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Peter Singer’s Shallow Pond

Peter Singer is a legendary philosopher, famous for sparking the animal rights movement with his book Animal Liberation. He’s a big thinker on ethics, from animal welfare to global poverty, and is one of the inspirations for the effective altruism movement.

He is also famous for his Shallow Pond analogy that first featured in his book Practical Ethics.

It goes something like this.

Imagine you are walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it. The only way to save the child is by wading in, which would ruin your clothes. Singer argues that most people would agree that the moral obligation to save the child far outweighs the inconvenience or cost of ruining one’s clothes. This situation illustrates a fundamental ethical principle: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without significant sacrifice, we should do it.

Extending this analogy to global poverty, Singer suggests that affluent individuals have a similar moral obligation to help those in extreme need, even if they are geographically distant.

The implication is that the lack of proximity and salience is not a valid excuse; if we can save a child we are morally obligated to do so. We should therefore donate significant amounts of our wealth to immediately beneficial causes that have the most impact - i.e. saving lives.

However, it doesn’t feel right, somehow. By extending the analogy a little, making it more realistic, some of this dissonance can be reduced.

Imagine you are on holiday in a foreign country. You are walking past a park, minding your own business when someone that works for the UN responsible for global poverty tells you that a child is drowning in the park. You rush in, past representatives for the World Bank, and the WHO - all urging you forward. You run past the country’s president, and ministers of the state. You wonder, is this really my responsibility? There are also state representatives, and the park warden - all standing by, blank-faced, waiting for you to act. Finally, you reach and save the child, ruining your clothes, but this is a small price to pay. Then, you wonder, why is everyone else just standing around? And do I have to come back tomorrow? And the day after…

This analogy seems more complete and gets us (well, me at least) closer to a less conflicted and more intuitive position. It’s not clear what it means, nor what that means we should do. That Singer is well-motivated is beyond question - whether his Shallow Pond analogy is a valid way to think about charity is less clear.