Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2003

Philosophy 1A

Introduction to Philosophy




Saving the World's Children From Dying and Starvation


"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?

Make a case for or against there being a moral difference between the shallow pond and the envelope cases, think of the most powerful objections that someone might offer to your case, and respond to them.

The paper should be between 5 and 6 pages in length, or longer if you wish. It is due on Monday, the 8th of December, in the Philosophy Department Main Office (Rabb305, by 4:30 PM.


See 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..

There is also a STUDY GUIDE prepared specifically for the final question available Online.


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