus. On his way to the Philosophy class, John notices that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. If John wades in and pulls the child out, it will mean getting his clothes wet and muddy and either missing the Philosophy class or delaying it until he can find something clean and dry to wear. He is also wearing a brand new pair of Gucci shoes which he is "breaking in" for the first time. Assume that it is evident from the circumstances that there is no time for John to take his shoes off if he has any hope of saving the child and that John himself can "see" that this is so. John's shoes will become wet and be ruined beyond repair. To replace the shoes will cost him $100. If John passes by the child, then, while he'll make the Philosophy class on time, the child will die straightaway. John heads straight for the Philosophy class and, as expected, the child dies.

Has John behaved badly? What do you think?

What is your immediate, intuitive moral judgment about John's behavior?

Many think that if a person is walking past a shallow pond and sees a child drowning in it, he or she ought to wade in and pull the child out. If that means getting one's clothes muddy and one's shoes wet, even if it means having to pay a sizeable cleaning bill or having to purchase a new pair of shoes, this is insignificant set against the death of the child which is presumably a very, very bad thing.

And not unsurprisingly, it so happens that almost everyone's intuitive moral judgment is that were that person to pass by, that person's conduct would be abominable.

This case and cases like it, Peter Singer claims, illustrate the intuitive appeal of the following moral principle: "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." In the case of the Shallow Pond, this would appear to be sage moral advice.. If muddying his clothes and getting his "new" shoes wet, saves the life of an innocent child, then it is time for John to send the Cleaners and the Shoe Store some business.

But now Peter Singer also claims that this example shows we have a serious moral obligation to relieve world hunger. But how can this be? Does this case reflect a strong obligation to aid that's quite general? Many think that our intuitive moral responses to examples like the case of the Shallow Pond do not reflect anything very general at all? But now consider the following:

The Envelope

In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. It's a letter appealing to you to contribute $100 of your own money. After reading it through, you correctly conclude that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty children will soon die of starvation. But, 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 children soon die than would have lived had you sent in the requested $100.

According to Singer, you ought to have sent the money and it was "wrong" for you not to have done so," but almost everyone reacts to this example that your conduct wasn't wrong at all.

Because giving money is regarded as an act of charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. The charitable [person] may be praised, but a [person] who is not charitable is not condemned for failing to give. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it,, in this case, to UNICEF.

And yet Singer believes "this way of looking at the matter cannot be justified."

What do you think? Is it wrong for John to fail to aid the drowning child in the first case, but not wrong for you to fail to prevent thirty children from dying in the second?

If so, what is the moral difference between the two cases?

Drawing on your own most reflective and considered opinion, what is the moral difference (if any) between the two situations that explains the moral judgments of John's conduct in the first case and your conduct in the second case.

One difference, of course, is that the first case involves a pond and a drowning, both of which are absent from the second case. But this surely is not a significant "moral" difference! And the second case involves the postal system, but not the first. But this difference can't make a moral difference, no?

No doubt there may be any number of differences between the two cases, psychological, cultural, and geographical that help to explain people's differing responses to the two cases, but are any of these differences moral differences?

What are the significant moral differences, if any, between the two cases that might help to justify the different judgments of John's and your own conduct?

Or to put the matter another way what might morally ground a negative judgment of John's behavior in the first case and a favorable judgment of your own behavior in the second?

So there you have it once again: the question.

Today I also handed out a preliminary list that purported to identify a number of differences between the two cases that some people have believed explain our different judgments (not necessarily in the two cases before you, but in cases like them) of John's conduct in the case of "The Shallow Pond" and your conduct in the case of "The Envelope." The big question is, of course, are any of these differences moral differences?

Here once again is that list. It is not intended by any means to be exhaustive. And there are certainly other questions to raise as well as to focus upon in drafting a response to these two cases, the case of the shallow pond and the case of the envelope.

   (1) Physical Proximity

   (2) Social Proximity

   (3) Informational Directness

   (4) Experiential Impact

   (5) Unique Potential Savior

   (6) A Single Individual Saved vs. a Multitude in Need of Saving

   (7) Leaving it to the Government

   (8) The Continuing Mess

   (9) Emergencies vs. Chronic Horrors

   (10) Urgency

   (11) Causally Focused vs. Causally Amorphous Aid

   (12) Providing a Service vs. Sending Money

   (13) Knowing Whom You Are Saving vs. Saving Strangers

   (14) Taking Care of Our Own

   (15) Overpopulation and the Ethics of Triage

   (16) Helping and Being Done With It vs. Helping and Helping and Helping

   (17) A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard

   (18) Saving vs. Helping to Prevent

   (19) Property Rights

Before turning to say a word or two more about each of these considerations, (1) through (20), to which a person might appeal to justify and/or excuse coming to the aid of the child in need in the first case but not coming to the aid of the thirty children in the second, it may make sense to addresss a few general concerns (I through VII):

   I. In the Case of "The Envelope" I Am Asked To Save (Prevent) Thirty Children from Dying. Surely World Hunger Affects Many People, Young and Old Alike: Why Are Children Being Singled Out for My Attention and Concern?

   II. How Can My $100 Keep Thirty Children from Dying? Can You Break It Down for Me?

   III. It is Sometimes Said That Morality Itself is Rational, But What Does That Mean? For Instance, Henry Shue Says "Basic Rights" Are, Among Other Things, "Rational Demands." Should I Worry About Whether My Sense That I Should Save the Child from Drowning is Rational or Not? And What About "Truth"? Are Moral Judgments True and Objective? And What if They are Not? Won't All Hell Break Loose? Aren't We Free Then to Do as We Darn Well Please?

   IV. I Am Not Quite Certain How My Moral Intuitions Are Supposed to Fit Into All This? Should I Trust My "Moral Intuitions" or Do I Have Reason to be Suspicious?

   V. The Case of The Envelope Suggests That If I Send $100 to UNICEF, Thirty Less Children Will Die, But There May be Other Ways of Preventing Children from Dying That Are Even More Effective Than Sending Money to UNICEF. Is This an Excuse or Reason Not to Give?

   VI. Peter Singer's Argument: Consequences, Rights, and Obligations

   VII. Is Singer's Argument Deceptive?

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I. In the Case of "The Envelope" I Am Asked To Save (Prevent) Thirty Children from Dying. Surely World Hunger Affects Many People, Young and Old Alike: Why Are Children Being Singled Out for My Attention and Concern?

"Children are the real victims of world hunger: at least 70% of the malnourished people of the world are children. By best estimates forty thousand children a day die of starvation (Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) 1992a: World Food Supplies and Prevalence of Chronic Undernutrition in Developing Regions as Assessed in 1992. Rome: FAO Press: 5). Children do not have the ability to forage for themselves, and their nutritional needs are exceptionally high. Hence, they are unable to survive for long on their own, especially in lean times. Moreover, they are especially susceptible to diseases and conditions which are the staple of undernourished people: simple infections and simple diarrhea (United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 1993: The State of the World's Children 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 22). Unless others provide adequate food, water, and care, children will suffer and die (World Health Organization (WHO) 1974: Health Statistics Report. Geneva: World Health Organization: 677, 679). This fact must frame any moral discussions of the problem.

"And so it does at least pre-reflectively. When most of us first see pictures of seriously undernourished children, we want to help them, we have a sense of responsibility to them, we feel sympathy toward them (Hume, D. 1978: A Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press: 368-71). Even those who think we needn't or shouldn't help the starving take this initial response seriously: they go to great pains to show that this sympathetic response should be constrained. They typically claim that assisting the hungry will demand too much of us, or that assistance would be useless and probably detrimental. An effort is, therefore, made to show that this sympathetic reaction is morally inappropriate, not that it does not exist.

"Our initial sense of responsibility to the starving and malnourished children of the world is intricately tied to their being paradigmatically vulnerable and innocent. They are paradigmatically vulnerable because they do not have the wherewithal to care for themselves; they must rely on others to care for them. All children are directly dependent on their parents or guardians, while children whose parents cannot provide them food -- either because of famine or economic arrangements - are also indirectly dependent on others: relief agencies or (their own or foreign) governments. Children are paradigmatically innocent since they are neither causally nor morally responsible for their plight. They did not cause drought, parched land, soil erosion, and over-population; nor are they responsible for social, political, and economic arrangements which make it more difficult for their parents to obtain food. If anyone were ever an innocent victim, the children who suffer and die from hunger are.

"Infants are especially vulnerable. They temporarily lack the capacities which would empower them to acquire the necessities of life. Thus, they are completely dependent on others for sustenance. This partly explains our urge to help infants in need. James Q. Wilson claims that our instinctive reaction to the cry of a newborn child is demonstrated quite early in life.

"'As early as ten months of age, toddlers react visibly to signs of distress in others, often becoming agitated; when they are one and a half years old they seek to do something to alleviate the other's distress; by the time they are two years old they verbally sympathize . . . and look for help' (Wilson, J. 1993: The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press: 139-40).

"Although this response may be partly explained by early training, available evidence suggests that humans have an 'innate sensitivity to the feelings of others' (Wilson 1993: 140). Indeed, Hans Jonas claims the parent- child relationship is the 'archetype of responsibility,' where the cry of the newborn baby is an ontic imperative 'in which the plain factual "is" evidently coincides with an "ought"' (Jonas, H. 1984: The Imperative of Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 30).

- Hugh LaFolette & Larry May, "Suffer the Children" in World Hunger and Morality. Ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFolette. Prentice Hall: Princeton, New Jersey, 1998.

Some useful links:

   " Children and Hunger" Bread Basket of the World Institute International Facts on Hunger and Poverty More than 840 million people in the world are malnourished-799 million of them are from the developing world. More than 153 million of them are under the age of five. Six million children under the age of five die every year as a result of hunger. .

   Save the Children. Documents the neglect of chldren's interests in development planning and offers alternatives.

Children in Need

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II. How Can My $100 Keep Thirty Children from Dying? Can You Break It Down for Me?

"Each year millions of children die from an easy to beat disease, from malnutrition, and from bad drinking water. Among these children, about 3 million die from dehydrating diarrhea. As UNICEF has made clear to millions of us, with a packet of oral rehydration salts that costs about 15 cents, a child can be saved from dying soon.

"By sending checks earmarked for Oral Rehydration Therapy, or ORT, to the U.S Committee for UNICEF, we can help save many of these children. Here's the full mailing address:

United States Committee for UNICEF
United Nations Children's Fund
333 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016

Now, you can write that address on an envelope well prepared for mailing. And, in it, you can place a $100 check made out to the U.S Committee for UNICEF along with a note that's easy to write:


So, as is reasonable to believe, you can easily mean a big difference for vulnerable children.

"Toward realistically thinking about the matter, I have used a figure far greater than just 15 cents per child saved: Not only does the U.S. Committee have overhead costs, but so does UNICEF itself; and, there's the cost of transporting the packets, and so on. Further, to live even just one more year, many children may need several saving interventions and, so, several packets. And, quite a few of those saved will die shortly thereafter, anyway, from some sadly common Third World cause. So, to be more realistic about what counts most, let's multiply the cost of the packet by 10, or, better, by 20!

"Forgetting one more Third World youngster to escape death and live a reasonably long life, $3 is a more realistic figure than 15 cents and, for present purposes, it will serve as well as any. Truth to tell, in the light of searching empirical investigation, even this higher figure might prove too low. But, as nothing of moral import will turn on the matter, we can postpone a hard look at the actual cost.

"With this $3 figure in mind, we do well to entertain this proposition: If you'd contributed $100 to one of UNICEF's most efficient life-saving programs a couple of months ago, this month there'd be over thirty fewer children who, instead of painfully dying soon, would live reasonably long lives. Nothing here's special to the months just mentioned; similar thoughts hold for most your adult life, or from the time your allowance was big enough for you to send so much as $100 to UNICEF. And, more important, unless we change our behavior, similar thoughts will hold for our future." (Much about the causes of childhood death, and about the interventions that can nullify these causes, is systematically presented in James P. Grant's The State of the World's Children 1993, published for UNICEF by the Oxford University Press in 1993. And this information can be cross- checked against the (somewhat independent) material in the more massive World Development Report 1993, published for the World Bank by the OUP in 1993. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Man and Ox Plow, Bangladesh

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III. It is Sometimes Said That Morality Itself is Rational, But What Does That Mean? For Instance, Henry Shue Says "Basic Rights" Are, Among Other Things, "Rational Demands." Should I Worry About Whether My Sense That I Should Save the Child from Drowning is Rational or Not? And What About "Truth"? Are Moral Judgments True and Objective? And What if They are Not? Won't All Hell Break Loose? Aren't We Free Then to Do as We Darn Well Please?

