Bryan Caplan  

What If the Stranger Is a Drowning Child?

Krugman, Human Weakness, and D... Japanese Voluntarism to Solve ...
I regularly appeal to the moral intuition that we have a strong obligation to leave strangers alone, but little obligation to help them:
What are you morally forbidden to do to a stranger?  You may not murder him.  You may not attack him.  You may not enslave him.  Neither may you rob him.

What are you morally required to do for a stranger?  Not much.  Even if he seems hungry and asks you for food, you're probably within your rights to refuse.  If you've ever been in a large city, you've refused to help the homeless on more than one occasion.  And even if you think you broke your moral obligation to give, your moral obligation wasn't strong enough to let the beggar justifiably mug you.

Notice: These common-sense ethics regarding strangers, ethics that almost everyone admits, are unequivocally libertarian.  Yes, you have an obligation to leave strangers alone, but charity is optional.
One common challenge to my position is Peter Singer's Drowning Child example:
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...

This is the kind of moral argument I respect.  Singer isn't starting with utilitarian absolutism and deducing absurdities.  He's starting with a straightforward example and deducing plausible conclusions.  Every ethicist should emulate his approach. 

Still, Singer hasn't fundamentally changed my mind about obligations to strangers.  Here's why.

1. Note that my original answer to the question, "What are you morally required to do for a stranger" was "not much" rather than "zero."  My wording was deliberate because I expected critics to bring up the Drowning Child counter-example.   But note how extreme an example Singer has to construct.  Mere "hungry beggar" isn't good enough, as I initially pointed out.

2. Singer asks his students whether or not they have a "moral obligation" to save the Drowning Child.  But he could just as easily have asked: "Is it morally praiseworthy to save the Drowning Child?"  I think almost everyone would agree that it is.  Indeed, we might even call the rescuer a "hero."  My question: If the rescuer is merely fulfilling his moral obligation, why would anyone consider his action morally praiseworthy, or even heroic?  The right lesson to draw, I suspect, is that rescuing a Drowning Child goes at least slightly above and beyond moral obligation.

3. Suppose I'm wrong on point 2.  Singer also neglects another crucial distinction: an action can be morally obligatory without being morally enforceable.  Would it be morally permissible to point a gun at a person if he fails to rescue the Drowning Child voluntarily?  Much less clear.  To pull the trigger?  Even less so.

4. Singer is quick to move from the moral obligation to rescue a Drowning Child to a moral obligation to rescue lots of strangers.  But suppose we revise his initial hypothetical: Instead of one Drowning Child on a random day, there's a new Drowning Child every day.  Indeed, suppose there are Drowning Children as far as the eye can see, 24/7.  What then?  Now it seems clear that a policy of rescuing strangers is above and beyond the call of duty.  And sadly, as Singer himself points out, this is the world we live in.

Last point: Singer is quick to conclude that we have massive obligations to help millions of desperate strangers.  But all First World countries violate a far less controversial obligation to the world's poor.  Under the guise of "immigration policy," every First World country makes it a crime for foreigners to accept a job offer from a willing First World employer.  Economically speaking, this is a big deal: The best evidence says that worldwide free trade in labor would double world GDP and vastly increase Third World wages. 

We shouldn't talk about the world's poor like they're Drowning Children.  If we lived up to our basic obligation to leave strangers alone, the world's poor wouldn't need our charity.

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Christian writes:

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Sean writes:


David Boonin, one of Michael Huemer's colleagues at Colorado and a really fantastic applied ethicist (if you don't already know his work, you'd love it) has a really good take on the Singer-Unger thesis here:

KenF writes:
We shouldn't talk about the world's poor like they're Drowning Children. If we lived up to our basic obligation to leave strangers alone, the world's poor wouldn't need our charity.

This is something like seeing a drowning child and then suggesting, as a solution, that we ask woodland fairies to build fences around all ponds everywhere so no one will ever drown again.

Kevin writes:
We shouldn't talk about the world's poor like they're Drowning Children. If we lived up to our basic obligation to leave strangers alone, the world's poor wouldn't need our charity.

This is something like seeing a drowning child and then suggesting, as a solution, that we ask woodland fairies to build fences around all ponds everywhere so no one will ever drown again.

It's a bit more like, "stop throwing children into ponds!"

