These notes are intended to help you think about ways of tackling
and final paper in Human Rights (PHIL 19A). They are not intended
answer the question or, necessarily, to settle one or another
issue touched upon by the Paper Topic, but to function, rather, as a
through a maze of quite complicated issues. You will find some notes
helpful, nonetheless, if only as a focusing device and to help you to
what route to take through the mass of possible moves you mgiht
should feel free to circumsribe your answer to the question, to
certain issues, presumably the ones you believe are the most
most important, to the exclusion of others. Thus, some notes that
be of little interest to you. Here quickly (once again) is the final
"Consider the following:
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
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
class on time, the child will die straightaway. John heads straight for
Rights class and, as expected, the child dies.
Has John behaved badly? What do you think? What is your
moral judgment about Johns behavior?
Most of us think that if a person is walking past a shallow pond and
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
having to pay a sizeable cleaning bill or having to purchase a new
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
intutive moral judgment is that were that person to pass by, that
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
happening, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable
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
moral obligation to relieve world hunger. But how can this be? Does
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
not reflect anything very general at all? Take the following, for
In your mailbox, theres something from (the U.S. Committee for)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
system, but not the first. But this can't be a difference that makes a
doubt there may be any number of differences between the two
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
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
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
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
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
identify a number of differences between the two cases that some
believed explain our different judgments (not necessarily in the two
before you, but in cases like them) of Johns conduct in the case of
Shallow Pond" and your conduct in the case of "The Envelope." The
question is, of course, are any of these differences moral differences?
Here once again is that list to which I have added two more
A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard," which may simply be
variant of (18) and "(20) Property Right."
(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
(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
(19) A Reasonable Demand vs. Too High a Standard
(20) Property Rights
Before turning to say a word or two more about each of these
(1) through (20), to which a person might appeal to justify and/or
coming to the aid of the child in need in the first case but not coming
aid of the thirty children in the second, it may make sense to
addresss a few
I. In the Case of "The Envelope" I Am Asked To Save (Prevent)
Children from Dying. Surely World Hunger Affects Many People,
Old Alike: Why Are Children Being Singled Out for My Attention and
"Children are the real victims of world hunger: at least 70% of the
malnourished people of the world are children. By best estimates
thousand children a day die of starvation (Food and Agricultural
Organization (FAO) 1992a: World Food Supplies and Prevalence
Chronic Undernutrition in Developing Regions as Assessed in
Rome: FAO Press: 5). Children do not have the ability to forage for
themselves, and their nutritional needs are exceptionally high. Hence,
are unable to survive for long on their own, especially in lean times.
Moreover, they are especially susceptible to diseases and conditions
the staple of undernourished people: simple infections and simple
(United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 1993: The State of
World's Children 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 22).
others provide adequate food, water, and care, children will suffer
(World Health Organization (WHO) 1974: Health Statistics
Report. Geneva: World Health Organization: 677, 679). This fact
frame any moral discussions of the problem.
"And so it does at least pre-reflectively. When most of us first see
seriously undernourished children, we want to help them, we have a
responsibility to them, we feel sympathy toward them (Hume, D.
Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge (ed.). Oxford: Oxford
University Press: 368-71). Even those who think we needn't or
the starving take this initial response seriously: they go to great
pains to show
that this sympathetic response should be constrained. They typically
that assisting the hungry will demand too much of us, or that
would be useless and probably detrimental. An effort is, therefore,
show that this sympathetic reaction is morally inappropriate, not
that it does
"Our initial sense of responsibility to the starving and malnourished
of the world is intricately tied to their being paradigmatically
innocent. They are paradigmatically vulnerable because they do not
wherewithal to care for themselves; they must rely on others to care
All children are directly dependent on their parents or guardians,
children whose parents cannot provide them food -- either because
or economic arrangements - are also indirectly dependent on others:
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
erosion, and over-population; nor are they responsible for social,
and economic arrangements which make it more difficult for their
obtain food. If anyone were ever an innocent victim, the children
and die from hunger are.