"It's useful to put aside several large matters that, in moments of confusion, might be thought greatly to affect an answer to the Final Paper Topic, but on closer examination really do not affect the way we might answer the question one way or the other. By focusing on two of the very largest of those matters, the relationship between morality and rationality and morality and truth (or objectivity), I'll try to show how usefully and safely, this may be done.

"The first concerns the relation between morality and rationality. For millennia, philosophers have been concerned to show a strong connection between these two normative conceptions. In some instances, their belief has been that, unless morality has the backing of rationality, reasonable people, like you and me, won't engage in morally decent behavior. But, since there's nothing to this thought, I needn't here inquire into the relation between morality and rationality.

"Consider the following case, a case closely based on one from James Rachels:

The Shallow Pond Revisited

You and your four-year-old cousin, Sylvie, a distant relation whom you've previously seen only twice, are the only heirs of a bachelor uncle, very old and very rich, to whom you're both related. Now, the old man has only a few months left. And, as his will states, if both of you are alive when he dies, then you'll inherit only one million dollars and your cousin Sylvie, to whom the uncle's much more closely related, will inherit fully nine; but, if the order of deaths is first your cousin Sylvie, and then your uncle, you'll inherit all of ten million dollars. Right now, you see that it's this cousin Sylvie of yours who, even as she's the only other person anywhere about, is on the verge of drowning in the shallow ornamental pond. As it happens, you can easily arrange for things to look like you were then elsewhere, at the Human Rights Class or grabbing something to eat in USDAN; so, if you let the child drown, you can get away with it completely. And, since you'd take a drug that would leave you with no memories of the incident at all, you'll never feel even the slightest guilt. So, in a short time, you'll be able to enjoy ten million dollars, not just a measly million.

"As is very clear, your letting the child drown is extremely immoral behavior. But, it might be asked, is it irrational behavior? Now, some philosophers will hold that it's also irrational. By contrast, others will hold that, on at least one sense of 'rationality,' your conduct isn't irrational: You care for this very distant cousin Sylvie little more than for a perfect stranger; largely owing to the 'wonder' drug, there won't be any significantly bad effects on your life; and, 'hey, nine million ain't nothing to sneeze at,' and so on.

"For the sake of the exposition, let's suppose that, as a recent number of arguments from rational choice theory and cost-benefit analysis all conspire to show, the second group of philosophers is completely correct. On the understanding of rational behavior put forward by this second group, your saving the child must be highly irrational. For good measure, let's suppose, too, that you've become quite convinced of this yourself. With these strong suppositions firmly in mind, how many of us would let our four-year old cousin Sylvie drown?

"Very few will be even so much as strongly disposed to behave in such an immoral manner and fewer still would actually do it. So, fas far as being a potent guide for our conduct, morality certainly doesn't need any help from whatever authority we may accord to rationality. For the Final Paper Topic, it's quite enough to learn a lot about which conduct is really morally all right and, in contrast, which is immoral. If the former also has rationality's backing, that's fine; but, if not, it's no big deal.

"Properly placing to the side the very interesting question of how rationality relates to morality, I'll turn to the equally interesting question of how truth relates to morality. Now, various philosophers have been concerned to show that there are many significant moral truths and that, far from reducible to even the wisest people's most basic moral commitments, they're as fully objective as any truths. Again, given the purpose and significance of the question for the final, it's a distracting digression to investigate this issue.

"Why do objectivists offer arguments for our meta-ethical positions? Ranging from sheer intellectual impulses to religious convictions, the motivation behind these endeavors is very varied. But, it's just this worrisome one that perhaps stands in need of discussion here and now: What would happen if we believed there weren't any meaningful moral truths; wouldn't all hell break loose? Rather than feeling constrained by our deepest moral commitments, won't even decent folks like you and me be free to do whatever we please, or whatever is to our advantage? For, if our moral values don't point to some reality beyond themselves, then there's nothing to adhere any more than our most selfish desires. And, then, too, there won't be much point to trying to figure out what our moral values may be trying to tell us any more than trying to figure our preferences for Super Fudge Chunk or Cherry Garcia.

"Though those thoughts have a certain appeal, they're deeply confused. Recall the Rival Heirs and, this time, suppose you've come to think there aren't any objective moral truths. Will that free you up to let your four-year old cousin Sylvie drown? Not a chance. None of this is to deny the philosophical importance of investigating the relations between morality and truth or morality and rationality; it's just to say that, whatever holds for these metaphysical matters, investigating our moral values directly may lead us to engage in more decent behavior, quite apart from the answers we may give to these larger issues of moralitys rationality and truth." from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Woman at Rice Mill, Bangladesh

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IV. I Am Not Quite Certain How My Moral Intuitions Are Supposed to Fit Into All This? Should I Trust My "Moral Intuitions" or Do I Have Reason to be Suspicious?

Why might we be suspicious about our immediate, moral intuitions. Well, one reason to be suspicious is that some moral intutions that some people have had about certain forms of conduct in the past, are not the same as the intuitions that people have today.

Consider the accepted assessments of two famous Virginian founders of the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They're pretty nearly as positive as Jefferson's judgments of Washington:

'In war we have produced a Washington, whose memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name will triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world. . . ' (from Jefferson's 'Notes on the State of Virginia,' as included in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings, The Library of America, 1984, p.190. Jefferson's 'Notes' were originally published in England in 1787)

He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good and a great man. . . His heart was not warm in its affections; but he exactly calculated every man's value, and gave him a solid esteem proportioned to it....On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. . . (Jefferson's letter of January 2, 1814 to Dr. Walter Jones; see page 1319 of Thomas Jefferson: Writings)

So, we think that Washington was, at the very least, quite a good man. And, even as we also greatly admire Jefferson, we believe that, overall, their conduct was good.

But, a little hard thought makes the lofty assessments puzzling: During all their years of maturity, they had slaves and, in the bargain, they lived lavishly. Now, as historians indicate, it wasn't impossible for them to free their slaves and live less lavishly. About Washington's last two years, Alden writes:

He now owned 277 slaves, far more than could be usefully employed at Mount Vernon. It was possible for him, by selling many that he did not need, both to secure cash and to reduce his expenses, but he could not bring himself to resort to such a sale, certain to bring unhappiness to the slaves. He even considered the possibility of developing another plantation where the blacks not needed at Mount Vernon could be located. He also was concerned with arrangements for property when he should die. In the late summer of 1798 he had been seriously ill with a fever and had lost twenty pounds. He had rapidly regained weight and was to all appearances in very good health. Nevertheless, he was conscious that his death would come at no distant time. He drew up his will. Martha was to enjoy the use of the bulk of his estate. After her death Bushrod Washington was to have Mount Vernon, and the remainder of the estate except for special bequests was to be divided among his relatives and those of Martha, with one most important exception. He was determined to free his slaves. His personal servant, Billy Lee, was to be freed immediately upon Washington's death. His blacks and those belonging to Martha had intermarried, and he could not legally set loose her blacks during her lifetime. Accordingly, he arranged for all of their slaves to be freed at her death. His executors must provide for the aged blacks, and the young were to be supported and taught to read and write. He stipulated that certain shares of stock should be used to help finance schools . . . (John R. Alden, George Washington, Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1984, pp. 302-303)

But, of course, much of that conduct is very questionable. Why didn't Washington free some of his solely owned slaves well before his death, like Billy Lee, for one? Apparently, by selling some few stocks, our first President could have provided well for them. Evidently, there's no morally satisfactory answer. And, even if George had to convince Martha by threatening her, with divorce or worse, why didn't he see to it that, long before either died, all their slaves were freed and supported? Again, no very decent answer.

In various ways, Jefferson's life differed from Washington's, but not in any ways that excuse him. For, he also could have freed his slaves without any serious suffering. To be sure, had either done that, he wouldn't have enjoyed such a lavish Virginian life. But, morally, so what? Until their deaths, both freely remained slaveholders. When that fact's combined with our positive assessments, there's this puzzle about the Old Virginians: How can someone who keeps behaving like that, year after year, be a decent person, or be someone whose total behavior is even all right? Apparently, in our moral assessments, there's a questionable double-standard at work: For those Virginians, slaveholding won't disqualify their total conduct from having high moral status. But, for us, no such assessment's available.

That's puzzling; but, the puzzle can instruct. So, next, let's note some historical differences. By contrast with our society today, in old Virginia things were like this: First, it was a common practice to hold slaves. Second, as far as many engaged in the practice were concerned slaveholding wasn't a morally terrible thing. Third, through interaction with folks who behaved and thought like they did, for Old Virginians social pressure made it psychologically very hard to choose to become slaveless.

On first reflection many think those three differences do much to explain the puzzling disparity. While that thought's initially plausible, it's very misleading. To show how it's misleading, it's helpful look at a puzzle that's an expansion of the puzzle of the Old Virginians, the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians. After a short Historical Preamble, I'll do some Stage Setting, and, then, we'll confront the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians itself.

Historical Preamble: When slavery prevailed in Virginia, it was also prevalent even in various distant parts of the world. In Brazil, for example, it continued for decades after it ended in the South of the United States. In Volume 2 of The World Book Encyclopedia, the 1988 edition, for example, there's an article "Brazil," by J. H. Galloway of the University of Toronto. He ends the section on "The Age of Pedro II," with these words: 'In 1888, a law abolished slavery in Brazil and freed about 750,000 slaves. Most of them had worked on plantations, and Brazil's powerful slaveowners became angry at Pedro when they were not paid for their slaves. In 1889, Brazilian military officers supported by the plantation owners forced Pedro to give up his throne. He died in Paris two years later. In 1922, his body was brought back to Brazil. Brazilians still honor Pedro II as a national hero.' By contrast, in still other parts of the world, like Australia, there never was any slavery. According to the article "Australia" in same Encyclopedia, Australia's white settlers treated her Aborigines very much as the whites who settled in what's now the U.S. treated this country's Native Americans. While very bad behavior, that wasn't slaveholding. End of Preamble.

Onto the Stage Setting: Imagine an entire contemporary society where, year after year, many still engage in slaveholding. Imagine, too, that this contemporary society is Peter Singer's native land, Australia. The Stage is Set.

Suppose the early Australian settlers enslaved the island's Aborigines and, even today, many wealthy Australians have slaves working on their vast ranches and farms. Still, insofar as it's possible with folks kept as slaves, these masters treat them well, providing, for example, better facilities and accommodations than at all but the finest resorts. Now, among the very most benevolent masters are one Paul Singer and one Mary Singer, each a first cousin of Peter. ( Of course, Peter himself doesn't keep any slaves and does all he can to end slavery.) Because they've discussed his views with him for years, Paul and Mary agree with Peter about all manner of issues their behavior might address, except for the matter of slavery. And, even on that score, his cousins' beliefs aren't all that different from Peter's. For, they believe what, at least at last, Washington and Jefferson believed: While slavery's certainly bad, it might not be all that horribly bad. What's more, we'll suppose that, apart from their slaveholding, Paul and Mary conduct themselves in a way that's even better than the morally good way Peter behaves. For example, working extremely hard and living very modestly, each year Paul gives almost all of the huge income from his organic fruit orchards toward the saving of many children in the Third World, and toward lessening other serious suffering. So, what we're supposing amounts to this: Apart from slaveholding, Peter Singer's cousins' conduct is much better than almost anyone's.

So (now) what's our intuitive assessment of their total behavior? As most respond, it's rather bad. But, a couple of questions show this negative judgment to be very puzzling: Why do we judge the imaginary Australians' conduct negatively, but judge the old Virginians' positively? And, even if we can find an explanatorily adequate answer, what adequate moral justification can there be for such a disparity?

As for the first question, it's clear there's a lot that needs explaining: In regards to the matter of slavery, Paul's and Mary's extremely benevolent conduct is at least somewhat better than Washington's and Jefferson's behavior. As regards other matters, since the Australians' conduct is morally so marvelous, it's also at least somewhat better than the Old Virginians'. But, those are all the matters there are! So, the conduct of our imaginary Australians is better than the behavior of our old Virginians.

When starting to explain, we might first note this: With the old Virginians, there were other societies then also heavily involved in slaveholding. But, with the imaginary Australians, theirs is the only society where there's still slavery. Is that a good way to start? Hardly. Just ponder this apt enlargement of the hypothetical example: In addition to Australia's large society, several others, like Brazil's, persisted in slavery right up to the present time. To this expanded case, mostpeople respond just as negatively.

The Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians accentuates what's disturbing in the Puzzle of the Old Virginians. But what's going on in these cases? Without telling too long a story, here's one attempt at a short answer:

To begin, it's worth noting that, in our moral judgments, we're greatly influenced by 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' With regard to certain morally bad forms of behavior, (we have the idea that) humanity has morally progressed beyond its being even the least bit normal for anyone to engage in behavior of those forms. Of course, slaveholding is one of these morally surpassed forms. And, much earlier still, we progressed beyond its being at all normal to support entertainments where people try to kill each other, as with the gladiators of ancient Rome. Here's a suggestion about that Idea's influence: Once a very bad form of behavior is (taken by us to be) surpassed, we'll give negative assessments to the total conduct of those (taken to be) engaged in behavior of that form after what's actually (taken to be) the time of the surpassing, (unless they break with the form, soon enough, and then don't resume such bad behavior). By contrast, when someone's engagement in a bygone form is all before that actual time, we're open to giving his or her total conduct a positive assessment. It's this pervasive double-faced tendency that explains both our strangely disparate responses to many actual cases, as with the Puzzle of the Old Virginians, and our strange reactions to many hypothetical cases, as with the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians.

Both to make the suggestion's content clearer and to provide it with support, another far-fetched example serves well: For all of the 18th and much of the 19th century, to entertain themselves and other white folks, certain Virginian masters occasionally made one of their slaves fight to the death with the slave of another wealthy slaveholder. As we'll suppose, while Washington took care never even to so much as attend any such ghastly event, Jefferson was one of these "Neo-Roman" practitioners and, as the odds had it, some of his slaves were killed in these "backyard spectacles." To this case, we make the definite moral response that Washington's total conduct would have been good and Jefferson's bad.

Many believe, at least in certain respects, there's been some moral progress. And, some of it satisfies 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' But, the influence of that 'Idea' is far stronger, perhaps, than it should be: Mainly owing to that, we underrate the total conduct of people who, as we suppose, engage in behavior of a form that's been surpassed; just so, we underrated Paul's and Mary's (hypothetical) total behavior. And, as regards the whole of their conduct, we overrate those who, before it was surpassed, did engage in such bad behavior; just so, we overrate Washington's and Jefferson's (actual) total conduct. And, closely related to both of those distortional tendencies, perhaps a third involves us in closely related errors.

Perhaps, right now, we're engaging in conduct that, though it's of certain morally horrible forms, is still quite normal behavior. Then, since these bad forms haven't been surpassed, we may be overrating our own behavior. Now, perhaps our (distant) descendants will make so much moral progress that, at some future time, humanity will surpass some of these bad behavioral forms. But, if 'The Idea of Moral Progress' has much the same influence then as now, which we may very well suppose, even they will overrate us. Let's pursue that thought.

Here's a form of behavior that, though we're now heavily engaged in it, might well be thought terrible by our descendants and, for that reason, might be morally surpassed by them: letting distant innocents needlessly die by, say, our not sending money to UNICEF. So, even if it never actually happens, i.e., that our descendants come to think this way, we may instructively suppose that, centuries hence, humanity's made just such progress as this: Whenever well-off folks learn of people in great need, they promptly move to meet the need, almost no matter what the financial cost. So, at this late date, the basic needs of almost all the world's people will be met almost all the time. Still, once in a while, a great natural disaster may befall many folks in what is, then as now, one of the world's most dangerous areas, like the cyclone prone coast of Bangladesh. Whether through demanding to be taxed more by their governments, or through contributing to non-governmental organizations, or whatever, very many millions of the world's more fortunate folks make sure such beleaguered people don't ever undergo more serious suffering than a big cyclone causally necessitates. What's more, should any of these descendants find themselves facing such preventable suffering as now actually obtains, they'd devote almost all their energy, and resources, toward lessening the suffering. To do any less would be as unthinkable for them. say, as having slaves is unthinkable (now) to us. Finally, in making moral judgments, they'll be just as affected as we by 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' Just as we overrate Washington and Jefferson, cutting them slack in the matter of slaveholding, they'll overrate you and me, cutting us slack in the matter of allowing children in need to die.

From this discussion, two lessons emerge, one pretty specific, the other far more general. Specifically, as we've seen one distortional tendency evoke misleading responses, both to hypothetical examples and even to actual cases, it won't be surprising to see with regard to a number of considerations in our list of (1) through (20) supposed differences between the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope, the operation of others. More generally, this thought puts the whole enterprise of making sense of our reposnses to the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope in an appropriately humbling perspective: However much we increase our awareness of morality, it may hardly ever seem that our currently very consequential conduct is even mildly wrong. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Girls Playing, Guatamala

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V. The Case of The Envelope Suggests That If I Send $100 to UNICEF, Thirty Less Children Will Die, But There May be Other Ways of Preventing Children from Dying That Are Even More Effective Than Sending Money to UNICEF. Is This an Excuse or Reason Not to Give?

It is true there are many who live in the affluent nations who fear that their aid won't do anything more than line the pockets of charitable organizations. But we have already addressed this issue to some extent by re- calculating the value of the $100 you send to UNICEF, taking into account that some of it will go to administrative costs. But then there is another related worry, the worry that the money sent to UNICEF will not solve the problem of chronic starvation. More likely we should empower the children's primary caretakers so they can care and feed their children. But while it is true that there are clear links between, say, literacy rates and chronic malnutrition such that mothers with higher literacy rates are less likely to have malnourished children and so it may appear that one way to begin to "solve" the problem of world hunger is by funding programs that improve the overall literacy of a people in a given region, it also remains true, right now, that sending money to UNICEF will prevent the deaths of thirty children.

The issue then, however, is whether to send money but to whom it should be sent. OXFAM, for one, provides aid to empower people, who live in countries and regions of the world prone to famine and malnutrition, to feed themselves and their children. So if your worry is that your money may prevent more deaths in the long run or is likely to be more efffective if sent to one organization than another, you should modify the case of The Envelope to address this worry, not use it as an excuse to give no money at all. This worry is addressed further in the section on Emergencies vs. Chronic Horrors below, but if it's a worry that is likely to get in the way of your being able to think about the question effectively, you should change the name of the organization from UNICEF to OXFAM and send or fail to send a check to OXFAM instead. So to make these considerations a little less abstract, here are several key links which will enable you to contact Oxfam Amercia, one of a number of independent organizations around the world and under the general auspices of Oxfam International:

Oxfam International        Oxfam International

Oxfam America border=       Oxfam America

Oxfam Canada       Oxfam Canada

Community Aid Abroad       Oxfoam Community Aid Abroad, Oxfam in Australia

Oxfam Hong Kong      Oxfam Hong Kong

Intermon       Interm-n website Oxfam in Spain

Oxfam New Zealand      Oxfam New Zealand

Novib      Oxfam in the Netherlands

Oxfam Qu*bec      Oxfam Quebec

CAMEX      Oxfam Latina Oxfam Great Britain's Spanish language Web site for Latin America

Oxfam (India) Trust      Oxfam (India) Information and analysis on Oxfam in India

ontheline.gif (841 bytes)      On The Line Make the millennium more than just a moment in time with On The Line: a partnership project of Oxfam GB, World Wildlife Fund UK and Channel 4 Television

In speaking to this worry about the effectiveness of the aid, your inability to figure out which relief agencies are likely to be most effective should not determine or cloud your thinking about whether or not you ought to send money at all. It's important to emphasize that UNICEF is quite effective in doing what it does on behalf of children in need. You could send the money to OXFAM, but you should know if you do send money to UNICEF, you will prevent children from dying.

In this regard, it may be useful to say something about the regions where the easily preventable childhood deaths have been occurring. In each of the past 30 years, well over 10 million children died from readily preventable causes. And, except for a lack of money aimed at doing the job, most of the deaths could have been prevented by using any one of many means.

First, there's this well-known fact: Over ninety percent of these deaths occur in the countries of the so-called "Third World." By contrast, here's something much less widely known: Though almost all these needless deaths occur in the materially poorest parts of the world, poverty itself is hardly the whole story.

For a good case in point, take the poverty-ridden Indian state of Kerala, shown in the film 'The Politics of Food.' While per capita income in this state of about thirty million is notably lower than in India as a whole, life expectancy in Kerala is higher than in any other Indian state. And, the childhood mortality rate is much lower than in India as a whole. Why? Without telling a long historical story, most of the answer may be put like this: In this vibrantly democratic and responsive state, Kerala's millions have food security, safe drinking water and very basic health care. By contrast, many of the richer Indians don't have their basic needs met, and don't have their children's needs met. So, while often a factor, poverty itself hardly explains why millions of kids needlessly die each year.

As is well known, many millions of children don't get enough to eat. These related truths are less well known: First, for each child that dies in a famine, several die from chronic malnutrition. Second, even if she gets over eighty percent of the calories needed by a youngster of her age for excellent health, a child who regularly gets less than ninety percent is so malnourished that she'll have a dangerously inadequate immune system. Third, what happens to many such vulnerable children is that, because they are among the many millions who haven't been vaccinated against measles, when they get measles they die from it. So, fourth, each year mere measles still kills about a million Third World kids. UNICEF's worldwide immunization campaign has been making great strides against measles for years. So, while just a few years ago measles claimed over 1.5 million young lives, in recent years, it has claimed about 1 million.

Several means of reducing measles deaths are worth mentioning, including these: Semiannually, an underfed child can be given a powerful dose of Vitamin A, with capsules costing less than 10 cents. For that year, this will improve the child's immune system. So, if she hasn't been vaccinated, during this year, she'll be better able to survive measles. What's more, from her two capsules, she'll get a big bonus: With her immune system improved, this year she'll have a better chance of beating the two diseases that take far more young lives than measles claims, pneumonia and diarrhea.

Though usually all that's needed to save a child from pneumonia is the administration of antibiotics that cost about 25 cents, pneumonia now claims about 3.5 million young lives a year, making it the leading child- killing disease. But, let's again focus on measles.

For about $17 a head, UNICEF can vaccinate children against measles. On the positive side, the protection secured lasts a life-time; with no need for semiannual renewal, there's no danger of failing to renew protection! What's more, at the same time each child can be vaccinated for life- time protection against five other diseases that, taken together, each year kill about another million Third World children: tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Perhaps best of all, these vaccinations will be part of a world-wide immunization campaign that, over the years, is making progress toward eliminating these vaccine-preventable diseases, much as smallpox was eliminated only a decade or two ago. Indeed, with no incidence in the whole Western Hemisphere since 1991, polio is quite close to being eliminated; with good logistical systems in place almost everywhere, the campaign's success depends mainly on funding. In 'Polio Isn't Dead Yet,' which appeared in The New York Times, June 10, 1995, Hugh Downs, the chairman of the U.S. Committee, usefully writes, 'The United States spends $270 million on domestic [polio] immunization each year. For about half that amount polio could be eliminated worldwide in just five years, according to experts from Unicef and the World Health Organization. If the disease is wiped off the earth, we would no longer need to immunize American children and millions of dollars could be diverted to other pressing needs.'

Finally, the vast majority of the world's very vulnerable children live in lands with UNICEF programs operating productively, including all 13 developing countries lately ranked, i.e., as of 1992, among the world's 20 most populous nations: China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines, Iran, Turkey and Thailand. Each of these countries has a well established UNICEF program in place, and the program work wells in large parts of each of these countries. And this means that through the likes of UNICEF, it's well within the power of each of us, in the coming months and years, to lessen serious suffering.

For even modestly well-informed persons, these facts do not come as a big surprise. All they'll have learned are some particulars pertaining to what they've learned long ago: By directing donations toward a worthy end, well- off folks can be very effective in lessening serious suffering and loss. Indeed, so well accustomed are many of us to this thought that, after hearing the presented facts, most of us won't make any notable response. For far fewer persons, what's related here will be something completely new. From many of them, remarks such as these often evoke a very notable response, even if a fleeting one, about how we ought to behave: The thought occurs that each of us should contribute (what may well be for us) quite a lot to lessen early deaths; indeed, it's seriously wrong not to do so.

But, soon after making such a strict response, the newly aware also become well accustomed to the thought about our power. And, then, they also make the much more lenient response that almost everyone almost always makes: While it's good for us to provide vital aid, it's not even the least bit wrong to do nothing to help save distant people from painfully dying soon. The prevalence of the lenient response is apparent from so much passive behavior: Even when unusually good folks are vividly approached to help save distant young lives, it's very few who contribute anything. In a typical recent year, 1993, the U.S. Committee for UNICEF mailed out, almost every month, informative appeals to over 450,000 potential donors. The prospects were folks whose recorded behavior selected them as well above the national average in responding to humanitarian appeals. With only a small overlap between people in each mailing, during the year over 4 million "charitable" Americans were vividly informed about what just a few of their dollars would mean. With each mailing, a bit less than 1% donated anything, a pattern persisting year after year. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Which of these two opposite responses gives the more accurate indication of what morality requires? Is it really seriously wrong not to do anything to lessen distant suffering; or, is it quite all right to do nothing?

