Duty to rescue

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

- Peter Singer, The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle

If we are aware that it is in our power to prevent some harm, and we refrain from so doing, we could be as responsible for its occurrence as we would be had we knowingly caused it. We would be as responsible for the harm if the circumstances are such that it would be as little costly to us (and others) to prevent it as to avoid causing it. If this is right, people in affluent liberal democracies are more responsible and blameworthy for the misery in developing countries then they commonly think they are because it seems undeniable that they could prevent a lot of it at very little cost to themselves.

- Persson and Savalescu, Unfit for the Future



  • I don't like to use the words "fair" and "fairness" because they're ambiguous, they can mean either just or equal (which just goes to show how deep is our conception of equality as justice).


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