"Infants are especially vulnerable. They temporarily lack the
would empower them to acquire the necessities of life. Thus, they
completely dependent on others for sustenance. This partly explains
to help infants in need. James Q. Wilson claims that our instinctive
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
others, often becoming agitated; when they are one and a half years
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.
The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press: 139-40).
"Although this response may be partly explained by early training,
evidence suggests that humans have an 'innate sensitivity to the
others' (Wilson 1993: 140). Indeed, Hans Jonas claims the parent-
relationship is the 'archetype of responsibility,' where the cry of the
baby is an ontic imperative 'in which the plain factual "is" evidently
coincides with an "ought"' (Jonas, H. 1984: The Imperative of
Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 30).
- Hugh LaFolette & Larry May, "Suffer the Children" in World
and Morality. Ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFolette. Prentice
Princeton, New Jersey, 1998.
II. How Can My $100 Keep Thirty Children from Dying? Can You
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,
million die from dehydrating diarrhea. As UNICEF has made clear to
millions of us, with a packet of oral rehydration salts that costs about
a child can be saved from dying soon.
"By sending checks earmarked for Oral Rehydration Therapy, or ORT,
U.S Committee for UNICEF, we can help save many of these children.
the full mailing address:
Committee for UNICEF Now, you can write that address on an
well prepared for mailing. And, in it, you can place a $100 check
to the U.S Committee for UNICEF along with a note that's easy
write: WHERE IT WILL HELP THE MOST, USE
FUNDS FOR ORT. So, as is reasonable to believe, you can
mean a big difference for vulnerable children.
United Nations Children's Fund
333 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
Committee for UNICEF
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:
WHERE IT WILL HELP THE MOST, USE THE ENCLOSED FUNDS FOR ORT.
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
greater than just 15 cents per child saved: Not only does the U.S.
have overhead costs, but so does UNICEF itself; and, there's the cost
transporting the packets, and so on. Further, to live even just one
many children may need several saving interventions and, so,
packets. And, quite a few of those saved will die shortly thereafter,
from some sadly common Third World cause. So, to be more realistic
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
reasonably long life, $3 is a more realistic figure than 15 cents and,
purposes, it will serve as well as any. Truth to tell, in the light of
empirical investigation, even this higher figure might prove too low.
nothing of moral import will turn on the matter, we can postpone a
look at the actual cost.
"With this $3 figure in mind, we do well to entertain this proposition:
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
children who, instead of painfully dying soon, would live reasonably
lives. Nothing here's special to the months just mentioned; similar
hold for most your adult life, or from the time your allowance was
enough for you to send so much as $100 to UNICEF. And, more
unless we change our behavior, similar thoughts will hold for our
(Much about the causes of childhood death, and about the
can nullify these causes, is systematically presented in James P.
The State of the World's Children 1993, published for UNICEF
Oxford University Press in 1993. And this information can be cross-
against the (somewhat independent) material in the more massive
Development Report 1993, published for the World Bank by the
1993. Adapted from Unger)
III. It is Sometimes Said That Morality Itself is Rational, But
That Mean? For Instance, Henry Shue Says "Basic Rights" Are,
Things, "Rational Demands." Should I Worry About Whether My
That I Should Save the Child from Drowning is Rational or Not? And
About "Truth"? Are Moral Judgments True and Objective? And
They are Not? Won't All Hell Break Loose? Aren't We Free Then to
We Darn Well Please?
"It's useful to put aside several large matters that, in moments of
might be thought greatly to affect an answer to the Final Paper Topic,
closer examination really do not affect the way we might answer the
one way or the other. By focusing on two of the very largest of those
the relationship between morality and rationality and morality and
objectivity), I'll try to show how usefully and safely, this may be
"The first concerns the relation between morality and rationality.
millennia, philosophers have been concerned to show a strong
between these two normative conceptions. In some instances, their
been that, unless morality has the backing of rationality, reasonable
like you and me, won't engage in morally decent behavior. But, since
nothing to this thought, I needn't here inquire into the relation
morality and rationality.