Haitian Children, Haiti

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VI. Peter Singer's Argument: Consequences, Rights, and Obligations

While directly concerned more with famine relief than with the children's health issues just highlighted, it was Peter Singer who first thought to argue, seriously and systematically, that it's the first response that's on target. Both early on and recently, he offers an argument for the proposition that it's wrong for us not to lessen distant serious suffering. His argument's first premise is this general proposition: 'If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.'

So that it may help yield his wanted conclusion, Singer has us understand this premise in a suitably strong sense, with its consequent, 'we ought to do it,' entailing 'it's wrong for us not to do it,' not just 'it's better for us to do it than not.'

Singer, too, believes that the general proposition should appeal to utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike, 'because,' as he says, 'the injunction to prevent what is bad only applies when when nothing comparably significant is at stake. Thus, the principle cannot lead to the kinds of actions that [human rights activists] strong disapprove: serious violations of individual [human] rights.' Again, as he Singer says, if anyone who cares deeply about human rights regards 'these violations as comparable in moral significance to the bad thing that is to be prevented, they will automatically regard the principle as not applying in those cases in which the bad thing can only be prevented by violating rights . . .'

Girl Drawing Water, Cambodia

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VII. Is Singer's Argument Deceptive?

Singer acknowledges that the non-controversial appearance of the principle 'that we ought to prevent what is bad when we can do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance is deceptive. If it were taken seriously and acted upon, our lives and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle applies, not just to rare situations in which one can save a child from a pond , but to the everyday situations in which we can assist those living in absolute poverty. In saying this [Singer] assumes that absolute poverty, with its hunger and malnutrition, lack of shelter, illiteracy, disease, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy, is a bad thing. [He] assumes that it is within the power of the affluent to reduce absolute poverty, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. If these two assumptions and the principle . . . are correct, we have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty that is no less strong than our obligation to rescue a drowning child from a shallow pond.' More formally, the argument Singer makes looks like this:

First Premise:
'If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to to do it.'

Second Premise:
'Absolute poverty is wrong.'

Third Premise:
'There is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.'

'We ought to prevent some absolute poverty.'

But if we examine Singer's third premise more closely, it may, on closer examination, prove to be less deceptive and controversial than it first appears. As Singer says, the third premise 'only claims that some absolute poverty can be prevented without the sacrifice of anything of comparable moral significance. It thus avoids the objection that any aid I can give is just "drops in the ocean" for the point is not whether my personal contribution will make any noticeable impression on world poverty (of course it won't) but whether it will prevent some poverty. This is all the argument needs to sustain its conclusion, since the second premise says that any absolute poverty is bad, and not merely the total amount of absolute poverty.' So, as Singer argues, 'if without sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance, we can provide just one family with the means to raise itself out of absolute poverty, the third premise is vindicated.'

Singer's talk of an obligation to assist those who are in absolute poverty can easily be translated into talk of an obligation to assist children in need. For instance, by sending $100 to UNICEF, you need not think that your contribution will or must 'make any noticeable impression' on preventing childhood deaths in the developing countries, only that it will prevent thirty more children from dying.

And this brings us full circle, back to a consideration of the larger question: What might morally ground judging John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond negatively, but not judging your conduct in the case of The Envelope negatively?

It is certainly true that there are any number of significant differences between the two cases. The issue before you, however, is to ask and answer for yourself whether any of these differences are moral differences. It is one thing to explain our moral intuitions and responses; it is quite another to justify them. Do any of the differences enumerated and expanded upon below not only explain but also justify our moral judgments of John's conduct in the one case and your conduct in the other?

Woman Weaver, India

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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 (Physical Proximity)

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?' from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Women Processing Grain, Mali

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IX. The Child That John Could Save from Drowning Was, Like John, an American; Whereas the Children in the Envelope Case are All Foreigners (Social Proximity)

While (again) it may be more likely that John will respond to the drowning child more immediately if the child is socially close to him, even this is far from obvious. In such a case there may not be much time to determine the nationality or ethnicity of the drowning child and no one surely would suggest that if John elected to 'do the right thing' and save the child that were he to discover, once he had saved her, that she was Bolivian, not American, he would throw her back. Putting aside the related issues of whether, for instance, we should only be obligated to members of our own family, surely the ethnicity or nationality of the child has no moral relevance! from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Or does it?

Spices in Marketplace, Somalia

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X. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond John acquires his information directly; he "sees" what he needs to do. But in the case of The Envelope the information is much more indirect.

How an agent learns of the great need he can help meet may make a difference in certain cases, but if it does, it usually does so because the information that we acquire indirectly is less reliable or we are less inclined to be sure if it's true. But in the case of The Envelope you can be quite certain what is going to happen if you do not contribute to UNICEF. And if this is, isn't it also true that the fact that you acquire the information directly morally insignificant? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Man with Bike, Cambodia

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XI. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond John acquires his information directly; he "sees" what he needs to do. But in the case of The Envelope the information is much more indirect.

Experiential impact often goes along with informative directness: In the case of the Drowning Child, both the needy child himself and the condition of her great need entered into John's own experience. But, that's not so in the Envelope. About this difference, common sense is clear: While the need may seem more pschologically compelling in the case of the Shallow Pond than with children you do not experience directly, there's no moral weight here. Or is there? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Women Dancing, Senegal

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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 Philosophy 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 Philosophy 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 Philosophy 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? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Women Planting, Mozambique

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XIII. In the Case of the Drowning Child in the Pond there was just one person in need of being saved; whereas there is a "vast multitude" in need of saving as part of UNICEF's program.

When thinking of the Envelope case, we may feel overwhelmed by the enormous multitude of seriously needy children: we may think to ourselves "In the face of that vast multitude, my efforts are virtually useless." But given this feeling of futility, of hopelessness, is there something to distinguish between the Envelope case and the Drowning Child? At first, it may seem so: "In the Shallow Pond case, there was just a single individual in need; in the Envelope, there are so many altogether in a vast multitude.

But, isn't it also true that the drowning child is also just one of the very many greatly needy children in the world. And, while there are certain perspectives from which she'll seem an especially singular figure, that's also true of every last one of the needy children whose will be saved through UNICEF. So, in point of even mathematical fact, neither thoughts of the multitude nor thoughts of particular individuals can mark any distinction at all between our two cases. Or can they? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Weaver, Bolivia

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XIV. Aid to those children that UNICEF is trying to help should be the responsibility of governments and should not be the responsibility of privately run charities and certainly not my responsibility.

When thinking of the likes of the Envelope, many entertain the thought of the governments: "Toward aiding the distant needy children, a person like me, who's hardly a billionaire, can do hardly anything. But, through taxation of both people like me and also billionaires, our government can do a great deal. Indeed, so wealthy is our country that the government can do just about everything that's most needed. What's more, if our government joined with the governments of other wealthy nations, like France and Germany and Japan, then, for any one of the very many well-off people in all the wealthy nations, the financial burden would be very easily affordable. And, since making one's tax payments is a routine affair, the whole business would be nearly automatic. Just so, these governments really ought to stop so many children from dying young. And, since they really ought to do the job, it's all right for me not to contribute." What do you make of this fairly common line of thought?

Well, whatever it precisely means, you might believe that governments ought to contribute, annually, the tens of billions of dollars that would ensure that only a tiny fraction of the world's poorest children suffer seriously. And then, whatever it means, it's even true that, their conduct is seriously wrong if they fail to contribute. But, what's the relevance of that to assessing your own behavior, and John's? If you know full well that, for all thatgovernments do and do not do, each year millions of Third World children die from easily preventable causes and kmnowing that your $100 will prevent the deaths of thirty moree children, what difference does the failure of governments to act on your failure to contribute?

Doesn't it appear that in morally important respects, in the Envelope your situation vis-a-vis that envelope from UNICEF is the same as a group of four students, all in their Gucci shoes, who walk by the drwoning child in the Shallow Pond, no? If all three of John's friends fail to help the child in need, does that somehow let John off the hook? Similarly, in the Envelope case it is harder for you to do as much for distant needy children than it is for the most wealthy governments, and perhaps the cost to you is, will be, in some respects, proportionately greater. And so it's also credible that, in the Envelope case, your tossing the envelope into the wastebasket isn't as bad as a wealthy government's failure to act. But are you only thinking of degrees of badness here or is there something to the thought that governments ought to help and you need not feel in any way obligated to do so? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Maybe the point is that all of us should do more? Is that the point? In this respect, perhaps you think it is more important to be politically active, more important to lobby in the interests of children in need than to give directly to UNICEF. But as Peter Singer might say, "Why not do both?" Is believing that aid to children in need in foreign lands is the government's responsibility a justification for not giving or merely an excuse not to give yourself?

As Peter Singer has pointed out, it si sometimes thought that "giving privately allows the government to escape its responsibility?" Is that also part of the thought here? "That the more people there are who give through voluntary agencies, the less likely it is that the government will do its part?" In response to this, Singer has argued "that if no gives voluntarily the government will assume that its citizens are not in favor of overseas aid, and will cut its program accordingly. In any case, unless there is a definite probability that be refusing to give we would be helping to bring about an increase in government assistance, refusing to give privately is wrong since it would then be a refusal to prevent a definite evil for the sake of a very uncertain gain." What do you think?

Man with Donkey Plow, Eritrea

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XV. Even if I do send the $100 to UNICEF, there'll still be many children very prematurely dying. Indeed, no matter what I do, there'll still be, for very many years, very many children dying from easily preventable causes.

In this thought, is there something to distinguish between our two cases, between John's conduct and your conduct? At first, it may seem so: "Unlike the Envelope's distant children, the Drowning Child presented John with a particular distinct problem. If only he waded in and pulled the child out, the problem would have been completely resolved. Starting with just such a problem, John would finish with nothing less than a completely cleaned scene. But even if I contribute to UNICEF and save thirty more children from dying, there will be a continuing mess involving all those distant children who did not receive aid!"

Is this appearance illusory: Isn't the drowning child just as much a part of the "continuing mess in the world" as the distant children UNICEF is trying to help? As has long been true, and as will long remain true, the world has people who drown. If distant children are part of a "continuing mess," so is the drowning child, no? Neither saving the drowning child nor sending $100 to UNICEF will offer the chance of transforming the world into a cleaned scene. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Woman with Basket, Senegal

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XVI. The child in need in the case of the Shallow Pond is an emergency; whereas the situation of the children in the case of The Envelope is not.

First of all, is this really true, and second, if it is, does this provide us with a moral ground for distinguishing between the two cases?

Shared with many other emergencies, what are the main points to note about the Shallow Pond incident? Well, until recently,this particular child was doing reasonably all right; at least, her main needs were regularly met. Then, all of a sudden, things got worse for her and, for the first time in a long time, she had a big need on the verge of not being met. In the case of the children on whose behalf UNICEF is making its appeal, however, these distant little children were always in at least pretty bad straits. And, in their part of the world, for a long time many people's great needs weren't met and, consequently, those many suffered seriously. But, then, even as there's no emergency in the case of the Envelope, the situation' it seeks to address is far worse than almost any emergency. To highlight this, we may say that, in the situation that the Envelope seeks to address, there's a chronic horror. Indeed, during the very few years they've had before dying, those children were among the worst off people in the world, while the child in the Shallow Pond had a few years of a reasonably good life. So now it would seem that not helping in the envelope case, tossing the envelope into the wastebasket, requires an even stronger justification, no?

For a more fine-grained picture of emergencies, it's useful to look at the cyclone- prone country of Bangladesh, where about 15 million people, out of about 115 million, live in the vulnerable coastal region. The victim of 7 of the century's 10 worst cyclones, in the past 25 years 3 big ones struck Bangladesh. When the 1970's big cyclone struck the unprepared country, the windstorm killed about 3 million, about 2.5 million succumbing, in the storm's devastating aftermath, to waterborne disease. Far beyond just helping to prompt the writing of Singer's "Famine, Affluence and Morality," this disaster "sparked the founding of Oxfam America," about 25 years after the original Oxfam was founded in Oxford, England. With help from such foreign non-governmental organizations (NGO's), and with hard work by Bangladeshi groups and individuals, by 1991 a lot was done to make the country's people less vulnerable to killing winds; when a big cyclone hit Bangladesh that year, only(!?) about 130 thousand folks were killed, a dramatic improvement. But, still, a great many poor people still had to bury their children, or their parents, or their spouses, or their siblings, or their best friends. So, with continued support from far and near, Bangladeshis continued to work hard. So, by 1994 they had built 900 cleverly designed cyclone shelters, each able to protect thousands of people. Here's the first sentence of the piece in Oxfam America News commenting on the result: "On May 2, a 180 mph cyclone pummeled southeastern coastal Bangladesh, claiming just under 200 lives." Though it looks like there's a misprint, that's as well ordered as it's well warranted.

