Peter Singer is one of the most influential philosophers, and is a strong candidate for being the person who has helped the effective altruist community the most.
In the past, Peter Singer often argued that [the moral obligation to rush into a shallow pond to save a drowning child at the cost of ruining one’s shoes] is equivalent to [the moral obligation to give to charities that reduce extreme poverty]. For example, in this 2009 video he said:
Imagine that you’re walking across a shallow pond and you notice that a small child has fallen in, and is in danger of drowning […] Of course, you think you must rush in to save the child. Then you remember that you’re wearing your favorite, quite expensive, pair of shoes and they’ll get ruined if you rush into the pond. Is that a reason for not saving the child? I’m sure you’ll say no it isn’t, you just can’t compare the life of a child to the cost of a pair of shoes, no matter how expensive. […] But think about how that relates to your situation in the world today. There are children whose lives you can save […] Nearly 10 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty related causes. And it wouldn’t take a lot to save the lives of these children. We can do it. For the cost of a pair of shoes, perhaps, you could save the life of a child. […] There’s some luxury that you could do without. And with that money, you could give to an organization to reduce extreme poverty in the world, and save lives of children. […] I think that this is what we ought to be doing.
Since Singer first posed the analogy, new information and understanding has emerged, which cast doubt on the relevance of Singer’s analogy. Singer used a different analogy in his recent TED talk (in which he discussed the death of Wang Yue), but whether explicitly or implicitly, the “child in a pond” meme has caught on. In light of recent developments, it’s important to highlight the fact that the opportunities to donate to alleviate global in our present world are disanalogous to the opportunity in Singer’s “child in a pond” scenario.
The most expensive pair of shoes that I own costs ~$120, and I would guess that the average American doesn’t own a pair of shoes that costs more than $200. With this in mind, Singer’s analogy suggests that one can save a life of a child in the developing world for less than $200. To determine whether Peter Singer’s analogy is a good one, we need to examine the empirical data concerning the cost of saving a child’s life.
GiveWell spent five years looking for outstanding charities that alleviate poverty in the developing world. GiveWell's current top recommended charity, Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), distributes long lasting insecticide treated nets to guard recipients against malaria. GiveWell’s explicit estimate of AMF’s cost per life saved is just under $2,300. The cost of bed nets has recently fallen, and this is expected to decrease AMF’s cost per life saved, but not by a large margin.
GiveWell Co-Executive Director Holden Karnofsky has written about how explicit expected value estimates shouldn’t be taken literally, and in particular, that explicit estimates of the value of philanthropic opportunities should be adjusted to account for one’s Bayesian prior over the effectiveness of all philanthropic opportunities. In June 2012, GiveWell senior research analyst Alexander Berger wrote(speaking for himself rather than for GiveWell)
I don't think the expected value of a $1600 donation to AMF [an earlier cost-effectiveness estimate for AMF's cost per life saved] is actually anywhere near one life saved. The reason for this has nothing to do with how AMF works and is more a feature of its place in the total distribution of charity cost-effectiveness. I think there are a variety of practices in cost-effectiveness estimation that push in favor of a difficult-to-estimate positive bias (e.g. using evidence from RCTs, which are generally conducted in the most promising circumstances), that the most extreme cost-effectiveness estimates are more likely to be biased, and that the benefit of a marginal contribution is almost always less than the benefit of an average contribution. All of these conspire to make me think that the estimate that GiveWell provides for the "cost-per-life saved" for AMF is not the correct number for estimating the expected value of a contribution to AMF.
In the section “Concrete factors that further reduce the expected value of donating to AMF” of my blog post Robustness of Cost-Effectiveness Estimates and Philanthropy, I listed eleven concrete factors that increase AMF’s expected cost per life saved.
The reason why saving the child drowning in a pond in Singer’s hypothetical is obviously the right thing to do is that the personal cost associated with doing so is negligible relative to the benefit to others. The cost of saving a life in the developing world by donating to AMF is at least 10x greater than the cost in Singer’s “child in a pond” analogy, and possibly much greater. This substantially weakens Singer’s argument.
I raised this point in a recent comment thread on the GiveWell blog, and Doug S. concurred, writing
Honestly, there really is a big difference to me if X is different by orders of magnitude. The U.S. federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. Payroll taxes are 7.5%, so take-home pay becomes $6.70 an hour. It takes 343 hours – two months, working full time – working a minimum wage job to earn the $2300 it takes your #1 charity to save a life. There’s a big difference between $200 and $2000, between one week of minimum wage work and two months of minimum wage work.
