Philosophy 19A
A Legal Studies Course
Professor Andreas Teuber

paper topic:

"Consider the following:

The Shallow Pond

The path from Johns dorm room to Shiffman passes a shallow ornamental pond. On his way to the Human Rights 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 muddy and either missing the Human Rights 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 off his shoes if he has any hope of saving the child and that John himself can "see" that this is so. Johns 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 hell make the Human Rights class on time, the child will die straightaway. John heads straight for the Human Rights class and, as expected, the child dies.

Has John behaved badly? What do you think? What is your immediate, intutive moral judgment about Johns behavior?

Most of us 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 ones clothes muddy and ones 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 when the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. And not unsurprisingly, it so happens that almost everyones intutive moral judgment is that were that person to pass by, that persons 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 or so it would seem. 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 thats 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? Take the following, for instance:

The Envelope

In your mailbox, theres something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. 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 died had you sent in the requested $100.

According to Singer, you ought to send the money and it would be "wrong" not to do so, but almost everyone reacts to this example that your conduct isn't wrong at all. As Singer himself acknowledges, most people think "if you send a check, you will be thanked for your generosity. 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. 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 the reading and your own most reflective and considered opinion, what is the difference between them that helps to explain the different judgments of your conduct in the first and sceond cases. 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, no? And the second case involves the postal system, but not the first. But this can't be a difference that makes a difference? No doubt there may be any number of differences between the two cases, psychological, cultural, and geographical that help to explain peoples differing moral responses to the two cases, but are any of these moral differences? What are the significant moral differences, if any, between the two cases that might help to justify the two different judgments of Johns and your conduct? Or put another way, what might morally ground judging negatively Johns behavior and not your behavior?

If you believe it is just as wrong for you to save the children in the second case as it is wrong for John to fail to save the child in the first case, drawing on the reading and your own most reflective and considered opinion, make a case for why you think the sorts of differences people believe make a difference in our moral responses to the two cases do not, as it were, cut any moral mustard, i. e., do not make any significant moral difference."

So there you have it once again: the question.

Now on Friday, April 30th, I 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 Johns 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 to which I have added two more candidates: "(19) A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard," which may simply be a variant of (18) and "(20) Property Rights."

(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) Saving vs. Helping to Prevent
(13) Knowing Whom You Are Saving vs. Saving Strangers
(14) Providing a Service vs. Sending Money
(15) Conspicuous vs. Inconspicuous Need
(16) Taking Care of Our Own
(17) Overpopulation and the Ethics of Triage
(18) Helping and Being Done With It vs. Helping and Helping and Helping.
(19) A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard
(20) Property Rights

I have prepared a set of Notes and a Study Guide for the Final Paper Topic which can be reached by clicking here.

February 14, 1998

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