For ever so many years, really, but, especially in more recent years, most in the world's poorest countries, including Bangladesh, have lives that are actively effective, socially committed, and part of a palpable upward trend; their lives are clearly well worth living. When thinking whether to help these materially poor people, so that more and more of them will bury fewer and fewer of their children, it's useful to have that in mind.

Regarding emergencies, what's to be found in our responses to the cases? Perhaps, the following may be useful:

"In the case of the Shallow Pond, the child is in immediate danger; with relatively little effort John can remove her from danger. Through no fault of our own, our lives and welfare may be jeopardized. Admittedly some acute need results from our ignorance or stupidity. Even so, others should assist us when feasible, at least if the cost to them is slight. After all, even the most careful person occasionally makes mistakes. When need is caused by natural disaster or personal error, we each want others to come to our aid. Indeed, we think they should come to our aid. If, upon reflection, our desire for assistance is reasonable when we are in need, then, by extension, we should acknowledge that we should help others in similar need. Shared responsibility and sympathy conspire to create the sense that we should go to the aid of those who cannot alleviate their own acute needs.

"Our common vulnerability to circumstances and to the "scanty provision nature has made" leads us to seek ways to protect ourselves against misfortune and error. Natural disasters occur. They may occur where I live; they may not. Prudent people will recognize that we are all more secure, and thus, better off, if we recognize a shared responsibility to assist others in acute need.

"This responsibility is all the more apparent when those in need cannot care for themselves and are in no way responsible for their plight. In short, the responsibility is greatest (and less contentious) when children are the victims. In fact, when children are in acute need, especially when many are in a position to help, there's little moral difference between the responsibility of biological parents and others. If a child is drowning, then even if the parents (or some third party) tossed the child into the pond (and are thus singularly responsible for the child's plight), we should still rescue her if we can. Likewise, if a child is starving, and her need is acute, then even if the child's parents and its government have acted irresponsibly, we should still feed the child if we can.

"Arguably the problem is different if the acute need is so substantial and so widespread as to require us to make considerable sacrifices to help those in need. In this case our responsibilities to the children in acute need may resemble our responsibilities to children in chronic need.

"Acute need arises once (or at least relatively infrequently). It requires immediate action, which, if successful, often alleviates the need. But most hunger is not acute, it is chronic. Chronic hunger is the hunger of persistently malnourished children, where the causes of hunger are neither episodic nor easily removed. If the need can be met at all, it can be met only through more substantial, sustained effort, and often only by making numerous (and perhaps fundamental) institutional changes, both within our countries, and the other countries in need of aid.

"That is why Singer's case is disanalogous with most world hunger. The drowning child is in acute need. Suppose, however, that Singer's fictional child lives on the edge of a pond where she is relatively unsupervised. We cannot protect this child by simply dirtying our clothes once. Rather, we must camp on the pond's edge, poised to rescue her whenever she falls or slips into the water. However, can we reasonably expect anyone to devote her entire life (or even the next six years) as this child's lifeguard? It is difficult to see how. The expectation seems even less appropriate if there are many children living beside the pond.

"Likely the only sensible way to protect the child from harm is to relocate her away from the pond. Or perhaps we could teach her to swim. But are we responsible to make these efforts? Do we have the authority to forcibly relocate the child or to erect an impregnable fence around the pond? Can we require her to take swimming lessons? Can we force her government to make substantial internal economic and political changes? In short, even though we are morally responsible to assist those in acute need (and especially children), we cannot straight-forwardly infer that we must assist those (even children) in chronic need.

"For instance, if we try to save a child from famine, we may have reason to think that quick action will yield substantial results. Not so with chronic hunger. Since we are less likely to see the fruits of our efforts and, we may be less motivated to assist. Moreover, some have argued that we can alleviate chronic need only if we exert enormous effort, over a long period of time. If so, expecting someone to respond to chronic need arguably burdens her unduly. Responsible people need not spend all their time and resources helping those in chronic need, especially if there is only a small chance of success.

"Consider the following analogy which illuminates that insight. Suppose an adult builds a house by the side of a river that floods every few years. After the first flood we may help them, thinking we should respond to someone who appears to be in acute need. However, after the second or third flood, we will feel it is asking too much of us to continue to help. We would probably conclude that this adult has intentionally chosen a risky lifestyle. They have made their own bed; now they must sleep in it. Although this case may well be disanalagous to the plight of starving adults since most have little control over the weather, soil erosion, or governmental policy nonetheless, many people in affluent nations think it is analogous.

"What is indisputable, however, is the case is totally disanalogous to the plight of children. Children did not choose to live in an economically deprived country or in a country with a corrupt government. Nor can they abandon their parents and relocate in a land of plenty, or in a democratic regime. Hence, they are completely innocent in no sense did they cause their own predicament. Moreover, they are paradigms of vulnerability.

"Since they are the principal victims of chronic malnutrition, it is inappropriate to refuse to help them unless someone can show that assisting them would require an unacceptable sacrifice. That, of course, demands that we draw a line between reasonable and unreasonable sacrifice. We do not know how to draw that line. Perhaps, though, before drawing the line we should ask: if it were our child who was starving, where would we want the line to be drawn?"

(from Hugh LaFolette & Larry May, "Suffer the Children" in World Hunger and Morality. Ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFolette. Prentice Hall: Princeton, New Jersey, 1998)

Coffee Farmer, El Salvador

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XVII. When someone will drown very soon unless you help her, it's morally required that you aid. But, if there's lots of time before anything much happens, aiding isn't morally required.

Often, it's especially important to act when matters are urgent. Urgency is not quite the same thing as an emergnecy, but it's close. Mightn't this be a ground for judging your conduct in the Envelope case more leniently than John's conduct?

It's plenty obvious that, in the case of the Shallow Pond, there's plenty of urgency: If John doesn't get his feet wet pretty quickly, the child will die. And, it appears that, in the case of sending money to UNICEF, there's no urgency: Even if you put $100 in the mailbox just a minute from now, it will take at least a couple of weeks for that to translate into life-saving aid for anyone. What's more, if you don't send anything right away, you can do it later, say, next month. Soon or not so soon, just as many, thirty children, will be prevented from dying.

In these thoughts of a contrast, however, is there clarity or confusion? It is undoubtedly true that, in many cases, it's important both to act promptly and to have one's conduct determined by a clear sense of who's in the most imminent danger. Is it possible that just as the Shallow Pond's a case with morally important urgency, so is the case of the Envelope?

What do you think? Well, consider the following two cases. For both, we'll make these suppositions:

In room A, John is tied down with rope and, next to him, a time bomb's set to go off in just an hour. Unless he's untied and released from the room, its explosion will kill him. The same for room B, except the bomb in room B is set to go off in 24 hours and Alice is in room B. She is tied down with rope and, next to her, a time bomb's set to go off in 24 hours. Unless she's untied and released from the room, its explosion will kill her. You can save either John or Alice, but not both.

For the first case, from what you know so far, it is quite natural to assume if you save John in room A, there will not only still be time for someone to save Alice in B, but, during the extra 23 hours, Alice will enjoy extra chances for rescue that John never could have had.

But now, for the second case, make the additional assumption that there aren't any extra chances even for Alice in B and that you know this with absolute certainty, beyond what you'll do soon.

In the first case, clearly you must save John in A, but, what of the second case? Well, in some sense, perhaps it's still true that John's in a more urgent situation than Alice. But, still, there's little reason to favor aiding him. So it seems, from cases such as these, what moral weight attaches to urgency is due to the lesser chances of avoiding serious loss that, normally but not inevitably, are found in situations where there's little time to save the day. But, between the case of the Shallow Pond and the the case of the Envelope, there's never any such difference in the chances. Or is there? What more can be said to enlighten ourselves on this score?

Well, there's a continual flow of aid from some of the world's well-off folks to many of the most seriously needy. At it's far end, every day there are thousands of children on the very brink of death. Today, their vital need is a very urgent. In the case of some 40,000 of these children, this will be proven by the fact that, even as their need won't be met today, by tomorrow they'll be dead. Of course, just as urgent are the needs of thousands of others who, only through receiving today some very timely ORT, won't be dead tomorrow or, happily, any time soon. To be sure, there are many more thousands of children whose vital needs today aren't so very urgent: For over 40,000 of these, in just two days, their needs will be that urgent. And, for over 40,000 others, in just three days they'll have such terribly urgent needs; and so on. Just so, for over forty thousand still other needy youngsters, their last day alive with danger will be in 30 days, or 31, that is, just a month from now.

Consider these "monthers." In some respect, it may be true that, over the next month, their needs will become more and more urgent. But, since we can be certain that, if you don't donate to UNICEF soon, more of these "monthers" will die, what moral relevance can any such increase in urgency have for your behavior? Clearly, none at all, no?

By contrast, what matters is that, very soon, you begin to lessen the number of children who die a month from now and that, then, you help lessen the number who die shortly after that, and so on. So, facts like it's taking a month for your mailed check to have a vital impact aren't morally significant. To think otherwise is like thinking that, in the second case of the two rooms, saving John in A is morally much better than saving Alice. But as we saw, there seemed to be little reason, in the second case, to come to John's aid rather than Alice's

In morally relevant respects, it's as if each greatly needy child is like a man or a woman in a room, tied down with a rope, with a time bomb set to explode. Some children's bombs are set to go off around noon tomorrow; others' are set for five days hence; still others' are set for a month from now. But, since it's certain that, for all everyone else will do, even in a month's time many of the children still won't have their ropes untied, and so in these different settings there's precious little moral weight to saving some children right away or saving some children a little later. Because the ways of the world are slow to improve for quite awhile, remarks like these will be quite true, will they not? And, that's more certain than that you yourself will be alive a day from now. So, our moral common sense seems to deliver the message: As for morally weighty urgency, there's plenty in the case of the Shallow Pond and there's plenty in the case of The Envelope. Or is this wrong? Is this not the way to think about urgency?

Say you still think urgency is key, that it helps to explain the difference in your moral judgment of John who fails to save the child from drowning and your moral judgment of yourself, if you were to toss the Envelope from UNICEF and its contents into the wastebasket. would your judgment of your conduct in the Envelope Case change if we added a bit of urgency to it? Consider the following:

Super-Express Fund
The most bizarre thing in your mail today is an appeal from the SEF or Super Express Fund: By calling a certain number and using any major credit card, you can donate $500 to the SEF right away, night or day. The effect of such a prompt donation will be that one more child will receive ORT this very day and, in consequence, won't soon die. Of course, the SEF's appeal makes clear the reason that it will cost so much to provide ORT to just one child: Upon hearing from you, your credit card donation is attended to personally, directly, and completely. So, moments after your call, a certain ORT packet is rushed to the nearest international airport, whisked to the next jet bound for Africa, and so on. Eventually, in a remote region, a paramedic rushes from a speeding vehicle. After examining several dying children, he chooses one that, certainly, is today on the very brink of death. Then, he rapidly mixes the solution and administers it to just that most urgently needy little child. But, you don't ever make such a call and, in consequence, one more child dies than if you'd made the requested donation.

Do you think any worse of yourself for failing to contribute to the Super Express Fund than you thought of yourself for failing to contribute to the appeal from UNICEF in the case of The Envelope? Does urgency make a difference? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Woman in Field, Ethiopia

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XVIII. If John saved the child from drowning, his aid would have been causally focused on that particular needy child; whereas in the case of The Envelope , even if I'd behaved helpfully and mailed in my check, there'd never be anyone for whom I'd have made the difference between suffering a serious loss and suffering none.

A distinction between causally focused aid and causally amorphous aid is similar to several other differences that might be proposed to mark a moral difference between the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope, but is nonethless worthy of consideration in its own right. If John had provided aid to the drowning child, his helpful behavior would've been causally focused on that particular needy person. Next, causally amorphous aid: In the case of the Envelope, even if you'd behaved helpfully, there'd never be a child of whom it would be true that, had you sent in $100, she wouldn't have died prematurely. Rather, on one end of a causal chain, there are many donors contributing together and, on the other, there are all the people saved by the large effort they together support. The more support given, the more children saved. Does this provide a moral ground for being more lenient, less hard on someone, who tosses the appeal from UNICEF into the wastebasket?

But surely, since there's nothing morally objectionable about proceeding to aid greatly needy folks amorphously, no moral weight attaches to the precise character of the causal relations between the well-off and those whom, whether collectively or not, they might help save. The morally important thing is that the vulnerable don't suffer, no? would you be more inclined to respond to UNICEF's appeal if it were causally focused, and, if so, would your becoming so inclined suddenly carry moral weight?

