Giving at Home, Giving Abroad, and the Bind of Relative Need

The calendar says we’ve just finished the season of charitable giving. Sort of how a month ago we finished the season of thanksgiving: check it off the list and don’t worry about it again until next year! It’s a little hard to know how much of the emphasis on charitable donations at the end of the year is driven by the holiday season and how much of it is driven by tax law – if you want to take a deduction for a qualifying charitable donation for the year, then you had to get it in before December 31st.

This is why a lot of your local charities have been hitting you up for money, and, at least statistically speaking, you’ve almost certainly forked over some of your cash. This is good.

Peter Singer, who is as famous as modern-day philosophers get in America (which is to say, not very), has a parable he uses to demonstrate why you should be giving away your money. It goes something like this:

You’re walking down a country road and you spot a child drowning in a pond. You’re a good swimmer and the water is calm so you could save him without any risk to yourself. Would you agree that you’re morally compelled to do it? Most people would say yes. Now imagine that you have on a very expensive pair of leather shoes that would be ruined beyond salvage by going into the water. Would it be morally acceptable not to save the child for fear of damaging the shoes? Most people would say that it would not be. But if you’re morally compelled to save the life of a child who is in front of you by foregoing a luxury good, why wouldn’t you be compelled to save the life of a child who is miles or oceans away by sacrificing the money you would have otherwise spent on the shoes?

Peter Singer, presumably not wearing shoes.

Peter Singer, presumably not wearing shoes.

As far as thought experiments go, it’s pretty compelling. And Singer doesn’t just want you to give to charity; he also wants you to give most (if not all) of that money to charities overseas where you can have the most impact. Singer would argue that it is ethically problematic to spend money on improving one child’s access to education when that money could instead be spent on the much more urgent task of keeping another child from starving. If giving is about helping people, rather than about making ourselves feel good, then we have an obligation to focus on the relative need of the people we give to.

Singer’s parable is what another philosopher, Daniel Dennet (of Tufts University no less, my alma mater) would call an ‘intuition pump’ – a framing of a question designed to illicit intuitive responses about a problem. Intuition pumps can produce insight or lead us astray, but they almost always give you a new way to look at something. The best highlight something real that you would have otherwise missed; the worst play to our cognitive biases. How does Singer’s intuition pump work? Dennet suggests that one way to test intuition pumps is to ‘play with the knobs’: change some of the variables around and try to get a sense for which part of the story is doing most of the work.

Let’s give that a try. What if instead of being a good swimmer, you’re a poor swimmer and there’s a strong current? Are you still morally obligated to try to save the child? And what if the child isn’t moving? He might already be dead – are you still morally obligated to jump in after him or should you instead call the authorities? What if there isn’t just one boy? What if there are two and one of them is your son? Are you morally obligated to save whoever is closest or can you favor your son instead? What if your son is farther away and typically a good swimmer? He’ll probably be fine. Can you sacrifice the other boy’s life to make absolutely sure that your son will survive?

We can already see that by changing some of the details of the story we can produce, at the very least, a more complicated response. What have we learned about Singer’s story by doing this? First, that Singer’s framing depends a lot on two things. The first is certainty and the second is a tradeoff so clear-cut that it isn’t a tradeoff at all: one boy’s life against the cost of Italian loafers. Unfortunately, life is rarely that simple. With more complicated tradeoffs and less certainty, knowing how to do the right thing isn’t always so easy.

We’re also left asking how our moral obligations depend on our social relationships. Singer’s story is designed for us to see that the life of one boy we happen to see on our evening walk can’t be more valuable than the life of another boy drowning somewhere far out of sight. That’s powerful, but it also seems to miss a lot. Few parents would let their children risk drowning for the sure tradeoff of saving someone else – not because they believe their children are intrinsically more valuable (though they certainly are to them) but because they know that they have a special obligation towards their own children that they don’t owe to other people. But what if it isn’t your child and a stranger? What if instead it’s a stranger and your nephew or cousin or neighbor or coworker or – and here’s the rub – your fellow countryman? If you believe that you have a special obligation to the people that you live in society with, how does that change things?

One last knob to turn: what if it isn’t one or two children? What if it is millions and millions of children and every day there are millions more? That, of course, is what we’re actually faced with: millions of children drowning in poverty. Do you jump in and save as many as you can or do you look around, get a group together, and try to figure out where all these people are coming from and what to do about it?

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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