Epistemic status: possibly very evil devil's advocacy, philospohicly unsophisticard ruminations

We are all familiar with Singer's drowning child thought experiment. I have often found it very compelling, or at least felt I ought to find it very compelling. My revealed preferences, as with those of nearly everyone else, tell a different story. 

But it has always struck me that Singer's story can be read in two directions, and social desirability bias would likely prevent one from reading it aloud in the less-common way. 

If a thought experiment is to drastically alter one's life, it seems worth a little devil's advocacy. 

In this spirit, I ask if the fact that one does not donate all their energy to ameliorating the plight of the world's most impoverished provide some evidence that one does not, in fact, care as much about the near-by drowning child as they think they do?

What are some purely-selfish reasons one might have for saving the child. I can think of a few.

  1. You gain some prestige as a hero.
  2. You demonstrate your strength and competence publicly in the event someone witnesses your heroism.
  3. It is fun to imagine heroic acts in your head that you would not, in fact, do in real life.
  4. The gratefulness of the child and/or their parents isn't without value.
  5. Saving a child in this way is a novel, interesting experience. 

If we alter Singer's story such that a hero-for-hire offers to save the near-by child, and he asks for a sum equivalent to the price of your suit (and a guarantee of that you will keep the transaction confidential) we can remove the weight of these motivations. Supposing you cannot swim and the hero-for-hire is the only person around, would you take this deal?

I think I would take the deal, but if I'm honest with myself it does seem very slightly less compelling.

If we extend this scenario and imagine that accepting this deal every week would mean sacrificing half your annual salary, the decision becomes even more complex. Would the majority still take the deal?  Or would they perhaps find a path to their office where large bodies of water are not in view?

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I think that this thought experiment mixes two different situations: helping when you are in unique position to help for almost free – and helping in fungible situations where many can help many but for cost.

This actually results into underestimation of the value of unique help.  A few times I reminded a taxi driver about a pedestrian ahead - and such type of help is not fungible and didn't cost me anything. 

So training people to perform unique help may be very effective: eg how to perform CPR, swim etc.

Yup, like so many thought experiments, it's intended to restrict all the real-world options in order to focus on the intuition conflict between "once" and "commonly".  One of the reasons I'm not a Utilitarian is that I don't think most values are anywhere near linear, and simple scaling (shut up and multiply) just doesn't resonate with me.

If the "hero for hire" is a lifeguard or swimming instructor, we have LOTS of examples of communities or occasionally rich individuals deciding to provide that.  The difference that the thought experiment fails to make clear is one of timeframe and (as you point out) uniqueness of YOUR ability to help.

(In real life I would suspect that this is a scam, and both the drowning child and the hero-for-hire are actors.)

I've never found it all that compelling.  The price does matter - the cost of a suit for a one-off event is trivial, but once you start talking about real sacrifice (say, a year being forced to live far more cheaply than you're used to), it's not obvious what most people would do.  

Also, there's a world of difference between the rare/unplanned/one-time event and the equilibrium/expected/repeated situation.  At some point, drowning kids that just happen to need exactly the amount I'm willing to pay is pretty darned suspicious, and I'm likely to play the precommittment game of "sorry, left my wallet at home".

I'd be rather more inclined to pay the hero than to do it myself (with appropriate evidence that it isn't just a common scam). I'm not a good swimmer, and may well screw up saving the child. A hero-for-hire presumably has a lot more experience with saving people in situations like this. I would of course not pay cash on the spot, since that just invites people to get children to pretend to be drowning in order to extract cash from passers-by.

If we extend the scenario to hundreds of children drowning in ponds right near me per week, then I would wonder where the hell all the adults are. Once may be happenstance, twice is a suspicious coincidence, and three times is definitely enemy action - and anything I pay into that mess seems as likely to perpetuate the situation as fix it without a lot more investigation.

Singer also omits the "friend enemy distinction". Generally we treat all children as friends rather than enemies, but what if that child had killed your sister?

What if it's baby Hitler?


Singer's parable is in fact drawn from the Mohists of ancient China. But another ancient Chinese proverb says something about "teaching a man to fish".

If a parent keeps losing kids to drowning, is it really your job to save them every time? Might it be that parents' / rescue teams' responsibility? What difference does it make when we diffuse responsibility to the whole society rather than have it concretely placed in certain individuals who we hold accountable ahead of time?

Here is a description of that metaphor, for those who don't know.

I wonder whether 1.-5. may often not be so much directly dominate in our head, but instead, mostly:

      6. The drowning child situation simply brings out the really strong warrior/fire-fighter instinct in you, so, as a direct disposition you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of comfort to save it

Doesn’t alter the ultimate conclusion of your nice re-experiment much but means a sort of non-selfish reason for your willingness to help with the drowning child, in contrast to the 5 selfish ones (even if evolutionarily, 1.-5 are underlying reasons for why we’re endowed with the instinct for 6.)