(this is not criticism of effective altruism, only one analogy that's used as an argument)

Peter Singer writes in the The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle:

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.

Singer's analogy is incomplete because it doesn't capture the essence of the drowning child scenario. The following does.

You're walking somewhere, and you see a child drowning in a shallow pond. You naturally decide that you ought to save this child despite your other obligations, so you rush in, get your clothes wet and muddy, and rescue the child. You get out of the pond, but you see that there's another pond right next to this one - and this one also has a child drowning. You rush into the second pond and save that child. Upon coming out, you perceive a third pond with ANOTHER child drowning. You say to yourself "gee, there sure are a lot of children drowning today", and you dutifully rush into the third pond, and save a child. This process repeats. It's 3 AM now, and you're hungry and tired, but every time you rescue a child from a pond, you see another pond and another child. You continue throughout the night, well into the second day. You haven't had a minute of break. It's noon on the following day. You lose consciousness because you're so tired and overworked. You wake up and the child that you were rushing to save next is now dead.

You spend your second day helping children out of ponds, but at one point you stop and you go get food, as you haven't eaten in two days. You eat quickly and you run back to the last pond. That child is now also dead. But you see another child in another pond, so you rush in once again. You drop out of exhaustion somewhere around midnight. You wake up in an hour or two, see that this child too is now dead, but there's another one nearby. As before, you rush in, help the child, and repeat the process.

You see the picture. Long story short: you start helping fewer and fewer children out of ponds, and stabilize at some sustainable daily range of saved children. Maybe you go to work, earn your wages, go home, eat, get changed, and spend an hour or two a day in ponds, saving children, and letting other children die. Maybe you stop saving children altogether and start wondering why the hell are there so many children in ponds anyway. Or maybe you invent a surveying technology that can estimate how many drowning children there are on a given piece of land, or you try to estimate how much it would cost to drain all these ponds so that children can stop falling into them, or you raise awareness in town, and try to explain to others that there are children drowning in some ponds nearby.

That's my entire criticism of this analogy - it's sometimes presented like "if you would do this THEN IT FOLLOWS that you should do that", but it does not follow, because of context. There's not one pond, but millions of ponds, and rushing in is an excellent strategy only for up to a thousand ponds. Everything above that (and probably everything above 100) is reason enough to stop, think and try to build a better system.

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I would encourage you and other commentators to read Singer's article Poverty, Affluence and Morality in which he develops his argument in more detail. It's an extremely easy read and not overly long either (less than 20 pages). He explicitly adresses the potentially overwhelming nature of our obligations. He also addresses the issue of overpopulation that Vanilla Cabs raises. If I had more time, I'd provide a summary of what he says, but unfortunately I'll have to leave this for someone else.

So it's worth understanding that this analogy is where his argument begins and not where it ends. I don't think he would claim that you should make your decision upon the basis of this thought experiment by itself.


It looks like Singer subscribes to the maxim, "Give until you're unable to take care of yourself and your loved ones."

I like this framing better than the drowning child analogy since the trigger for the action pattern of giving is well-defined. Thanks for pointing this article out, Chris_Leong.

He suggests that he subscribes to such a maximum, but also proposes a weaker maxim - that we should give unless the bad that would happen to us is comparable in moral significance to the harm we would prevent (note: this says comparable in moral significance, not equal in morally significance).

  1. Then next week, as you are saving your nth child, you notice that this is the first child you saved. That child fell into the pond again!
  2. Years later you meet a child you saved. That child is now a grown adult. They kept living near the pond in a dire condition. As a consequence their whole life has been miserable, and they made people miserable around them.
  3. That child is now an adult. They had 10 children. 5 of them fell in ponds and drowned.

I'm not saying that that's what happens in real life. Just that the analogy never considers those cases (same disclaimer as OP).