"Consider the following case, a case closely based on one from James
You and your four-year-old cousin, Sylvie, a distant relation whom
previously seen only twice, are the only heirs of a bachelor uncle,
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
then you'll inherit only one million dollars and your cousin Sylvie, to
the uncle's much more closely related, will inherit fully nine; but, if
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
who, even as she's the only other person anywhere about, is on the
drowning in the shallow ornamental pond. As it happens, you can
arrange for things to look like you were then elsewhere, at the
Class or grabbing something to eat in USDAN; so, if you let the child
you can get away with it completely. And, since you'd take a drug
leave you with no memories of the incident at all, you'll never feel
slightest guilt. So, in a short time, you'll be able to enjoy ten million
not just a measly million.
"As is very clear, your letting the child drown is extremely immoral
But, it might be asked, is it irrational behavior? Now, some
hold that it's also irrational. By contrast, others will hold that, on at
sense of 'rationality,' your conduct isn't irrational: You care for this
distant cousin Sylvie little more than for a perfect stranger; largely
the 'wonder' drug, there won't be any significantly bad effects on
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
arguments from rational choice theory and cost-benefit analysis all
to show, the second group of philosophers is completely correct. On
understanding of rational behavior put forward by this second group,
saving the child must be highly irrational. For good measure, let's
suppose, too, that you've become quite convinced of this yourself.
these strong suppositions firmly in mind, how many of us would let
four-year old cousin Sylvie drown?
"Very few will be even so much as strongly disposed to behave in
immoral manner and fewer still would actually do it. So, fas far as
potent guide for our conduct, morality certainly doesn't need any
whatever authority we may accord to rationality. For the Final Paper
it's quite enough to learn a lot about which conduct is really morally
and, in contrast, which is immoral. If the former also has
backing, that's fine; but, if not, it's no big deal.
"Properly placing to the side the very interesting question of how
relates to morality, I'll turn to the equally interesting question of
relates to morality. Now, various philosophers have been concerned
that there are many significant moral truths and that, far from
even the wisest people's most basic moral commitments, they're as
objective as any truths. Again, given the purpose and significance of
Final Paper Topic, it's a distracting digression to investigate this
"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
What would happen if we believed there weren't any meaningful
truths; wouldn't all hell break loose? Rather than feeling constrained
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
values don't point to some reality beyond themselves, then there's
to adhere any more than our most selfish desires. And, then, too,
be much point to trying to figure out what our moral values may be
tell us any more than trying to figure our preferences for Super
or Cherry Garcia.
"Though those thoughts have a certain appeal, they're deeply
Recall the Rival Heirs and, this time, suppose you've come to think
aren't any objective moral truths. Will that free you up to let your
old cousin Sylvie drown? Not a chance. None of this is to deny the
philosophical importance of investigating the relations between
truth or morality and rationality; it's just to say that, whatever holds
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." (Adapted from
IV. I Am Not Quite Certain How My Moral Intuitions Are
Fit Into All This? Shoud I Trust My "Moral Intuitions" or Do I Have
to be Suspicious?
Why might we be suspicious about our immediate, moral intuitions.
one reason to be suspicious is that some moral intutions that some
have had about certain forms of conduct in the past, are not the same
intuitions that people have today.
Consider the accepted assessments of two famous Virginian founders
United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They're
nearly as positive as Jefferson's judgments of Washington:
He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good and a
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)
'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
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
even as we also greatly admire Jefferson, we believe that, overall,
conduct was good.