That's some common-sense morality I can get behind.

Essen writes:

But if we leave the drowning child alone she would surely die, won't she?
How will leaving the strangers alone change the destiny of the child?

Joseph K writes:
But if we leave the drowning child alone she would surely die, won't she? How will leaving the strangers alone change the destiny of the child?

The point is that there are simply too many drowning children for us to realistically save, but, to continue the metaphor, we could dramatically reduce the number of drowning children by permitting them to emigrate to a place where their probability of drowning is much lower.

What we know is that open immigration would improve the life of a great many people at minimal cost, perhaps even great profit to wealthy countries, meaning it should be morally vastly less controversial than foreign aid, which is both of dubious effectiveness and great expense.

Saturos writes:

Bryan is absolutely right. The key question to ask ourselves is not whether we feel obligated to save the drowning girl. (It's a girl, according to Essen.) The key question is this. Suppose you were sitting next to a pond where a drowning child had just fallen in. However, you could not rescue her yourself, as you are in a wheelchair. However, there is a man walking past, who takes a brief look at the girl and keeps walking. Now, it so happens that you have a gun in your pocket. Question: is it alright (let alone morally good) for you to point the gun at the man, saying, "Pull the child out or I'll shoot?" You don't mean to kill the man, of course, but you do want to compel him with a credible (violent) threat - you would shoot him if you had to. Is this acceptable?

Suddenly, utilitarianism looks a lot less altruistic, doesn't it?

Based on the statistics of people's responses to trolley problems, I would suggest most people would condemn the behaviour. But suppose they didn't. How much of their tolerance for the behaviour relies on the implicit premise that the occurrence is a one-off?

Saturos writes:

The key problem with utilitarians (and others who reject kill/let-die distinctions) is that they fail to see that moral thinking for normal human beings is based on the fundamental question of ethics: What should I do? Not, "what outcome do I find most desirable", but, "what do I want to do?" All values and preferences, including interpersonal comparisons, are based on subjective judgements. For a person to say, "a gain in my happiness is more valuable than a gain in yours" is itself an evaluative act subject to moral censure. Admittedly, we all implicitly place a higher value on our own happiness most of the time - but when we use self-preference as an excuse for aggression it becomes despicable and immoral. Both Rawlsians and utilitarians ignore that the central issue is not the distrubution of benefits but rather how people may in good conscience behave towards one another. In other words, they assume away "interpersonality".

My test is this: after all is said and done you can still go up to everyone concerned and "look them in the eye". In this case, the answer for me is that I wouldn't pull the gun; I could still look the child in the eye, whereas I could not do so for the man I pointed the gun at. Singer preys upon our sense of guilt towards a drowning child we happened to walk past, without reminding us of our greater guilt in pointing guns at harmless bystanders.

Brandon Berg writes:

Indeed, suppose there are Drowning Children as far as the eye can see, 24/7. What then? Now it seems clear that a policy of rescuing strangers is above and beyond the call of duty.

Something about this feels odd. Nothing changes on the margin. If it makes sense to save one drowning child, it should make sense to save many, to the point where we've expended so much saving drowning children that it no longer makes sense on the margin to save any more. But that's not how people behave in practice.

Greg writes:

some very good points but I would like to make some points too:

1) Western immigration laws most probably do not result in great amount of death: people who actually immigrate tend to be very young and industrious people who would have been able to survive in their countries anyway. although the money the immigrants send back home probably does save some.

2) by far the most damaging policy we have is trade restrictions. The Common Agricultural Policy really does result in farmers in Africa not being able to sell their crops to Europe AND also having the problem is having to compete with European farmers who have massive export subsidies. CAP is responsible for much more suffering than any other policy the West has created.

3) it is not the same to rescue a child in front of you and a child abroad 10000 km away. it is not at all easy to organise aid workers, aid material, get past the local warlords and/or government bureaucrats who want bribes and then actually to make a difference on the ground.

4) moral obligation and legislation is not the same thing. i have a moral obligation to help my friend move for example but i do not have a legal obligation to do so.

RPLong writes:

My reaction to this discussion is that the term "moral obligation" is rather confused. What is a "moral obligation," exactly? What are we talking about here?