I don't find this post valuable. It criticizes a simplified (and very dated) model of someone who has written much more extensively (and recently) about his views. Also, it implies that the analogy would be improved by adding an arbitrary number of ponds, but doesn't adjust it in other ways like adding an arbitrary number of students. And it ignores that the analogy obviously cannot be applied as-is nowadays, because the underlying assumption (saving a life is extraordinarily cheap) is no longer correct (if it ever was); for instance GiveWell estimates that their top charities currently save a life per $3,000 to $5,000 donated.

So how does this post add value to the discourse? Who is supposed to benefit from the exhortation that this "is reason enough to stop, think and try to build a better system"?

I'm sorry you don't find it valuable. It's an argument that bugged me - I first heard it only a couple of years ago on a podcast completely unrelated to EA, accepted is as valid, but felt that something was off. I worked through my confusion and this is the result. Maybe everyone who hears it immediately thinks of all the criticism you listed, but I doubt it. 

Who benefits from the last sentence? I guess people like me, or whoever hears the analogy and accepts it without first analyzing it a bit.

It's not criticism of Singer in general either. Chris says that this analogy is only the beginning of his argument, and I totally agree (and I happen to agree with almost all of Singer's conclusions, at least those that I've read afterwards).

In retrospect, my reading of the post (and my reply) were more uncharitable than I would've liked. To clarify where I'm coming from, it pattern-matched to two things I've grown frustrated with over time: Firstly, it gave me the impression of an outside critique of a field without engaging with its strongest arguments, as happens a lot to the rationality community as well (e.g. here's an old SSC post on the general problem).

And secondly, the final sentence pattern-matched to the ubiquitous "we need systemic change" criticism of effective altruism (subjectively, it appears in every single news article on EA), which doesn't seem particularly fair when everyone in the field is aware that of course systemic change would be better in principle, but it's incredibly unclear how to handle such problems in a tractable manner. (Not to mention that tons of interventions intended to effect systemic change actually perform significantly worse than e.g. cash transfers.)

Finally, when I mentioned you hadn't added an arbitrary number of students to the analogy, I meant that in your modified analogy a single individual seemingly has to save the entire world, whereas once you allow for many students, one way to resolve such a world would be to promote altruism more widely or even help build a community of effective altruism, as Peter Singer has done. Isn't that the kind of systematic approach you were calling for?

I totally get the frustration, that's why I felt the disclaimer in the beginning was necessary!

As for the question of many students - yes, absolutely. Promoting EA is a smart and valuable goal, and will definitely produce more effect ("or you raise awareness in town, and try to explain to others that there are children drowning in some ponds nearby"). And, as you say, it's precisely what Singer is doing.

Regarding systemic change: I think that's a conversation stopper in many cases. People say "X is cool and everything, but what we REALLY need is systemic change". But that's, like, a really big task, and it seems to me that it just breeds inaction, as opposed to interventions. I wasn't going for an applause light, only a very narrow criticism of one specific analogy/argument.


Right.  Another aspect is you have to compete with the other people who walk right by.  Saving one child won't affect your competitiveness much.  It's why we give spare change to beggers or make small donations even if middle class to Africa funds.  But ultimately you are in a red queen race with all those other passerbys, so even if you personally really really really care about children drowning, if you don't put most of your effort into keeping up in the race, you won't have children of your own.

And then, fastforward enough time, and now there are nothing but these oblivious passerbys, wearing earmuffs to block out the sound of children drowning - they are the descendents of the first set, since the ones who saved a lot of kids were less successful in reproduction.  

One viable strategy that would work is you get a camera crew to follow you around when you save children, and guilt lots of people into giving you money to do it.  You then use your new status as a bigshot motivational speaker, etc, to get more mating opportunities.  And you write an autobiography and 'raise awareness' about all these darn children drowning everywhere, and even after you are gone, some of your effort stays, and society is slightly more likely to prevent children drowning.  

  1. Real-world personal finance isn't much of a red queen race. It costs an almost fixed amount of money to stay alive each year, and an almost fixed amount of money to raise a child to adulthood. If you make over $100k a year, you can comfortably raise at least one child and spend any excess money or effort on charity.