But, a little hard thought makes the lofty assessments puzzling:
their years of maturity, they had slaves and, in the bargain, they
lavishly. Now, as historians indicate, it wasn't impossible for them to
their slaves and live less lavishly. About Washington's last two years,
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
not need, both to secure cash and to reduce his expenses, but he
not bring himself to resort to such a sale, certain to bring
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
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,
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
Billy Lee, for one? Apparently, by selling some few stocks, our first
could have provided well for them. Evidently, there's no morally
answer. And, even if George had to convince Martha by threatening
with divorce or worse, why didn't he see to it that, long before either
their slaves were freed and supported? Again, no very decent
In various ways, Jefferson's life differed from Washington's, but not
ways that excuse him. For, he also could have freed his slaves
serious suffering. To be sure, had either done that, he wouldn't have
such a lavish Virginian life. But, morally, so what? Until their deaths,
freely remained slaveholders. When that fact's combined with our
assessments, there's this puzzle about the Old Virginians: How can
who keeps behaving like that, year after year, be a decent person, or
someone whose total behavior is even all right? Apparently, in our
assessments, there's a questionable double-standard at work: For
Virginians, slaveholding won't disqualify their total conduct from
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
things were like this: First, it was a common practice to hold slaves.
as far as many engaged in the practice were concerned slaveholding
morally terrible thing. Third, through interaction with folks who
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
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
an expansion of the puzzle of the Old Virginians, the Puzzle of the
Australians. After a short Historical Preamble, I'll do some Stage
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
continued for decades after it ended in the South of the United
Volume 2 of The World Book Encyclopedia, the 1988 edition,
example, there's an article "Brazil," by J. H. Galloway of the University
Toronto. He ends the section on "The Age of Pedro II," with these
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
angry at Pedro when they were not paid for their slaves. In 1889,
military officers supported by the plantation owners forced Pedro to
his throne. He died in Paris two years later. In 1922, his body was
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
settlers treated her Aborigines very much as the whites who settled
now the U.S. treated this country's Native Americans. While very
behavior, that wasn't slaveholding. End of Preamble.
Onto the Stage Setting: Imagine an entire contemporary society
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
even today, many wealthy Australians have slaves working on their
ranches and farms. Still, insofar as it's possible with folks kept as
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
a first cousin of Peter. ( Of course, Peter himself doesn't keep any
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
their behavior might address, except for the matter of slavery. And,
that score, his cousins' beliefs aren't all that different from Peter's.
believe what, at least at last, Washington and Jefferson believed:
slavery's certainly bad, it might not be all that horribly bad. What's
we'll suppose that, apart from their slaveholding, Paul and Mary
themselves in a way that's even better than the morally good way
behaves. For example, working extremely hard and living very
each year Paul gives almost all of the huge income from his organic
orchards toward the saving of many children in the Third World, and
lessening other serious suffering. So, what we're supposing amounts
Apart from slaveholding, Peter Singer's cousins' conduct is much
So (now) what's our intuitive assessment of their total behavior? As
respond, it's rather bad. But, a couple of questions show this
judgment to be very puzzling: Why do we judge the imaginary
conduct negatively, but judge the old Virginians' positively? And,
even if we
can find an explanatorily adequate answer, what adequate moral
can there be for such a disparity?
As for the first question, it's clear there's a lot that needs explaining:
regards to the matter of slavery, Paul's and Mary's extremely
conduct is at least somewhat better than Washington's and
behavior. As regards other matters, since the Australians' conduct is
so marvelous, it's also at least somewhat better than the Old
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
there were other societies then also heavily involved in slaveholding.
with the imaginary Australians, theirs is the only society where
slavery. Is that a good way to start? Hardly. Just ponder this apt
of the hypothetical example: In addition to Australia's large society,
others, like Brazil's, persisted in slavery right up to the present time.
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?
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
influenced by 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' With regard to certain
bad forms of behavior, (we have the idea that) humanity has morally
progressed beyond its being even the least bit normal for anyone to
behavior of those forms. Of course, slaveholding is one of these
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)
we'll give negative assessments to the total conduct of those (taken
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
don't resume such bad behavior). By contrast, when someone's
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
that explains both our strangely disparate responses to many actual
with the Puzzle of the Old Virginians, and our strange reactions to
hypothetical cases, as with the Puzzle of the Imaginary Australians.
Both to make the suggestion's content clearer and to provide it with
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
masters occasionally made one of their slaves fight to the death with
of another wealthy slaveholder. As we'll suppose, while Washington
care never even to so much as attend any such ghastly event,
one of these "Neo-Roman" practitioners and, as the odds had it, some
slaves were killed in these "backyard spectacles." To this case, we
definite moral response that Washington's total conduct would have
good and Jefferson's bad.
