Thursday, June 19, 2008

Singer's Child in the Pond: Variations on a Theme

So because I like testing-out paper ideas here...

I'm tinkering around with some variations on Singer's Child in the Pond case, trying to figure out the extents/limits of the obligations we can get (if we think we can get any) out of examples such as these. Specifically, I'm trying to get at just how much we can be obligated to do. So here are the cases I'm playing with.

Case 1:
There's a man drowning in the pond (I'm jettisoning the children bit... too many knowledge/responsibility problems). I'm on the shore, too far away to swim to get him. But there is a vending-machine-type thing next to me that offers two possible rescue-options for people who are drowning in the pond.

(a) For $100 I can have a little device teleported into the drowning man's hand (maybe he's not drowning per-se, but he's clutching to a piece of driftwood and will be drowning shortly). The device has a button on it that, if pressed, will teleport him safely to the shore.

(b) For $500 I can activate a giant crane that will reach out and scoop the man out of the water and carry him to safety.

I have only $500 with me. We can presume I am obligated to do one of these. But am I obligated to do (b) instead of (a)? Or have I discharged my obligation if I pursue (a) instead of (b)?

Case 2:
The same as Case 1 except now I have $600 with me. I opt to send the teleportation-button out to the man and he refuses to push it. He knows it will save him, at no cost or other adverse consequence to him. He just refuses to make the minimal effort required. Am I now obligated to send out the $500 crane?

Case 3:
Identical to Case 1 again (where I have only $500), but instead of a teleportation-button, the $100 sends out a rope that the man can use to pull himself to shore. (Here presume the man physically capable and that I know this.) Have I discharged my obligation if I send out the rope instead of the crane?

Case 4:
Like Case 3 except I have $600 available. I send out the rope and the man refuses to pull himself to shore. Must I now send out the $500 crane?

What if, in all the above cases, I know that the man is remarkably lazy and will quite likely be unwilling to push the button/pull himself to shore? What If I'm certain that he'll be unwilling? In cases 1 and 3 where I can only use one of the methods, must I then opt for the more expensive crane-rescue? In cases 2 and 4 when this comes true, does my foreknowledge change what I'm obligated to do once my expectations are indeed met?

Thanks for all responses in advance...


  1. Hey Corwin,

    Case 1: You've dicharged any responsibility you have by doing (a). If you want to make the case a little more difficult for Singer then you might want to create some disparity between (a) and (b). I can't think offhand why I would want to do (b) when (a) works just as well and is much cheaper.

    Case 2&4: Singer wouldn't require you to send the crane if the fellow refuses to take simple measures to save himself. The reason for this is that Singer doesn't (at least not at the time he wrote the paper I'm thinking of) require us to go to extraordinary lengths to save people who refuse our aid.

    Case 3: Yep. I would think that rope would be sufficient.

    Lazy-Man-Knowledge: In this case you aren't required to do anything for the man. As Singer says in Rich and Poor, you need not expend resources when you know that they will be ineffective. His specific example involves world hunger. When there are nations we could help by providing them with things (say genetically modified crops that will grow easily in their region) that they would refuse on some ethical reason, we just don't have an obligation to them. "...we have no obligation to assist countries whose governments have policies that will make our aid ineffective." (I thought it was odd for Singer to say, so I remembered it.)

    Analogously, if we send the teleporter out to the guy and he says "No! I don't teleport!" then he has killed himself and we've done all we must. If we know in advance that he won't push the button then it is unfortunate that the man will drown, but it's not our obligation to spent 5x as much as is needed to save him because he won't use the cheaper/easier option.

  2. My intuitions exactly...

    I've never read that part of Singer, but you're right that is a REALLY odd thing for him to say. But I wonder exactly what he means by that. For instance, we might think that there is only ONE way of rescuing a particular group. Yet that group has policies that will make this only-method ineffective.

    But in cases involving multiple possible rescue strategies, certainly the fact that they refuse, or would subvert, one of them doesn't necessarily mean we have no obligation to help them at all. So the issue may not be one where whatever resources I expend will be ineffective, it's that, due to the fact that you're lazy say, I must expend GREATER resources than I otherwise would have to in order to BE effective. But being effective is still possible.. just at greater cost.

    So it seems at least consistent with the quote you cite from Singer to think that we'd still be obligated to help the lazy man since it's not that he's going to frustrate ANY aid (or the only possible effective aid), it's just that he frustrates the cheapest one.

  3. You could be right. I don't know for sure how he stands on the question of obligations to help the lazy. He's not known for compassion, so I can imagine him saying something like "get off your ass and do something to save yourself." If he were to say that we have obligations to save people in spite of themselves then he would really open himself up to the utility-monster problem.

  4. It might be best to distinguish what Singer might say from what is entailed by his utilitarianism.

    Being a consequentialist, he will say whatever will best motivate his audience to action. Thus in various publications his suggestions about how to handle world hunger differ. So it shouldn't be surprising to find one article slightly contradict another.

    At base, though, he is a preference utilitarian. A pure hedonistic utilitarian might suggest saving the unwilling in spite of themselves (and then perhaps doping them up or throwing them in an experience machine), but a preference utilitarian can make room for people who have strong preferences that don't coincide with the maximization of pleasure. Thus someone who strongly values their dignity, and loathes the thought of being placed in an experience machine, ought not be put in one. Someone who would rather die a painful yet lucid death than take pain medication (Freud is an example) should be allowed their preferences even though it does not maximize their pleasure.

    I'm not sure I have much to say on the cases you consider, Corwin, but I'll think about them some more

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