I think Jonah and Doug are both looking for more precision than is reasonable. Robust facts about disparities in wealth – which you will also see qualitatively if you travel to the developing world – are sufficient to make the point that you have a great deal of power to help others a lot by giving up a little. If you’re looking for any sort of precise “dollar cost per quantity of good accomplished” (over and above the kind of robust comparisons I just described) such that a factor of 5-10 is crucial to how much you decide to give, I think it is – and long knowably has been – unrealistic to get such a thing. I think nearly all targets of Peter Singer’s argument have long implicitly recognized this fact. Perhaps there are some arguments for which such precision would be necessary, but if so they aren’t arguments that I see as having much traction. I don’t empathize with the view that such precision is necessary in order to make the broad argument that you ought to give generously.
What Holden’s comment misses is that there’s a big difference between the following two statements:
(1) “A rough estimate for the cost of saving a life is the cost of an expensive pair of shoes, but it could be much higher or much lower”
(2) “A rough estimate for the cost of saving a life is over 10x greater than the cost of an expensive pair of shoes, but the cost is probably higher, and possibly much higher, due to Bayesian regression.”
The problem with Singer’s “child in a pond” analogy isn’t that real world cost-effectiveness estimates aren’t precise. The problem with Singer’s “child in a pond” analogy is that there’s a strong case for the cost-effectiveness of donating to AMF being vastly lower than Singer’s analogy suggests.
Peter Singer has been very successful in getting people interested in donating to alleviate global poverty. One could argue that his “child in a pond” contributed to his success, and that continuing to use it is, for this reason, justified. Nevertheless, the analogy is problematic.
Vipul Naik wrote (paraphrased):
There is a tension between the tactically optimal approach for convincing a larger number of people to donate more, and the argument that is most grounded in empirical reality. I think that rather than minimizing the tension, it’s more courageous and epistemically admirable to openly and very explicitly admit that Singer-style (implicit or explicit) “you-can-save-a-life-for-the-price-of-a-pair-of-shoes” *if true*, would be far more compelling a reason to donate than the argument based on disparities in wealth.
See also this comment where Carl Shulman writes: “I think it’s bad news for probably mistaken estimates to spread, and then disillusion the readers or make the writers look biased. If people interested in effective philanthropy go around trumpeting likely wrong (over-optimistic) figures and don’t correct them, then the community’s credibility will fall, and bad models and epistemic practices may be strengthened.”
Singer's argument is not the only argument for donating to alleviate poverty in the developing world. For example, in a recent blog post, Holden wrote:
To us, the strongest form of the challenge [to donate to alleviate poverty in the developing world] is not “How much should I give when $X saves a life?” but “How much should I give, knowing that I have massive wealth compared to the global poor?” Perhaps the most vivid illustration comes not from Against Malaria Foundation (our #1-rated charity) but from GiveDirectly (our #2). If you give $1000 to GiveDirectly, ~$900 will end up in the hands of people whose resources are a tiny fraction of yours. GiveDirectly’s estimate – which we believe is less sensitive to guesswork than “cost per life saved” figures – is that recipients live on ~65 cents per day, implying that such a donation could roughly double the annual consumption for a family of four, not counting any long term benefits.
As Vipul commented, this argument is much weaker than Singer’s “child in a pond” argument.
In Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (pg. 135) Peter Unger gives a Singer-style analogy that can be made more faithful to present day empirical realities than Singer’s “child in a pond” analogy. The form of the argument (modified for use in the present context) is this:
Imagine that you have a car that's worth AMF’s actual cost per life saved. You park your car on unused train tracks and get out in order to walk around. You see a child playing in a tunnel off in the distance, and see a train headed toward the tunnel. If the train proceeds, the train will kill the child. You have access to a switch that can be used to divert the train toward the unused train tracks where your car is parked. If you flip the switch, the train will demolish your car, but nobody will be killed. Do you flip the switch?
I think that most people would say that flipping the switch is the right thing to do. But I don’t think that they would say that the moral obligation is as great as the moral obligation in Singer's “child in a pond” scenario.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Vipul Naik, Nick Beckstead and Luke Muehlhauser for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.
Note: I formerly worked as a research analyst at GiveWell. All views are my own.
I don't find this reservation very compelling. Just say you're wearing a nice suit as well as expensive shoes, and you're almost there.
A more meaningful difference to me is whether there's a clear endpoint. If you ruin your suit saving the kid in the pond, well, there probably aren't any other drowning children in sight and you can go home and feel good about yourself. But as soon as I acknowledge an obligation to help people I have never met, there is nowhere I can stop and still feel decent. It is far, far easier to live with myself if I choose never to give anything than if I save ten lives and then decide that saving an eleventh would cost me too much.
This is an excellent objection, and very similar to what I thought when I read the post. Here's some more thoughts in the same direction.