Many believe, at least in certain respects, there's been some moral
And, some of it satisfies 'The Idea of Moral Progress.' But, the
that 'Idea' is far stronger, perhaps, than it should be: Mainly owing to
underrate the total conduct of people who, as we suppose, engage in
of a form that's been surpassed; just so, we underrated Paul's and
(hypothetical) total behavior. And, as regards the whole of their
overrate those who, before it was surpassed, did engage in such bad
just so, we overrate Washington's and Jefferson's (actual) total
closely related to both of those distortional tendencies, perhaps a
involves us in closely related errors.
Perhaps, right now, we're engaging in conduct that, though it's of
morally horrible forms, is still quite normal behavior. Then, since
forms haven't been surpassed, we may be overrating our own
Now, perhaps our (distant) descendants will make so much moral
that, at some future time, humanity will surpass some of these bad
behavioral forms. But, if 'The Idea of Moral Progress' has much the
influence then as now, which we may very well suppose, even they
overrate us. Let's pursue that thought.
Here's a form of behavior that, though we're now heavily engaged in
might well be thought terrible by our descendants and, for that
be morally surpassed by them: letting distant innocents needlessly
die by, say,
our not sending money to UNICEF. So, even if it never actually
that our descendants come to think this way, we may instructively
that, centuries hence, humanity's made just such progress as this:
well-off folks learn of people in great need, they promptly move to
need, almost no matter what the financial cost. So, at this late date,
needs of almost all the world's people will be met almost all the time.
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
of Bangladesh. Whether through demanding to be taxed more by
governments, or through contributing to non-governmental
or whatever, very many millions of the world's more fortunate folks
sure such beleaguered people don't ever undergo more serious
a big cyclone causally necessitates. What's more, should any of these
descendants find themselves facing such preventable suffering as
actually obtains, they'd devote almost all their energy, and resources,
lessening the suffering. To do any less would be as unthinkable for
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
Just as we overrate Washington and Jefferson, cutting them slack in
matter of slaveholding, they'll overrate you and me, cutting us slack
matter of allowing children in need to die.
From this discussion, two lessons emerge, one pretty specific, the
more general. Specifically, as we've seen one distortional tendency
misleading responses, both to hypothetical examples and even to
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
Pond and the case of The Envelope, the operation of others. More
this thought puts the whole enterprise of making sense of our
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
consequential conduct is even mildly wrong.
V. The Case of The Envelope Suggests That If I Send $100 to
Thirty Less Children Will Die, But There May be Other Ways of
Children from Dying That Are Even More Effective Than Sending
UNICEF. Is This an Excuse or Reason Not to Give?
It is true there are many who live in the affluent nations who fear
aid won't do anything more than line the pockets of charitable
But we have already addressed this issue to some extent by re-
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,
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
there are clear links between, say, literacy rates and chronic
that mothers with higher literacy rates are less likely to have
children and so it may appear that one way to begin to "solve" the
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
to UNICEF will prevent the deaths of thirty children.
The issue then, however, is whether to send money but to whom it
sent. OXFAM, for one, provides aid to empower people, who live in
countries and regions of the world prone to famine and malnutrition,
themselves and their children. So if your worry is that your money
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
to address this worry, not use it as an excuse to give no money at all.
worry is addressed further in the section on Emergencies vs. Chronic
below, but if it's a worry that is likely to get in the way of your being
think about the question effectively, you should change the name of
organization from UNICEF to OXFAM and send or fail to send a check
OXFAM instead. So to make these considerations a little less abstract,
In speaking to this worry about the effectiveness of the aid, your
figure out which relief agencies are likely to be most effective should
determine or cloud your thinking about whether or not you ought to
money at all. It's important to emphasize that UNICEF is quite
doing what it does on behalf of children in need. You could send the
to OXFAM, but you should know if you do send money to UNICEF, you
prevent children from dying.
