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Peter Singer’s Shallow Pond – Moral Choices regarding global problems

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Peter Singer, Author and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, writes that “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”  

Singer is at the forefront of urging us all to help alleviate global problems, especially those related to extreme poverty. Singer illustrates his point using the following “Shallow Pond” story. 

“Imagine you’re walking across a park. Somewhere in that park, there’s a pond. You know the pond is quite shallow, but you see something splashing in the pond. You’re shocked to find that it’s a small child who seems to have fallen into the pond and is flailing around because it’s too deep for this small child to stand. There seems to be only you and the child. Your next thought is, I better run down to the pond, jump into the pond, and grab the child. Not hard to do. No risk to me because the pond is shallow.

But then it does occur to you that [saving the child] is going to ruin your most expensive shoes. You’ll be up for some hundreds of dollars to replace them and other clothes you might ruin. So, you think, why shouldn’t I just walk away and not have to go to the expense of replacing my shoes? Now the question for everybody is: If somebody did that, would you think that was really the wrong thing to do? Most of the people who I ask this of say that it would be terrible to allow a child to drown because you didn’t want to go to the expense of buying new shoes. 

The point of the thought experiment is to then switch to the situation that we really are in. We live in an affluent society where we often have considerably more than we need to meet all our basic needs, enjoy life, and make reasonable provisions for the future. We also are living in a world in which there are millions of children who die each year from preventable causes and there are effective organizations that would gladly accept a donation from you that would increase their ability to save some of these children. So, if you’re not helping to save some of these children, then are you really all that different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?” 

There are usually two types of reactions to Singer’s story. One type of person makes up many excuses as to why the story is artificial and that they have no responsibility to contribute in any meaningful way to global poverty. However, this same type of person can spend a considerable amount on a trivial pair of shoes or clothes. 

The second type of person gets awakened and made aware of the situation they are in. They realize that we live in one unified world and that they are so much better off by luck. 5.4 million children under five years old died in 2017, with a majority of those deaths being from preventable or treatable causes. This second type of person knows they have to contribute to the extent possible to help the less fortunate.

Singer says, “Neither our distance from a preventable evil nor the number of other people who, in respect to that evil, are in the same situation as we are, lessens our obligation to mitigate or prevent that evil.”

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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