If we think about the term literally, then we are talking about a situation in which a given individual's sense of morality compels them to act. Clearly, this version of "moral obligation" means different things to different people. All individuals will have a different set of "moral obligations" in accordance with their own private sense of morality, and nothing can be said about the "moral obligations" of others unless we appeal to the particular individual in question.

In more common language, "moral obligation" seems to mean a basic moral requirement applicable to all human beings universally. There are probably many such "moral obligations," such as the obligation we all have to respect each other's life, liberty, and property. But the question is: can we think of any situations in which we would *not* oblige a stranger to save a drowning child?

Sure, we can. What if the stranger is himself in similar peril? What if the stranger is wheelchair bound and cannot swim? What if the child is a psychopath with a loaded gun? Etc., etc.

So I would argue that these sorts of discussions demand that we either (a) appeal to the individual moral obligations of particular people, or (b) devise some way of showing that saving a drowning child is a universal moral obligation held by all human beings simultaneously.

Keith writes:

Brandon Berg is right: Saving one child provides the same benefits, at the same cost, no matter how many other drowning children are around.

I think Bryan has fallen prey to scope insensitivity here.

Seth writes:

Brandon Berg - Reminds me of the "it mattered to that starfish" story and I bet there would be a lot of people trying to save them. And many more trying to teach children not to get in the situation in first place, which seems to be the most effective action.

Overall - I think where the drowning child test breaks down is that at some point (right around where it goes international) it's not talking about drowning children anymore, but still calling it that.

Terry writes:

Singer's claim that it is equally within our means to save the world's poor demonstrates appalling ignorance and hubris. There is scant evidence for the effectiveness of foreign aid, which in many cases may bolster the very institutions and policies responsible for the sad conditions of those we would like to help. Yes--the moral obligation is clear. That we have the means to honor it is not.

Nathan Smith writes:

I actually think that Peter Singer's universal altruism principle is less quixotic than it appears. The fact is that foreign aid is very hard to orgsnize. There are big informational and/or incentive problems at every stage: in choosing a charity, in how the charity chooses projects, in how they deal with the governments of poor countries, in how they handle staffing, logistics, and compensation-- and there may be a trade-off between competence and willingness to volunteer-- and in creating special kinds of dependency among target populations and undermining communities' traditions of self-reliance. I am not saying international private charity is bad, but that it is tenable that it does little good at the margin, perhaps such a small fraction of the initial value that you would help the world's poor more by buying made-in-China trinkets. And we do that'

Bryan is exactly right that the policy that would help the world's poor so much as to render all others a joke by comparison does not involve any new coercion, but rather the cessation of coercion: open borders. This is the present incarnation of a broader historical pattern, namely, that coercion by and large always harms, rather than helps, the poorest. There can easily be a conflict between freedom and generosity in principle, bit in practice that doesn't seem to be how things work in this world.

Saturos writes:

Brandon Berg, Keith, Seth

You are not being clear on the principle of *increasing marginal costs [disutility]* (

The benefit of saving the first child is the same whether or not there are more around to save. But the cost (foregone quanta from the life you would rather be leading) increases with each rescue (so scope insensitivity isn't the point here). Furthermore, there is diminishing marginal utility from heroism and magnanimous empathy (and d.m.u. of the need to impress the Smithian ideal observer). At what point an individual optimises is, I repeat, subjective: Brandon may tell himself now that he thinks he would value further rescues just as much as the first, and wouldn't stop rescuing until he was presumably exhausted, it would remain to be seen whether he (or any of us) would sustain such a policy in practice, especially if they hadn't already chosen to specialize in altruism. This is one of the places where I disagree with Bryan: the revealed preference doctrine is more valuable than he gives it credit for.

The question we ought to be concerning ourselves with is whether we could conscionably compel anyone to select what we ourselves regarded as the "optimal" quantity of child-saving. I have never met any of the other posters here, but I assure you I would never point the gun at any of you. The flipside is that I wouldn't force anyone to save you, either - but my conscience is clear on that. I trust you guys would understand.

Incidentally, while we're on the subject, does Bryan know if Eliezer Yudkowsky is a utilitarian? (He sounds like one.) What would Bryan say to him?

John B. writes:

I don't believe in Singer's report of unanimity.

I believe it is more likley that those who disagree with him don't care to stand up and sound like monsters. In small groups I've been happy to argue the thesis that not helping is not the same as hurting, but I found out long ago that it doesn't pay to argue back at the preacher.