  2. We're probably not in a timeframe where evolution will matter. There are several existential risks and several technologies that render evolution obsolete that are likely to occur before most lesswrong readers would normally die. Having children for evolutionary purposes doesn't seem like an effective strategy for promoting altruism.

  3. We're not at a stage of popularity where raising a child to hopefully agree with us to be charitable 25 years from now is a more viable memetic strategy than spending the years that would be spent child-rearing trying to coax people into taking off their earmuffs. Which in turn may be less efficient than just putting your nose to the grindstone and making a proof of concept child-saving robot to show off and use.

The camera crew and autobiography strategy is the one Peter Singer personally uses.

#1. It's not the money, it's the time which goes by and leaves the "you" forever alone on the roadside. #2. Having children is not aimed to support any ideology besides having children.


#1, 2, 3 : you are correct in absolute terms in that probably the world has changed and you are probably correct.  

Still, #1 : you can use that over $100k funds to shift the probability more for your kids, even if the gains are very marginal, our firmware says to do it.

#2: You're right, but our firmware is programmed to ignore this possibility.

#3: You're right, but our firmware says that our own child is worth a lot more than other people's.  As long as ours doesn't drown in pools, screw everyone else.  

One thing your thought experiment points out is the difference between what humans claim to care about "I don't want any children to starve or drown in pools" to what they actually care about.  Because obviously everyone walking with headphones on is doing it because they really don't give a shit, they just said they did to fit in.

Another thing I might note: you gave children drowning in pools as the analogy but the real boogeyman, aging, is going to affect everyone walking by oblivious.  They all would personally benefit if they collectively worked together sufficiently on methods to slow and reverse it.


Maybe ignore the below ramble

Part of the issue here is that the current roadblocks in biomedical progress - the recent mRNA vaccines are an example of what is possible when the funds and roadblocks are temporarily removed - have made my prior for "any further progress at all" to be assumed to be none.

I am still kind of imagining a world where I am 95 and there is still no treatment for Parkinson's, an ineffective treatment for dementias (so if I see the world at 95 it's due to luck), and barely any better cancer treatments as well.  If we subtract 60 years from the present day, 1961, this is basically true.  It's an observation of historical fact.  

This is why AI (and exponentially more intelligence) is our best personal hope.  To get through these red tapes and roadblocks you would basically need to be superhuman. (because AI can fill out forms for free, design experiments for the maximum knowledge gain within ethical constraints, perform and analyze the results of thousands of experiments in parallel, read every science journal article published to set up priors, and so on).

To control biology it's what we need.  

I'm more interested in what I initially perceived your title as suggesting...

What if, by continually helping children in ponds, you in the long-run incentivize people leaving children in your ponds? This sounds obscure at analogy-level,  but consider...

Donating shoes/bicycles/etc. to developing nations is a bad idea, because it disrupts and destroys the local economy shoe-production. There simply isn't enough regional demand, factoring in the large donations, to develop the proper economics of scale. I have no literature on this, but a well-thought out philantropist friend has noted this concept to me many times. 

On a macro-scale, i have an even "meaner" comment... I am personally in favor of moderate immigration, but consider: If immigration is freely allowed, then many with medical, engineering or similar degrees will move from troubled areas to Europe or the United States. With even more immigration, anybody remotely resourceful will move from, say Syria. It creates very low barriers to exit, meaning easier capitulation to negative forces. 

It creates brain-drain, easy capitulation and less people to rebuild the country - at least rebuilding based on college-education level standards of nation-building, which may be corrupt but at least functional. 

As a last example, what if you considered two countries. One with extremely altruistic climate goals and one that did not care. One cares, the other can freeload, abusing "the commons" - this usually leads to moral indignation, then war - which is an inferior result for all. 


What if - instead of helping children in ponds ad infinitum, you took a step back and invested in institution-building in your local community - things that are "your responsibility" and that cannot be off-loaded to you if you act too altruistically. You will both reap the benefits of local status, local improvements, and knowing that you are not incentivizing negative game-theory outcomes? You may have a lower first-order utility effect, but you can be less worried about extremely damaging second,third,fourth order effects. 