In this regard, it may be useful to say something about the regions
easily preventable childhood deaths have been occurring. In each of
30 years, well over 10 million children died from readily
And, except for a lack of money aimed at doing the job, most of the
could have been prevented by using any one of many means.
First, there's this well-known fact: Over ninety percent of these
in the countries of the so-called "Third World." By contrast, here's
something much less widely known: Though almost all these needless
occur in the materially poorest parts of the world, poverty itself is
For a good case in point, take the poverty-ridden Indian state of
shown in the film 'The Politics of Food.' While per capita income in
state of about thirty million is notably lower than in India as a
expectancy in Kerala is higher than in any other Indian state. And,
childhood mortality rate is much lower than in India as a whole.
Without telling a long historical story, most of the answer may be put
this: In this vibrantly democratic and responsive state, Kerala's
food security, safe drinking water and very basic health care. By
many of the richer Indians don't have their basic needs met, and
their children's needs met. So, while often a factor, poverty itself
explains why millions of kids needlessly die each year.
As is well known, many millions of children don't get enough to eat.
related truths are less well known: First, for each child that dies in a
several die from chronic malnutrition. Second, even if she gets over
percent of the calories needed by a youngster of her age for excellent
child who regularly gets less than ninety percent is so malnourished
she'll have a dangerously inadequate immune system. Third, what
to many such vulnerable children is that, because they are among
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
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,
these: Semiannually, an underfed child can be given a powerful dose
Vitamin A, with capsules costing less than 10 cents. For that year,
improve the child's immune system. So, if she hasn't been
during this year, she'll be better able to survive measles. What's
her two capsules, she'll get a big bonus: With her immune system
this year she'll have a better chance of beating the two diseases that
more young lives than measles claims, pneumonia and diarrhea.
Though usually all that's needed to save a child from pneumonia is
administration of antibiotics that cost about 25 cents, pneumonia
about 3.5 million young lives a year, making it the leading child-
disease. But, let's again focus on measles.
For about $17 a head, UNICEF can vaccinate children against measles.
positive side, the protection secured lasts a life-time; with no need
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-
protection against five other diseases that, taken together, each year
another million Third World children: tuberculosis, whooping cough,
diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Perhaps best of all, these vaccinations
part of a world-wide immunization campaign that, over the years, is
progress toward eliminating these vaccine-preventable diseases,
smallpox was eliminated only a decade or two ago. Indeed, with no
in the whole Western Hemisphere since 1991, polio is quite close to
eliminated; with good logistical systems in place almost everywhere,
campaign's success depends mainly on funding. In 'Polio Isn't Dead
which appeared in The New York Times, June 10, 1995, Hugh
the chairman of the U.S. Committee, usefully writes, 'The United
spends $270 million on domestic [polio] immunization each year. For
half that amount polio could be eliminated worldwide in just five
according to experts from Unicef and the World Health Organization.
disease is wiped off the earth, we would no longer need to immunize
American children and millions of dollars could be diverted to other
Finally, the vast majority of the world's very vulnerable children live
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,
Nigeria, Mexico, Vietnam, Philippines, Iran, Turkey and Thailand.
these countries has a well established UNICEF program in place, and
program work wells in large parts of each of these countries. And
that through the likes of UNICEF, it's well within the power of each of
the coming months and years, to lessen serious suffering.
For even modestly well-informed persons, these facts do not come as
surprise. All they'll have learned are some particulars pertaining to
they've learned long ago: By directing donations toward a worthy
off folks can be very effective in lessening serious suffering and loss.
so well accustomed are many of us to this thought that, after hearing
presented facts, most of us won't make any notable response. For far
persons, what's related here will be something completely new. From
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
us should contribute (what may well be for us) quite a lot to lessen
deaths; indeed, it's seriously wrong not to do so.