It's also probable his audiences are not random people; they are enriched in people who want to hear Singer talk.

MikeP writes:


by far the most damaging policy we have is trade restrictions... CAP is responsible for much more suffering than any other policy the West has created.

You are phenomenally underestimating the gains from free migration.

If we did everything, all the remaining goods liberalization, the monetary gains would be between half and two-thirds of the gains from just allowing 3 percent more workers into the OECD. Given the current enormous wage differentials, a minor relaxation of people mobility easily swamps all remaining liberalization on the goods side. There are almost no tariffs left over, say, 20 to 25 percent, and yet wages for unskilled labor differ not by percents but by an order of magnitude—workers in some poor countries make 8 cents an hour, not 8 dollars an hour.

i have a moral obligation to help my friend move...

You what?

PrometheeFeu writes:

If we're going to start with moral intuition, I don't think it makes sense to discard it when it becomes inconvenient. So let's take the premise that we have an obligation to help that drowning child. The logical extension that we have a responsibility to help children in faraway countries dooms itself on practicality: it doesn't scale very well. But I don't think it makes sense to say that you then didn't have the original obligation to help the drowning child. You can reconcile the two situations by saying that the person who holds that obligation is the one who is in the best situation to help. So I have an obligation to save the drowning child in front of me and some person in China has the obligation to save the drowning child in from of him in China. Then, the solution scales.

Saturos writes:


"If we're going to start with moral intuition, I don't think it makes sense to discard it when it becomes inconvenient."

JKB writes:

Why is open migration the only solution as the number of migrants increases, the cost to you (or others in society) gets very high?

We have decades of evidence that providing assistance for these individuals to "help themselves" has failed. Why is the only solution to permit those who are able to escape to work. Perhaps a better solution would be to take over these distant areas and provide the job opportunities there? If there is a moral obligation to help, there are multitudes of those at risk, why should we not simply take control of the pond, provide controlled access with a benign lifeguard to keep everyone safe?

Nicholas Weininger writes:

As Julian Sanchez implicitly pointed out (in relation to Matt Zwolinski's response here) this is a battle of conflicting moral intuitions, so it isn't going to be easily resolved by reasoning from one intuition or another.

The question is which of these propositions you instinctively feel is the ethically stronger one:

1. "If someone else is in sufficiently great need, and the cost to you of helping them is sufficiently low, you MUST help them, even if you didn't do anything to put them in their needy position."

2. "Other people do not belong to you."

Most people believe that both of these are important to at least some degree, but they're in fairly clear conflict in cases like this.

I think that #2 is the most important ethical principle there is, so the question is easy for me. I'm happy to apply #1 to myself-- I would feel moved to save the drowning child, and I give a significant chunk of money each year to charities that help some of the worst-off people in the world-- but I feel I have absolutely no right, under any circumstances, to apply #1 to anyone else, because of #2. And by the same token, neither does anyone else have the right to apply #1 to others.

This is probably a minority intuition. But at the very least we who hold it can and should keep discomfiting others by pointing out that their ethical positions conflict with #2.

JOhn writes:

I think equating indirectly helping unknown others, in unknown ways -- meaning you lack the direct knowledge of the specific assistance -- is hardly the same situation as directly pulling the child out of the pond.

Keith writes:


Thanks for the correction on marginal utility. It does matter whether you're on your first or fifteenth child-rescue mission, because the costs of each successive mission are higher than the previous one.

Yet I don't see how this touches the issue of whether there are currently many other unsaved children. Surely the benefit of saving the one is nearly the same whether it's the only one or there are dozens more all around? (Nearly, not exactly, because people are less impressed by the rescue of only one.) The dominant benefit, which accrues to the saved child, consists in her lifetime happiness, along with the happiness she gives others. That should be unchanged no matter how many unsaved children there are. Right?

ad nauseum writes:

I think Greg came up with another interesting question.

"it is not at all easy to organise aid workers, aid material, get past the local warlords and/or government bureaucrats who want bribes"

So, if there is a drowning child, and a large man that is permitting the child to drown unless you pay him tribute to jump into the water, are you under a moral obligation to pay the large man? If you don't have money, are you under obligation to push the large man out of the way, or threaten him with an equally large, or larger man?

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