The Special Relations Fund
You receive material from a group that assures you they'll find a very, very ill, little child that your money, if you contribute, will prevent from dying prematurely. Since very many, very, very ill, little children are out there, this won't be terribly difficult, or costly, but neither will it be very cheap and easy to have your vital aid be causally focused: So, if you donate $100 to the SRF, while only one less child will die soon, the group will ensure that your donations makes the big difference for the one child. But, you send nothing and, in consequence, one more child dies than would have lived had you made the requested donation. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mother and Child, Senegal

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XIX. If John saves the child from drowning, he provides a service for a needy person; whereas in the case of The Envelope , if I behave helpfully, all I have to provide is money.

In the case of the Shallow Pond, to provide apt aid John must perform a service forthe child in need. Moreover, one of his goods would be needed in the performance of the service, namely, his Gucci shoes. By contrast, in the case of The Envelope all you must contribute is money; and, beyond the trivial effort needed to mail the money, the monetary cost is all you incur. Can this difference favor a lenient judgment of your tossing UNICEF's appeal into your wastebasket?

Often, the difference between mere money and, on the other side, actual goods and services, has a psychological impact on us: When there's a call for our money, generally we think of what's going on as just charity. And, when thinking this, it seems all right to decline. But, at least in blatantly urgent situations, when there's a call for services, or one of our especially apt goods, a fair number of us think we must rise to the occasion. Does this difference have much moral relevance?

What does your moral common sense tell you on this score: Does it matter whether it's money, or goods, or services, or whatever, that's needed from you to lessen serious suffering. There isn't a stronger moral call on you when it's your goods or services that are needed aid than when it's just your money or is there?

When disasters strike, like earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods, organizations work to aid the imperilled victims. On many of us, these groups often call only for our money. But, on some, they call for goods or services: For example, one good group may suggest that, since you're well placed in the pharmaceutical industry, you might make calls to your associates, asking them to donate medicines needed by victims of last week's disaster. But, plenty often, in these ordinary cases, the needs aren't salient to the agent approached and, then, our uncritical reactions are lenient. So, plenty often, the fact that what's needed is an agent's services, or his or her goods, doesn't affect our responses to cases. But perhaps you think it does or you think it should affect our responses to the two cases at hand? How can this be made out? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fishermen, Peru

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XX. If John saved the child from drowning, he'd know, when all was done, whom he saved; whereas in the case of The Envelope I don't know whom I am saving from an early death.

So, even if you donated the $100 requested in the case of The Envelope, and even if you thereby helped save some people, you wouldn't know which children you helped save from an early death, or even aided at all. In the case of the Shallow Pond, by contrast, John would know whom he aided. Can this favor a more lenient judgment of your conduct in the case of The Envelope? What does your common sense tell you? Does it matter morally whether you come to know whose dire needs you help meet? Consider the following:

The Very Special Relations Fund
Not only does the VSRF (Very Special Relations Fund) make sure your $200 will go to save the life of a certain particular child, but it makes sure you'll get to know which child that is. By providing you with her name and a picture of the child saved, you'll know precisely which child's life just your donation served to spare. Still, you don't send anything and, in consequence, one more child soon dies than if you'd made the requested donation.

Does your judgment of your own conduct in this more epistemically focused case change from your judgment of your conduct in the original case, where you do not know whom your $100 will save? Now consider the following:

The Vintage Boat
John's one real luxury in his life is a vintage power boat. In particular, he is very happy with the fine wood trim of the handsome old boat. Now, there's been a big shipwreck in the waters off the coast where his boat's docked. From the pier, in plain view several hundred are struggling. Though both Coast Guard boats and private boats are already on their way to the people, more boats are needed. Indeed, the more private boats out and back soon, the more people will be saved. But, it's also plain that, if John goes out, still, owing to all the melee, nobody will ever know which people will have been benefited by John. Indeed, for each of the people in distress whom John might bring in, it will be true to say this: For all anyone will ever know, that person might have been brought in by another boat, in which case some other person, whom some other boat rescued, would've perished. On the other hand, this John does know: While there's no risk at all to him, if he goes out, his boat's wood trim will get badly damaged, and he'll have to pay for expensive repairs. So, he leaves his boat in dock and, as a consequence, a few more plainly struggling people in distress soon drown. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

So what are your intuitions here? Do you like John any better now?

Women in Rice Paddy, Vietnam

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XXI. John should save the child from drowning, but it's not wrong for me not to contribute to UNICEF because we should look after those near to us, our families, and then to the children who are in need in our own country, before we think about poor and dying children in other far-off places.

Here's what Peter Singer has to say about this particular concern: "No doubt we do instinctively prefer to help those who are close to us. Few could stand by and watch a child drown; many can ignore a famine in Africa. But the question is not 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, or community membership, makes a crucial difference to our obligations.

"Consider, for instance, racial affinities. Should people of European origin help poor Europeans before helping poor Africans? . . . People's need for food has nothing to do with their race. . . The same point applies to citizenship or nationhood. Every affluent nation has some relatively poor citizens, but absolute poverty is limited largely to the poor nations. Those living on the streets of Calcutta, or in the drought-prone Sahel region in Africa, are experiencing poverty unknown to the West. Under these circumstances it would be wrong to decide that only those fortunate enough to be citizens of our own community will share our abundance.

"We feel obligations of kinship more strongly than those of citizenship. Which parents could give away their last bowl of rice if their own children were starving? To do so would seem unnatural, contrary to our nature as biologically evolved beings, although whether it would be wrong is another question altogether. In any case, we are not faced with that situation, but with one in which our own children are well-fed, well-educated, and would now like new bikes, a stereo set, or their own car. In these circumstances, any special obligations we might have to our children have been fulfilled and the needs of strangers make a stronger claim upon us.

"The element of truth in the view that we should first take care of our own. lies in the advantage of a recognized system of responsibilities. when families and local communities look after their own poorest members, ties of affection and personal relationships achieve ends that would otherwise require a large, impersonal bureaucracy. Hence it would be absurd to propose that from now on we regard ourselves as equally responsibile for the welfare of everyone in the world; but an obligation to assist does not propose that. It applies only when some are in absolute poverty, and others can help without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance; and before that point had been reached, the breakdown of the system of family and community responsibility would be a factor to weigh the balance in favor of a small degree of preference for family and community. This small degree of preference is, however, decisively outweighed by existing discrepancies."

Young Girl, Vietnam

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XXII. If I donate to UNICEF, I'll just help create a situation, in the further future, when there'll be disastrously more children painfully dying. So, it's actually better to throw away the envelope. At the very least, it's not wrong.

When thinking about cases like the Envelope, many often have some thought of the disastrous further future: "If I help prevent some of these young children from dying soon, then, years from now, they'll produce yet more children, worsening the population explosion that, more than anywhere else, goes on precisely where there are so many imperilled children.

But is this just another excuse not to give or is there substance to this concern? Doesn't it require us to know much, much more about population explosion, overpopulation, population control, and so on, to begin to even think about this concern fully? And if it were true, that saving thirty children from dying now will only make for more pressure on the population of the planet, albeit quite miniscule, is this a way of distinguishing between the two cases, between John's saving the child from drowning and my sending money to UNICEF?

Say John notices (he has a very keen eye) that the child who has fallen into the shallow pond is from Bangladesh. Say he knows this because a couple and their five children from the porest regions of Bangladesh are visiting Brandeis to talk with students about the food crisis there. They plan to return shortly top their country and the region from which they have come. UNICEF has made arrangements for them to visit so that students might have the opportunity to speak directly to a family that is experiencing the hardships talked about in the question for the Final in the Philosophy class as part of a newly sponsored UNICEF Program: "Operation Wake-Up." Imagine, too, that John is one of those persons in the Philosophy class who has expressed concern about the long-term consequences of saving children through UNICEF's ORT Project on the future population of countries like Bangladesh.

So there's John at the edge of the pond in his brand new Gucci shoes and he's overcome his worry about the damage his shoes will suffer if he comes to this child's aid. But now just as he's about to wade into the pond and pull the child to safety, the following thoughts flood his mind: "If I save this child from drowning, her parents will take her back to Bangladesh and she'll probably grow up to be a very attractive person and give birth to many little Bangladeshi's. But if I do not save her from drowning and head straight for the Human Rights class to the hospital, then, she won't be able to contribute to any further population explosion further down the road and to a disastrous dying of Bangladeshi's many years hence. So a quick calculation of the future effects upon world population of my being a Good Samaritan in this particular instance, it's best for all concerned that get myself to the Philosophy class and leave this child to drown. In any event, if someone were to ask me what I did, I shall at least be able to say I did what was best in the long run, and if anyone has any difficulty accepting that analysis, I won't have behaved badly."

If John were to act in this way with the accompanying rationale above for his having acted as he did, would you think anymore leniently of his behavior than your judgment of his behavior in the "original" case of the Shallow Pond?

Does this variant of the Shallow Pond case suggest that the effects of sending money to UNICEF on the world population or future generations are not morally relevant? What do yout think? Garret Hardin makes a case for population control through famine and starvation, what is the evidence on the other side? Some believe and argue that, contrary to Hardin, the available evidence strongly supports the thought that decreasing childhood mortality stabilizes population. To be sure, the increasingly widespread availability of modern contraceptives is partly responsible for the recent big decreases in how fast the world's population is growing, as many studies show. If you are concerned about population control, this is one reason, even if perhaps not the most important reason, to support the International Planned Parenthood Federation, or IPPF. With maternal mortality still standing at about 500,000 women a year, IPPF is also cutting down the number and, so, lessening the number of children, still in the millions, who each year become motherless, although if you are concerned with over-population this may make support of the IPPF more complicated for you. Also in IPPF clinics, many in the developing countries receive the basic health care they need. Perhaps the greatest of all IPPF affiliates, Colombia's PROFAMILIA supports some clinics for men only. Owing to that, the terribly macho attitudes of many Colombian men have become much less macho, a big benefit to many Colombian women. At all events, in Colombia there's occurring a population success story. The IPPF's most relevant address is:

International Planned Parenthood Federation
International Planned Parenthood Federation
Western Hemisphere Region, Inc.
902 Broadway - 10th Floor
New York, NY 10010

IPPF Affiliate Organizations and Programs:

UNAIDS: The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

United Nations

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

United Nations Development Programme

United Nations Office in Geneva

United Nations Population Fund

United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN)

United Nations Economic Comission for Europe (UNECE)

World Bank

World Health Organization


Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

United Kingdom Department for International Development (DfID)

United States Agency for International Development (USAID)


Abortion Access Project

Action Canada for Population Development

Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (ARHP)

Alan Guttmacher Institute

Baylor College of Medicine

Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC)

The Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA)

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy

The Consortium for Emergency Contraception (CEC)

Demographic and Health Surveys

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ)

Developments: the International Development Magazine (produced by DFID)

Doctors of the World

Earth Times newspaper

Endometriosis Association


Face to Face Campaign

Family Care International

Family Health International

Family Planning Council of Pennsylvannia

FORWARD Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development (Campaign against FGM)

German Foundation for World Population (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung)

Global Reproductive Health Forum at Harvard

Inter-European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development

JAMWA, Journal of the American Medical Women's Association

The International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS

International Family Health

International Women's Health Coalition (IWHC)


JHPIEGO Corporation

Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs

Johns Hopkins University Population Center

JOICFP (Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning)

KNOW HIV/AIDS- a global media campaign partnership of Viacom Inc and the Kaiser Family Foundation

Management Sciences for Health

Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Marie Stopes International (Commonwealth focus group on HIV/AIDS)

Pathfinder International

People & the Planet

Population Action International

Population Communications International

Population Concern

Population Council

Population Institut

Population Media Center

Population Reference Bureau

Path (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health)

Program for the Study of Sexuality, Gender, Health and Human Rights at Columbia University, New York City

The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

Reproductive Health Alliance

Reproductive Health Outlook (produced by PATH)

ReproLine: Reproductive Health Online (maintained by JHPIEGO Corp.)

Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (ReCAPP)

"See Change" Campaign - (CFFC)

Sexually Transmitted Infections Journal

Safe Motherhood

UNESCO Youth Coordination Unit

Vasectomy Medical

World Population Foundation (WPF)

Youth Education Learning & Development (YIELD IRELAND)

Still, for population to stabilize, much more is needed than what the IPPF is able to provide. What's also needed can be seen from many perspectives. Take the Indian state of Kerala, highlighted in the film "The Politics of Food," for an example: Since the Total Fertility Rate's already down to 1.9, or even lower, population won't just stabilize there; it will decline. Beyond widespread availability of contraceptive means, there are other reasons that fully 80% of Keralan couples actually use family planning measures: Because they know the childhood mortality rate there is very low, Keralans can be confident that, without having many kids, they'll have some surviving children. And, since they know the community will make sure their basic needs are met, Keralans know that, even without children to rely on, their life expectancy is high. And, since the female literacy rate is very high, marking much respect for women's interests, it's no surprise that in Kerala there's a population success story. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Here is Peter Singer's on "Population and the Ethics of Triage":

"Perhaps the most serious objection to the argument that we have an obligation to assist is that since the major cause of absolute poverty is overpopulation, helping those now in poverty will only ensure that yet more people are bom to live in poverty in the future. In its most extreme form, this objection is taken to show that we should adopt a policy of 'triage'. The term comes from medical policies adopted in wartime. With too few doctors to cope with all the casualties, the wounded were divided into three categories: those who would probably survive without medical assistance, those who might survive if they received assistance, but otherwise probably would not, and those who even with medical assistance probably would not survive. Only those in the middle category were given medical assistance. The idea, of course, was to use limited medical resources as effectively as possible. For those in the first category, medical treatment was not strictly necessary; for those in the third category, it was likely to be useless.

"It has been suggested that we should apply the same policies to countries, according to their prospects of becoming self-sustaining. We would not aid countries that even without our help will soon be able to feed their populations. We would not aid countries that, even with our help, will not be able to limit their population to a level they can feed. We would aid those countries where our help might make the difference between success and failure in bringing food and population into balance. Advocates of this theory are understandably reluctant to give a complete list of the countries they would place into the 'hopeless' category; Bangladesh has been cited as an example, and so have some of the countries of the Sahel region of Africa.

"Adopting the policy of triage would, then, mean cutting off assistance to these countries and allowing famine, disease, and natural disasters to reduce the population of those countries to the level at which they can provide adequately for all. In support of this view Garrett Hardin has offered a metaphor: we in the rich nations are like the occupants of a crowded lifeboat adrift in a sea full of drowning people. If we try to save the drowning by bringing them aboard, our boat will be overloaded and we shall all drown. Since it is better that some survive than none, we should leave the others to drown. in the world today, according to Hardin, 'lifeboat ethics' apply. The rich should leave the poor to starve, for otherwise the poor will drag the rich down with them.

"Against this view, some writers have argued that overpopulation is a myth. The world produces ample food to feed its population, and could, according to some estimates, feed ten times as many. People are hungry not because there are too many but because of inequitable land distribution, the manipulation of third world economies by the developed nations, wastage of food in the West, and so on.

"Putting aside the controversial issue of the extent to which food production might one day be increased, it is true, as we have already seen, that the world now produces enough to feed its inhabitants-the amount lost by being fed to animals itself being enough to meet existing grain shortages. Nevertheless population growth cannot be ignored. Bangladesh could, with land reform and using better techniques, feed its present population of 115 million; but by the year 2000, according to the United Nations Population Division estimates, its population will be 150 million. The enormous effort that will have to go into feeding an extra 35 million people, all added to the population within a decade, means that Bangladesh must develop at full speed to stay where it is. Other low-income countries are in similar situations. By the end of the century, Ethiopia's population is expected to rise from 49 to 66 million; Somalia's from 7 to 9 million, India's from 853 to 1041 million, Zaire's from 35 to 49 million. What will happen if the world population continues to grow? It cannot do so indefinitely.

"It will be checked by a decline in birth rates or a rise in death rates. Those who advocate triage are proposing that we allow the population growth of some countries to be checked by a rise in death rates that is, by increased malnutrition, and related diseases;,by widespread famines; by increased infant mortality; and by epidemics of infectious diseases. The consequences of triage on this scale are so horrible that we are inclined to reject it without further argument. How could we sit by our television sets, watching million starve while we do nothing? Would not that be the end of all notions of human equality and respect for human life? ... Don't people have a right to our assistance, irrespective of the consequences?

"Anyone whose ,~initial reaction to triage was not one of repugnance would be an unpleasant sort of person. Yet initial reactions based on strong feelings are not always reliable guides. Advocates of triage are rightly concerned with the long-term consequences of our actions. They say that helping the poor and starving now merely ensures more poor and starving in the future. When our capacity to help is finally unable to cope - as one day it must be - the suffering will be greater than it would be if we stopped helping now.

"If this is correct, there is nothing we can do to prevent absolute starvation and poverty, in the long run, and so we have no obligation to assist. Nor does it seem reasonable to hold that under these circumstances people have a right to our assistance. If we do accept such a right, irrespective of the consequences, we are saying that, in Hardin's metaphor, we should continue to haul the drowning into our lifeboat until the boat sinks and we all drown. If triage is to be rejected it must be tackled on its own ground, within the framework ,of consequentialist ethics. Here it is vulnerable. Any consequentialist ethics must take probability of outcome into account. A course of action that will certainly produce some benefit is to be preferred to an alternative course that may lead to a slightly larger benefit, but is equally likely to result in no benefit at all. Only if the greater magnitude of the uncertain benefit outweighs its uncertainty should we choose it. Better one certain unit of benefit than a 10 per cent chance of five units; but better a 50 per cent chance of three units than a single certain unit. The same principle applies when we are trying to avoid evils.

"The policy of triage involves a certain, very great evil: population control by famine and disease. Tens of millions would die slowly. Hundreds of millions would continue to live in absolute poverty, at the very margin of existence. Against this prospect, advocates of the policy place a possible evil that is greater still: the same process of famine and disease, taking place in, say, fifty years' time, when the world's population may be three times its present level, and the number who will die from famine, or struggle on in absolute poverty, will be that much greater. The question is: how probable is this forecast that continued assistance now will lead to greater disasters in the future? Forecasts of population growth are notoriously fallible, and theories about the factors that affect it remain speculative.

"One theory, at least as plausible as any other, is that countries pass through a 'demographic transition' as their standard of living rises. When people are very poor and have no access to modern medicine their fertility is high, but population is kept in check by high death rates. The introduction of sanitation, modern medical techniques, and other improvements reduces the death rate, but initially has little effect on the birth rate. Then population grows rapidly. Some poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are now in this phase. If standards of living continue to rise, however, couples begin to realise that to have the same number of children surviving to maturity as in the past, they do not need to give birth to as many children as their parents did. The need for children to provide economic support in old age diminishes. Improved education and the emancipation and employment of women also reduce the birth-rate, and so population growth begins to level off. Most rich nations have reached this stage, and their populations are growing only very slowly, if at all.

"If this theory is right, there is an alternative to the disasters accepted as inevitable by supporters of triage. We can assist poor countries to raise the living standards of the poorest members of their population. We can encourage governments of these countries to enact land reform measures, improve education, and liberate women from a purely child-bearing role. We can also help other countries to make contraception and sterilisation widely available. There is a fair chance that these measures will hasten the onset of the demographic transition and bring population growth down to a manageable level.

"According to United Nations estimates, in 1965 the average woman in the third world gave birth to six children, and only 8 per cent were using some form of contraception; by 1991 the average number of children had dropped to just below four, and more than half the women in the third world were taking contraceptive measures. Notable successes in encouraging the use of contraception had occurred in Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Bangladesh. This achievement reflected a relatively low expenditure in developing countries - considering the size and significance of the problem - of $3 billion annually, with only 20 per cent of this sum coming from developed nations. So expenditure in this area seems likely to be highly cost- effective. Success cannot be guaranteed; but the evidence suggests that we can reduce population growth by improving economic security and education, and making contraceptives amorc widely. available.

"This prospect makes triage ethically unacceptable. We cannot allow millions to die from starvation and disease when there is a reasonable probability that population can be brought under control without such horrors. Population growth is therefore not a reason against giving overseas aid, although it should make us think about the kind of aid to give. Instead of food handouts, it may be better to give aid that leads to a slowing of population growth. This may mean agricultural assistance for the rural poor, or assistance with education, or the provision of contraceptive services. Whatever kind of aid proves most effective in specific circumstances, the obligation to assist is not reduced.

"One awkward question remains. What should we do about a poor and already overpopulated country that, for religious or nationalistic reasons, restricts the use of contraceptives and refuses to slow its population growth? Should we nevertheless offer development assistance? Or should we make our offer conditional on effective steps being taken to reduce the birth-rate? To the latter course, some would object that putting conditions on aid is an attempt to impose our own ideas on independent sovereign nations. So it is- but is this imposition unjustifiable?

"If the argument for an obligation to assist is sound, we have an obligation to reduce absolute poverty; but we have no obligation to make sacrifices that, to the best of our knowledge, have no prospect of reducing poverty in the long run. Hence we have no obligation to assist countries whose governments have policies that will make our aid ineffective. This could be very harsh on poor citizens of these countries-for they may have no say in the government's policies-but we will help more people in the long run by using our resources where they are most effective. The same principles may apply, incidentally, to countries that refuse to take other steps that could make assistance effective-like refusing to reform systems of land holding that impose intolerable burdens on poor tenant farmers." - Peter Singer, Practical Ethics.

Some useful links:

   United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN). Latest 1998 information on population trends.

   Zero Population Growth. In their own words, " Zero Population Growth, Inc. (ZPG) is a national non-profit organization working to slow population growth and achieve a sustainable balance of people, resources, and the environment."

   The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

   The United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), September 5-13, 1994 in Cairo, Egypt

   The Cairo Conference Home Page

   Bill McKibben, "A Special Moment in History," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1998.

   Mark Sagoff, "How Many Is Too Many?," The Atlantic Monthly, February 1993.

   The Carrying Capacity Network Home Page

   Do We Consume Too Much?," Atlantic Monthly, June 1997. Reviews of Do We Consume Too Much? by Mark Sagoff and Discussions of the future of the planet are dominated by those who believe that an expanding world economy will use up natural resources and those who see no reasons, environmental or otherwise, to limit economic growth. Neither side has it right

   The Non-Trivial POP- ulation Quiz How much do you know about the population of this planet? Here is an opportunity for you to test your "POP I.Q."

The world population reached six billion at the beginning of the 1999 academic year.

In October 1999, the United Nations announced this global demographic event. It marked the first time in human history that any generation has witnessed the tripling of world population, which was a mere two billion in 1930 (up from 1 billion in the early 1800's).

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XXIII. John should save the child from drowning, and once he's done so, he's "off the moral hook," so to speak, but if I donate to UNICEF, there's hardly any stopping; having saved thirty children, there'll be another thirty to save, and so on and so on and so on.

In the case of the Shallow Pond, it's quite clear that it's a fairly rare circumstance, not your "every day occurrence," you might say, so once John has saved the child, he'll be off the moral hook for a good long while. But the case of The Envelope might produce a radically different response: "UNICEF's appeal is asking me to help in a siuation that is, alas, all too common, so even if I behaved well in the case of The Envelope and sent $100 to UNICEF, I'd probably face this situation all over again in the not so distant future. Indeed, just you wait, shortly after I contribute to UNICEF another letter will arrive in my mailbox from OXFAM and then from CARE and I'll have to go through the same sort of agony about whether or not to respond to UNICEF and if I send money to OXFAM and CARE , just you wait, a new letter will arrive in my mailbox from UNICEF, thanking me for my contribution and asking me for another! I'll never be off the moral hook, never, never, never! So, between the two cases, between the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope there's a huge moral difference." Is this a sound reflection? What do you think?

So the question is: Is there a sort of distinction (say, "rare occurrence" vs. "not-so-rare occurrence") that can ground a strict moral judgment of John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond, but not for the case of The Envelope? At first glance, this question seems to introduce a new issue, a distinction different from and totally unlike any of the distinctions we have encountered so far. But is it a new issue?

Suppose that, though far from rich, you've already donated fully a fourth of your income this year to support effective programs conducted by OXFAM, UNICEF, and CARE . Assume you did this by responding quite positively to the many appeals that, during the past year, you received from the organizations. (Of course, unless you're "one in a million," this assumption is likely to be false. While quite a few of us give a lot to elite institutions, and while many give much to local religious groups, hardly anyone gives even a fortieth of his or her annual income toward these programs. Each year well-off Americans give far more to Harvard University than to all three (OXFAM, UNICEF and CARE ) combined, and far more to Yale (although not to Brandeis) than all three combined; and they also give more even to a less elite institutions, like NYU, than to all combined. In any event, let's make the assumption that you have already donated a full fourth of your income to OXFAM, UNICEF and CARE ) Assume that before the year's over, there appears in your mailbox, complete with material about ORT and a return envelope, yet another appeal from UNICEF. Throwing up your hands, you think this: "Even forgetting about the thousands I've given to OXFAM and CARE this year, I've already sent UNICEF itself thousands of dollars. Now, I don't want to be a Scrooge, you understand; but, holy moly, enough is enough!" With that exasperating thought in mind, you throw away the most recent materia from UNICEF into your wastebasket..