But, soon after making such a strict response, the newly aware also
well accustomed to the thought about our power. And, then, they
the much more lenient response that almost everyone almost always
While it's good for us to provide vital aid, it's not even the least bit
do nothing to help save distant people from painfully dying soon.
prevalence of the lenient response is apparent from so much passive
behavior: Even when unusually good folks are vividly approached to
save distant young lives, it's very few who contribute anything. In a
recent year, 1993, the U.S. Committee for UNICEF mailed out, almost
month, informative appeals to over 450,000 potential donors. The
were folks whose recorded behavior selected them as well above the
average in responding to humanitarian appeals. With only a small
between people in each mailing, during the year over 4 million
Americans were vividly informed about what just a few of their
would mean. With each mailing, a bit less than 1% donated anything,
pattern persisting year after year.
Which of these two opposite responses gives the more accurate
what morality requires? Is it really seriously wrong not to do
lessen distant suffering; or, is it quite all right to do nothing?
VI. Peter Singer's Argument: Consequences, Rights, and
While directly concerned more with famine relief than with the
health issues just highlighted, it was Peter Singer who first thought
seriously and systematically, that it's the first response that's on
early on and recently, he offers an argument for the proposition that
wrong for us not to lessen distant serious suffering. His argument's
premise is this general proposition: 'If we can prevent something
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we
ought to do
So that it may help yield his wanted conclusion, Singer has us
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
Singer, too, believes that the general proposition should appeal to
and non-utilitarians alike, 'because,' as he says, 'the injunction to
what is bad only applies when when nothing comparably significant
stake. Thus, the principle cannot lead to the kinds of actions that
rights activists] strong disapprove: serious violations of individual
rights.' Again, as he Singer says, if anyone who cares deeply about
rights regards 'these violations as comparable in moral significance to
thing that is to be prevented, they will automatically regard the
not applying in those cases in which the bad thing can only be
violating rights . . .'
VII. Is Singer's Argument Deceptive?
Singer acknowledges that the non-controversial appearance of the
'that we ought to prevent what is bad when we can do so without
anything of comparable moral significance is deceptive. If it were
seriously and acted upon, our lives and our world would be
changed. For the principle applies, not just to rare situations in
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]
absolute poverty, with its hunger and malnutrition, lack of shelter,
disease, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy, is a bad thing.
assumes that it is within the power of the affluent to reduce absolute
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. If
assumptions and the principle . . . are correct, we have an obligation
those in absolute poverty that is no less strong than our obligation to
drowning child from a shallow pond.' More formally, the argument
makes looks like this:
'If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to to do it.'
'Absolute poverty is wrong.'
'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
examination, prove to be less deceptive and controversial than it first
As Singer says, the third premise 'only claims that some absolute
be prevented without the sacrifice of anything of comparable moral
significance. It thus avoids the objection that any aid I can give is
in the ocean" for the point is not whether my personal contribution
make any noticeable impression on world poverty (of course it
whether it will prevent some poverty. This is all the argument needs
sustain its conclusion, since the second premise says that any
is bad, and not merely the total amount of absolute poverty.' So, as
argues, 'if without sacrifice anything of comparable moral
significance, we can
provide just one family with the means to raise itself out of absolute
the third premise is vindicated.'
Singer's talk of an obligation to assist those who are in absolute
easily be translated into talk of an obligation to assist children in
instance, by sending $100 to UNICEF, you need not think that your
contribution will or must 'make any noticeable impression' on
childhood deaths in the developing countries, only that it will
more children from dying.
And this brings us full circle, back to a consideration of the larger
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
It is certainly true that there are any number of significant
between the two cases. The issue before you, however, is to ask and
for yourself whether any of these differences are moral differences.
It is one
thing to explain our moral intuitions and responses; it is quite
justify them. Do any of the differences enumerated and expanded
below not only explain but also justify our moral judgments of John's
conduct in the one case and your conduct in the other?
VI. The Child That John Could Save from Drowning Was Only a
Feet Away from Him; Whereas the Children in the Envelope Case are
Away (Physical Proximity)
Now while it is true that we often help those and are more likely to
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
who happen to live half way around the globe in, say, Bangladesh,
question is not, as Peter Singer points out, 'what we usually do, but
ought to do, and it is difficult to see any sound moral justification for
view that distance . . . makes a crucial diffference to our obligations.'
