“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?”
Thus begins philosopher Peter Singer’s 2007 book The Life You Can Save.
Singer’s book poses a simple question:
What would most of us do if we saw a toddler drowning in a shallow pond?
Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to save the child—even if it meant ruining an expensive pair of shoes in the process.
He argues that this empathy should apply to endangered children across the world. Millions of children live in extreme poverty, and many do not make it past the age of five. If we wouldn’t ignore a child drowning in a pond, why do we ignore children on the other side of the world who die every day?
Taking small imaginative leaps, like the one Singer suggests, can help us see that suffering in far away countries deserves our moral concern as much as local suffering.
Most of us will never be faced with the need to save a drowning child. But Singer says there are other ways we can save lives. He suggests donating to effective international charities.
The Life You Can Save is an elegant manifesto directed at the people of wealthy countries like our own, and the message is simple: We have so, so much more than most other people on the planet do. Sharing some of our wealth could save lives.