Of course, there's another half to this little story: As you are throwing away this latest appeal from UNICEF, John is returing from his Philosophy class. He's feeling quite good about himself because contrary to expectations, he decided in the last minute to save the child from drowning and he told EVERYONE in the Philosophy class and the entire class gave John a standing ovation. So you can imagine he's feeling pretty smug as he walks barefoot back to his dorm room. He walks by the Shallow Pond on his way back to his dorm and he sees another child, a completely different, not the same child he just saved on his way to class, but a totally new child, same age as the last child, and apparently also about to drown but clearly another little girl. After watching this child for a split second or two, Joh throws up his hands and says, glancing heavenwards, but as much to himself as to anyone else: "Now, I don't want to be a Scrooge, you understand; but, holy moly, enough is enough!," And he hurries off to his dorm room to change his clothes and make a cup of instant hot chocolate and, not unsurprisingly, the child dies.

So, looking at your conduct and John's conduct in these two revisions of the Shallow Pond and The Envelope cases, what are your intuitive moral assessments? Is your judgment of your own conduct in the revised version of The envelope case just as lenient and your judgment of John just as harsh? And if so, what does this mean about the moral value of the distinction now under consideration? from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Village Women, Ecuador

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XXIV. John should save the child from drowning and to expect no less from John is to place no more than a reasonable demand on his conduct, but, as my previous concern makes plain, if I am to be judged negatively for tossing UNICEF's original appeal into my wastebasket that only goes to show that there is something very wrong with morality: that it is too highly demanding and what needs to change, then, is not my conduct, but our view of morality.

Peter Singer's position seems to commit us to the view that tobehave in a way that's not seriously wrong, even moderately well-off persons, like you and me, are going to have to contribute to vitally effective groups, like OXFAM and UNICEF, most of the money we now have, and most of what comes our way for the foreseeable future. And this is too demanding, too highly demanding. And insofar as what's demanded of John for John to be a good person in the case of the Shallow Pond is not highly demanding, but what's being demanded of me in the case of The Envelope is very highly demanding indeed, the level of the moral demands placed on John and on me mark a difference that makes a significant moral difference between the two cases, no? Well, take the two following propositions:

(1) The View that Ethics is Highly Demanding is the correct view of our moral situation.

And this other conditional proposition:

(2) (Even) if this View isn't correct, a strict judgment of my failure to respond in the case of The Envelope (still) won't do any more toward committing us to the View than will a strict judgment of John's behavior in the case of the Shallow Pond.

Now it is very liklely the case that ethics is highly demanding, highly demanding of all of us; that's the nature of the beast called "ethics." But, put this matter aside for the moment, and focus on the conditional proposition. The Conditional Proposition suggests, (2) suggests if a strict judgment of John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond doesn't commit us to anything very costly from a moral point of view, then neither does a strict judgment of the conduct of a person who tosses UNICEF's appeal into the wastebasket commit us to anything very costly. Is this so?

Consider the following relatively general principle:

Lessening (the Number of People Suffering) Serious Loss. Other things being even nearly equal, if your behaving in a certain way will result in the number of people who suffer serious loss being less than the number who'll suffer that seriously if you don't so behave (and if you won't thereby treat another being at all badly or ever cause another any loss at all), then it's seriously wrong for you not to so behave.

First, what is meant by "serious loss" here? well, even if it happens painlessly, when someone loses her life very prematurely, she suffers a serious loss. Next, some losses are less than serious: There's your losing just a tooth. And, there are financial losses from which you can recover. Anyway, there are all sorts of losses from which you might suffer: the loss of $100, the loss of the means to purchase a new bicycle, the loss of a life, the loss of a brand new pair of Gucci shoes, and so on. Now many may resist the idea that to bring in a concern for costs and losses on the one hand and benefits and gains on the other is not an appropriate set of considerations to include in any genuine moral principle. Some folks think see that such cares for costs conflict with any truly decent moral thinking. And they may, after all, be right, but put this caveat aside for the moment.

How might it be ensured that, even when followed fully, a precept won't ever mean a terribly burdensome cost? Of course, the best and perhaps the only honest way to do this is to see to it that, in the principle itself, there's a logical guarantee to this effect. So, consider the following maxim:

Pretty Cheaply Lessening Early Death
Other things being even nearly equal, if your behaving in a certain way will result in the number of people who very prematurely lose their lives being less than the number who'll do so if you don't so behave and if even so you'll still be at least reasonably well off, then it's seriously wrong for you not to so behave.

Before moving to an even less demanding specific maxim, notice two points about this one: First, complying with it can't have you be less than reasonably well off! And, second, your conduct in the case of The Envelope's conduct gets a severe judgment from the precept, as well as John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond.

Few truly rich folks, if any at all, will fully comply with Pretty Cheaply Lessening Early Death. So, for any particular billionaire, the cost of compliance will be very great: If the toll's not taken all at once, then a decently progressive sequence will soon turn any into someone who's just reasonably well off. So, for a maxim that's appealing even to the very rich, there must be a precept that's a lot like:

Very Cheaply Lessening Early Death
Other things being even nearly equal, if your behaving in a certain way will result in the number of people who very prematurely lose their lives being less than the number who'll do so if you don't so behave and if even so, you'll still be both (a) at least reasonably well off and (b) very nearly as well off as you ever were, then it's seriously wrong for you not to so behave.

Even for rich folks, this precept's full observance can't ever be very costly. And, since you're not very poor, you'll see clearly that, while it yields a strict judgment of your conduct in The Envelope case, it also yields a strict judgment of John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond. So, if we rely on this last precept as a guide for human conduct in the two cases, the case of the Shallow Pond and the case of The Envelope, aren't we then committed to the view that a strict judgment of your conduct in case of The Envelope is fully compatible with a View that Ethics is Highly Undemanding. from Peter Unger, "Living and Letting Die." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Louisiana Fishermen, USA

XXV. If John saves the child from drowning, he'll be saving, actually saving a child from dying; whereas in the case of The Envelope, if I send money, I will be only preventing children from dying.

So is this a difference between the two cases that might make a moral difference or might help to justify a more harsh judgment of John's conduct in the case of the Shallow Pond and a more lenient judgment of your tossing UNICEF's appeal into the wastebasket in the case of The Envelope?

Changing format for a second the following handed out in class might be of some (small) help: Consider the following:

John is the driver of a trolley [remember this?], whose brakes have failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and John can turn the trolley onto it. Unfortunately, there is one person on the right hand track. John can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley. John elects to turn the trolley onto the right hand track, killing the one person.

John's trolley dilemma would appear to be fairly uncomplicated. It would appear to involve the weighing of the loss of five lives against the loss of just one and whatever weight we assign to the loss of a human life, it would appear that, faced with one of two alternatives, to choose the alternative where five die rather than the alternative where only one dies would do more harm than good. I say "it would appear" because the two alternatives are not, not quite, as I have laid them out. If John chooses the latter alternative over the former, he actually kills another human being, whereas if he does not turn the trolley he is letting five die. There may be only a small difference in this situation between killing and letting die, but generally we take it to be a difference that makes some moral difference. Does the moral difference between killing and letting die prompt you to give different weights to the alternatives John faces, to assign, for instance, a greater weight to the harm John would cause by turning the trolley onto the right hand track? Does the moral difference in this case between killing and letting die make enough of a difference to effect how the balance of relative harms is struck?

2. Consider two variations on another hypothetical:

A. John hates Alice and wants her dead. John puts cleaning fluid in Alice1s cocoa and Alice dies. B. John hates Alice and wants her dead. Alice inadvertently puts cleaning fluid in her cocoa, mistaking it for liquid marshmellow fluff. John has the antidote to cleaning fluid, but does not tell Alice. Alice dies.

In (A) John Kills Alice, but in (B) he merely lets her die. There does not seem to be much to choose between the two scenarios, however. John seems just as bad in (B) as he is in (A), no?

Each of us is familiar of circumstances in the law where persons have a legal duty to refrain from performing certain actions that will be harmful to other persons and their property. So, for example, persons may back their car into the street from a driveway, but they have a legal duty to refrain from stepping on the gas when they see a small child in the rear-view mirror. Or I can use a sharp knife to carve the turkey, but I have a duty to refrain from plunging it into the back of your neck. But what are your moral intuitions about John's behaavior in (B) above? Might there be situations where omitting to do something for someone as opposed to doing something to her is a breach of duty?

CARE-Built Water System, Mozambique

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XXVI. If I donate to UNICEF, I will be spending my own money, and my money belongs to me and is something I am free to spend as I see fit and I should not be condemned for not giving to UNICEF something that I have a right to in the first place.

Of course, it might be possible for John to claim something quite similar in the case of the Shallow Pond. He might say "My Gucci shoes belong to me and if rescuing the child requires that I get my shoes wet beyond repair and I elect to keep my feet dry, that is my right and I should not be faulted for refusing to destroy what I have a right to in the first place: my Gucci shoes. Property rights should count for something and I have a right to my own property and I should not be condemned for refusing to part with my property just to save a child from drowning." But leaving aside this retort from John, many of us suspect that property rights do count for something. Here's Singer on this score and although he is not speaking directly to our two cases he is trying to make sense of how property rights might cause difficulties for his views on our obligation to contribute to famine relief:

"Do people have a right to private property, a right that contradicts the view that they are under an obligation to give some of their wealth away to those in absolute poverty? According to some theories of rights (for instance, Robert Nozick's), provided one has acquired one's property without the use of unjust means like force and fraud, one may be entitled to enormous wealth while others starve. This individualistic conception of rights is in contrast to other views, like the early Christian doctrine to be found in the works of Thomas Aquinas, which holds that since property exists for the satisfaction of human needs, 'whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right to the poor for their sustenance'. A socialist would also, of course, see wealth as belonging to the community rather than the individual, while utilitarians, whether socialist or not, would be prepared to override property rights to prevent great evils.

"Does the argument for an obligation to assist others, therefore, presuppose one of these other theories of property rights, and not an individualistic theory like Nozick's? Not necessarily. A theory of property rights can insist on our right to retain wealth without pronouncing on whether the rich ought to give to the poor. Nozick, for example, rejects the use of compulsory means like taxation to redistribute income, but suggests that we can achieve the ends we deem morally desirable by voluntary means. So Nozick would reject the claim that rich people have an 'obligation' to give to the poor, in so far as this implies that the poor have a right to our aid, but might accept that giving is something we ought to do and failing to give, though within one's rights, is wrong-for there is more to an ethical life than respecting the rights of others.

"The argument for an obligation to assist can survive, with only minor modifications, even if we accept an individualistic theory of property rights. In any case, however, I do not think we should accept such a theory. It leaves too much to chance to be an acceptable ethical view. For instance, those whose forefathers happened to inhabit some sandy wastes around the Persian Gulf are now fabulously wealthy, because oil lay under those sands; while those whose forefathers settled on better land south of the Sahara live in absolute poverty, because of drought and bad harvests. Can this distribution be acceptable from an impartial point of view? If we imagine ourselves about to begin life as a citizen of either Bahrein or Chad, but we do not know which, would we accept the principle that, citizens of Bahrein are under no obligation to assist people living in Chad?" - Peter Singer, "Practical Ethics." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

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Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE


See also Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence and Morality" in the Perry and Bratman TEXT
Full text of SINGER'S "FAMINE, AFFLUENCE, AND MORALITY" Online (Brandeis Access Only).
Originally published in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 76, No. 4. (Oct., 1967), pp. 460-475.
Also Singer's "SOLUTION TO WORLD POVERTY", which appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on September 5, 1999 is available HERE..



  • Hugh LaFollette and Larry May, "Suffer the Little Children" in World Hunger and Morality
    ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1996
  • Garrett Hardin, "Life Boat Ethics The Case Against Helping the Poor" Psychology Today
    September 1974, pp.38-43, 124-126.
  • William Aiken, "The 'Carrying Capacity' Equivocation: A Reply to Garrett Hardin,"
    Social Theory and Practice, v.6(1), Spring 1980, pp.1-11.
  • A Visual Display from Paris "Six Billion Human Beings"
  • Charles Mann, "How Many Is Too Many?", The Atlantic Monthly, February 1993
  • Mark Sagoff, "Do We Consume Too Much?" The Atlantic Monthly, June 1997
    Bill McKibben, "A Special Moment in History," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1998
  • Amartya Sen, "Population: Delusion and Reality,"September 22, 1994
    from his lecture before the United Nations on April 18, 1994
  • Amartya Sen, "Public Action to Remedy Hunger," The Tanco Memorial Lecture, August 2, 1990. London.
  • Amartya Sen, "Hunger: Old Torments and New Blunders," The Little Magazine,Vol II: Issue 6.



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