Is It Wrong Not to Help? Part 2

What it takes to save a life.

Posted Sep 18, 2009

The drowning child story is an application of the argument for aid I presented in my last post, since ruining your shoes and being late for work isn't nearly as important as the life of a child. Similarly, re-upholstering a car is not nearly as big a deal as losing a leg. Even in the case of Bob and the Bugatti, it would be a big stretch to suggest that the loss of the Bugatti would come close to rivaling the significance of the death of an innocent person.

Ask yourself if you can deny the premises of the argument. How could suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care not be really, really bad? Think of that small boy in Ghana who died from measles. How you would feel if you were his mother or father, watching helplessly as your son suffers and gets weaker. You know that children often die from this condition. You also know that it would be curable, if only you could afford to take your child to a hospital. In those circumstances you would give up almost anything for some way of ensuring your child's survival.

Putting yourself in the place of others, like the parents of that boy, or the child himself, is what thinking ethically is all about. It is encapsulated in the Golden Rule, "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you." Though the Golden Rule is best known to most Westerners from the words of Jesus as reported by Matthew and Luke, it is remarkably universal, being found in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and in Judaism, where it is to be found in Leviticus, and was later emphasized by the sage Hillel. The Golden Rule requires us to accept that the desires of others ought to count as if they were our own. If the desires of the parents of the dying child were our own, we would be in no doubt that the suffering they are going through, and the death of the child, are about as bad as anything can be. But if we think ethically, then those desires must count as if they were our own, so we cannot deny that the suffering and death are bad.

The second premise is also very difficult to reject, because it leaves us some wiggle room when it comes to situations in which, to prevent something bad, we would have to risk anything nearly as important as the bad thing we are preventing. Consider, for example, a situation in which preventing the deaths of other children would require you to neglect your own children. This standard does not require you to prevent the deaths of the other children.

"Nearly as important" is a vague term. That's deliberate, because I'm confident that there will be plenty of things you can do without that are clearly and inarguably not as valuable as saving a child's life. I don't know what you might think is as important, or nearly as important, as saving a life. By leaving it up to you to decide what those things are, I can avoid the need to find out. I'll trust you to be honest with yourself about it.

Analogies and stories can be pushed too far. Rescuing a child drowning in front of you, and throwing a switch on a railroad track to save the life of a child you can see in the distance, where you are the only one who can save the child, are both different from giving aid to people who are far away. The argument I have just presented complements the drowning child case, because instead of relying on pulling at your heartstrings by focusing on a single child in need, it appeals to your reason and seeks your assent to an abstract but compelling moral principle. That means that to reject it, you need to find a flaw in the reasoning.

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. Random House, 2009; by Peter Singer.

(To be continued)