Let's say that after diving into the pond to save the child, and ruining all of my clothes in the process (which still don't add up to $2000; no complete set of clothes I own adds up to that much), the very next day, I am walking across the same pond (in new clothes), and the kid's drowning again.
So of course I save him again and am out a bunch of money/inconvenience again.
And then the next day another kid's drowning there.
And the next day.
At this point, most of my clothes are ruined, so I'm pretty upset. But more than that: I'm angry. Who the heck is letting these kids play in the pond? Where are their parents? Shouldn't someone put up a giant sign that says "DON'T PLAY IN THE POND, YOU IDIOT KIDS", or a fence, or an electrified fence? Is relying on strangers walking across the pond and ruining their clothes to save these hapless kids really the best solution to this problem? Why am I on the hook for this?
At that point, I might complain to the police, say, or the city government, apprise them of the pond situation, and then go t... (read more)
If you make this particular change to the example, then the thing you're trading off against your new shoes and clothes isn't "saving a child's life" but "saving one day of a child's life". It's reasonable to value that rather less (which is not to say that it's reasonable to value it less than your shoes).
Make it another child (as you do in the next paragraph) and it's more to the point.
But. Part of the reason why "keep saving these children, one by one, at great personal cost" might not be the right answer is that, as you point out, there are other things that are likely to be more effective and efficient, and other people better placed than you to address the problem, who will probably do so if you let them know.
None of that applies in the case of people dying of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, so far as I can see. There aren't obviously better approaches than malaria nets, which is why AMF is allegedly one of the most effective charities in good done per unit cost. And, while there are certainly people better placed to address the problem than you are, just telling them "hey, there are people dying of malaria" probably won't do much to make them do it.
If that's true, I think they absolutely should advertise that fact strongly, as that seems to me to be one of the most persuasive reasons to donate. "You can save a child's life!" and "We are aiming to fix this problem forever and you can help" are very different.
It is tautological, but it's something you're ignoring in both this post and the linked reply. If you care about saving children as a part of a complex preference structure, then saving children, all other things being equal, fulfills your preferences more than not saving those children does. Thus, you want to do it. I'm trying to avoid saying you should do it, because I think you'll read that in the traditional moral framework sense of "you must do this or you are a bad person" or something like that. In reality, there is no such thing as "being a bad person" or "being a good person", except as individuals or society construct the concepts. Moral obligations don't exist, period. You don't have an obligation to save children, but if you prefer children being saved more than you prefer not paying the costs to do so then you don't need a moral obligation to do it any more than you need a moral obligation to get you to eat lunch at (great and cheap restaurant A) instead of (expensive and bad restaurant B).
Taboo "moral obligation". No one (important) is telling you that you're a bad person for not saving the children, or a good person for doing s... (read more)
Living with this constant moral pressure is unlikely to make you most effective. A better alternative is to budget your money in advance, and give yourself a modest amount that you are free to use as you please. Jeff Kaufman's Keeping Choices Donation Neutral argues for an approach along these lines. If I remember correctly, Toby Ord makes a similar point in an early unpublished essay.
It (in that fiction) gets him enabling the transition from our present (frankly rather rubbish) world to a glorious future of peace and plenty for all. Not so bad, if you find fictional evidence compelling.
You may well be right about the real world. But in the fictional world of that SMBC comic, it seems to me that (miserable Superman + billions of people living in peace and prosperity) is plausibly an outcome that even Superman might prefer to (happy Superman + billions of people suffering war, poverty, disease, etc.).
In other words, I don't think your fictional example is good support for your thesis. Which is too bad, because (like much else at SMBC) it's a funny and thought-provoking comic.
In the hypothetical world, Superman brings the whole planet to properity and then... he has a problem to find a job, and then he ends up working at the museum.
Why exactly is the person who saved the whole planet required to work? Did the humanity meanwhile evolve beyond the use of "thank you"? How about just asking some volunteers to donate 0.1% of their monthly income to Superman? If just one person in a few thousands agrees, Superman can retire happily.
The problem with the comix story is not just the extreme altruism, but that humanity appears unable to cooperate on Prisonners' Dilemma with the Superman. (I am not saying that's necessarily an incorrect description of the humanity. Just a sad one.)
I agree that some hypotheticals should be fought. But it seems to me that you're objecting to the basic premise of the strip and also trying to use it as fictional evidence.
In the fictional world depicted there, how do you get to happy Superman + happy billions?
In our actual world, how do you get to (if I'm understanding correctly the analogy you want to draw) comfortable first-worlders not needing to sacrifice anything + less malaria, starvation, etc., in the poorer parts of the world?