Peter Unger says 'unlike many physical forces, the strength of a
does not diminish with distance.' What do you think? Clearly, the
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
moral factors? Consider the following:
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
economy by virtue of the fact that you have a time-sharing
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
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
children die? No doubt some people might be more likely to
this case than in the original case of The Envelope. Some, too, may be
likely to feel guilty if they fail to contribute, in part, because they
Haiti and, as a result, feel more connected to its citizens. But if you
think it is in the least bit wrong not to contribute in the case of The
why would it suddenly become wrong now (in the case of the
Compound) that the children in need are just 'a few feet away?'
VII. The Child That John Could Save from Drowning Was, Like
American; Whereas the Children in the Envelope Case are All
While (again) it may be more likely that John will respond to the
child more immediately if the child is socially close to him, even this
from obvious. In such a case there may not be much time to
nationality or ethnicity of the drowning child and no one surely
suggest that if John elected to 'do the right thing' and save the child
he to discover, once he had saved her, that she was Bolivian, not
he would throw her back. Putting aside the related issues of
instance, we should only be obligated to members of our own family,
the ethnicity or nationality of the child has no moral relevance!
VIII. 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? (Adapted from Unger)
IX. 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? (Adapted from Unger)
X. 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. Thast'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:
The path from John's dorm room to Shiffman passes a shallow ornamental pond. On his way to the Human Rights class, John, who is walking along with three of his friends, all from the Human Rights class, notices that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. His friends notice this, too. If any one of them wades in and pulls the child out, it will mean getting their clothes muddy and either missing the Human Rights class or delaying it until they can find something clean and dry to wear. Imagine, too, they are also wearing a brand new pairs of Gucci shoes which they are "breaking in" for the first time. Assume that it is evident from the circumstances that there is no time for anybodyto take off their shoes if there is any hope of saving the child and that John and his friends can "see" that this is so. If anyone tries to save the child, their shoes will become wet and be ruined beyond repair. To replace the shoes will cost the person $100. If all four of these people pass by the child, then, while they'll make the Human Rights class on time, the child will die straightaway. All four (including John) head straight for the Human Rights class and, as expected, the child dies.
Is John's conduct any less bad, because three of his friends behaved badly, too.
Perhaps there is "comfort" in numbers, so it is possible to say to oneself, "I
may not be helping children in need, but I am not the only one, not the only
who is failing to help, there are many others who could help, far wealthier
than I am, and they aren't helping." But is this "comfort" any moral
consolation? (Adapted from Unger)
XI. 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? (Adapted from Unger)
XII. 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? (Adapted from
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?
XIII. 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. (Adapted from Unger)
XIV. 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
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
"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
"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?"
(Adapted 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)
XV. 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
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
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
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:
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? (Adapted from Unger)
XVI. 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?
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. (Adapted from Unger)
XVII. 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
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
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? (Adapted from Unger)
XVIII. 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
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:
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:
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. (Adapted from Unger)
So what are your intuitions here? Do you like John any better now?
XIX. 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-
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
"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."
XX 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 Final
Paper Topic in the Human Rights class as part of a newly sponsored UNICEF Program:
"Operation Wake-Up." Imagine, too, that John is one of those persons in the Human Rights
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 th Human Rights 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
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? Since Garret Hardin in the reading for the Human Rights class 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
International Planned Parenthood Federation,
Western Hemisphere Region, Inc.
902 Broadway - 10th Floor
New York, NY 10010
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.
(Adapted from Unger)
XXI. 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 Human Rights 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 Human Rights 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
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? (Adapted from Unger)
XXII. 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
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
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:
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. (Adapted from Unger)
XXIII. 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
Chaning format for a secons the following handed out in class might be of some (small) help:
Consider the following:
John is the driver of a trolley, 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.
John¹s 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 ³it would appear² 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?
XVIV. 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
"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?"
February 14, 1998
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