I'm not knowledgable about this... so if anybody can explain to me why my line of reasoning is (in general) wrong, I'd be very inclined to hear it. 

Donating shoes/bicycles/etc. to developing nations is a bad idea, because it disrupts and destroys the local economy shoe-production. There simply isn't enough regional demand, factoring in the large donations, to develop the proper economics of scale. I have no literature on this, but a well-thought out philantropist friend has noted this concept to me many times. 

That is an argument I often hear or read, but I never see a good model showing that it would indeed be a consistent argument. Suppose you have an economy that gets all its shoes for free. Why shouldn't people just be happy about that and produce something else?

The brain-drain argument is more complicated, also empirically, but concerning the "rebuild the country" argument: since this post is discussing ethics, I assume the question in this context would be: Why would an individual who is born in Syria be ethically obligated to stay there, while you are not ethically obligated to do everything to rebuild Syria?

Concerning climate goals: While I assume that nobody in Europe would consider starting a war against the US if the US government announces an NDC lacking ambition, I would be interesting which cases of abusing "the commons" actually led to "moral indignation, then war". 

Finally, if you invest in institution-building in your local community, the same things can happen. Other people around you don't develop the capacity to contribute, you help people who could help themselves, and people can abuse the commons. If you can "reap the benefits of local status", you could also reap the benefits of global status.

So I think all of your points may be worthwhile, but they seem somewhat incomplete.

I will try to move from the specific, to the general:


Shoes: The problem is, as my friend explained to three things:

  1.  That shoes/bicylces/engines/etc. is not a consistently donated good across time. Interest waxes and wanes. That means an unsteady supply of "free goods". 
  2. It also doesn't allow the country to progress in up-skilling manufacturing, as many Asian countries have done. I forget the model name, but the one where they move from raw materials, to manufacturing, to low-level electronics, etc. - its hard to simply move from rural farmer to semiconductor engineering - for various reasons ranging from income to sustain education, etc. 
  3. It destroys what capacity already existed. If people and businesses invest in capacity for building bicycles, then get hit with a 3-year surge of bicycles (than then disappear) - you have to rebuild and reacquire the expertise. 

Brain-drain: From an ethical standpoint, I think the paradigm you are approaching from is wrong. This is not about normative duties, but about pragmatism. 

  1. It is easier for a native to enter local government. 
  2. It is difficult and time consuming to integrate new peoples into countries - for both host and immigrant. 
  3. It is GREAT for me that engineers, doctors and judges are coming to my country. It is not so great for the originator country. It is not about "sending somebody back to deal with it" - but about investigating the second-order effects on millions of people, when deciding to help thousands of people. Put in another way: If we presume that only the educated elite gets to leave, is it a good idea "to let them  in" from a pure utilitarian perspective, cosnidering their country-men? Its not about individual rights, because then we would have to discuss a very deep topic of, to what degree people have a right to the land that their forefathers lived on, which I think is not the purpose of my argument here. 


  1. Many wars have been worsened, started or instigated by access to freshwater resources. The united nations keeps a list of "water conflicts" - if i'm not mistaken - but googling the term will lead to plenty of examples. 


  1. There is no such thing as global status for, say, donating $5000 to a community shelter. Nobody will care, if you decide to donate to another country, county or even city. You do have a point on "letting locals freeload" - but at least you will have proportionally larger personal benefits, despite the freeloaders, than from donating to a community shelter the town over. 


Still, I get that each point is not complete or has individual shortcomings - I am only trying to demonstrate a general point. The general point is this: 

  • "What if supporting some altruistic purpose simply lets other people ignore the issue and pocket the change, leaving net gain at 0?" (i.e. ambitious climate plans letting others relax). 
  • "What if supporting some altruistic purpose inadvertently worsened everything"

And my general solution is:

  • "Keep things simple and local, as to avoid interacting with things you have no insight into, and to minimize unruly second-order global effects".