(From the other things you've said in this thread it seems like you're actually happy to get to comfortable first-worlders not needing to sacrifice anything + starvation and misery in the developing world. Fair enough; your values are what they are and I'm not going to try to change them. But then what does the hypothetical outcome (happy Superman + happy billions) have to do with anything?)
I was going to write a post describing why I didn't find your argument compelling, but then I realized that I would find it perfectly compelling if the estimate for $/life saved had gone up to say, $10 million. So apparently my true rejection of your argument isn't what I was going to write - it's that I just don't find the difference between $200 and $2000 to be that significant.
From Ben Kuhn:
I recently bought a second monitor. If I were carrying it on my back and saw a drowning child, I would jump into the pond, save the child, and fry the monitor. But then I would go buy another monitor, because I realized that if I’m switching back and forth between programming, documentation, and other windows all the time, the ones in the background consume nagging bits of attention and I get a lot worse at doing high-value tasks like programming. I calculate that given my hourly wage, if my second monitor makes me even 1% better at programming because I can keep track of more things, it will pay for itself in less than a year, so it’s a definite win.
Of course, there's the question, "What if you see another child the next day? Do you keep jumping in and out of ponds?" My answer is, "No, Ben should spend his time programming, or finishing his college degree, or figuring out better ways to help people, because any of these will allow him to do more good than as an aquatic aid worker."
Something I noticed when a friend told me about this (some terms have been altered):
Suppose there are a hundred ponds, with ten children each drowning, ALL THE TIME. Wearing a clean suit will earn you enough money to save more of them by hiring people using your large paycheck (I shall assume this suit is good enough to get you a decent job) to fish children out of ponds. In the mean time, you'd ALSO be living a comfortable life, which will further allow you to buy job-getting suits for saved children and divers, thereby increasing the number of people tha... (read more)
40 years ago, when Singer first made this argument, shoes were more expensive. Also, his shoes, today, are more expensive than your shoes, today. But he didn't look into actual numbers until quite recently.
I am now attempting to estimate the expected number of small children that will drown as a result of Peter Singer's argument.
I see the child-in-a-pond scenario as an intuition pump. It takes a case where people naturally tend to care about others and feel an inclination/urge/motivation to help (even at a cost to themselves) and connects it to global poverty charity to try to induce the same urge to help others in the context of global poverty. Two of the main changes that it makes in reframing the problem are:
It takes a problem that's far and makes it up-close and personal, with a drowning child right there in front of you.
It takes the marginal benefit that you can pro
Carl Shulman also presented some arguments against the lake drowning thought experiment here.
Even though people's intuitions do lead them to believe it is morally necessary for one to save the hypothetical drowning child, in that particular scenario, I wager that there are situations in which people's intuitions would lead to other conclusions. One relevant hypothetical scenario is one in which one is amidst a group of people who also are observing the drowning child, and who are better able to bear the economic hardship of losing a pair of dress shoes (I know that the phrase "economic hardship" sounds rather callous in this scenario, bu... (read more)
Really? At least as a matter of my intuitions I'd say the obligation is no different. You might be able to argue that if you have a car worth twice AMF's cost per life saved, you'd save more lives letting the kid get turned into goo, and then selling the car and donating the money. But for what my intuitions are worth I would flip the switch. I'd flip it if my car were worth a million times the cost per life saved, a... (read more)
Or, not merely more realistic, but actually having real instances: would you throw your whole productive life into earning as much money as possible in order to give nearly all of it away to the cause of saving children?
Your last example is actually weaker than it could be. Even though it's completely equivalent, a better way to phrase this is the following:
The train is currently rushing to kill the child, and you're not part of this situation. You, sitting in your car far away, see this happening. You now have the choice to drive up to the tracks and leave your car on the tracks. This will save the child but destroy your car.
Now it's clear that you weren't part of the situation to begin with; you're just a distant observer who may choose to intervene.
The same reason fat people can derail trolleys and businesspeople have lifeguard abilities, I'd imagine.
I wonder whether there's a distancing effect going on there - it's, apparently, easier to press a button and kill someone than to stab them in the neck and watch 'em die all gurgling - so I wonder whether we feel less inclined to press a button and save someone.
If you were driving your car, and the child was pushed out into the road in front of you, would you redirect your car into a ditch knowing that would write the car off?
An uninsured car, presumably, or you're only out the inconvenience of replacing it.
While in the TED talk Singer may give the impression that he endorses the claim that one can save a life by donating $200 to a cost-effective charity, his actual position is more cautious, and less vulnerable to Jonah's objection. In The Life You Can Save (p. 103), he writes:... (read more)
Dunno if someone has noticed this before, and dunno how relevant this is, but in the child-in-the-pond scenario, you're the only person who could possibly save that child, whereas in the AMF scenario, anyone giving the same amount of money would save the same children.