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Peter Singer's Drowning Child-What obligation do we have towards people in need who are far away?

Discussion in 'Ethics & Morality' started by public hermit, Dec 20, 2019.

  1. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I have always found Peter Singer's "Drowning Child" example a compelling argument for my obligation to help people in need, even if they are far away from me. I will paste his main argument below (link at the bottom).

    "To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.
    I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

    Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

    At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.

    I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves..."

    What are your thoughts? Do you find his argument compelling? What are some practical difficulties with helping those who are far away? Does action at a distance reduce our obligation towards those in need? Why or why not? Any relevant thoughts are welcomed.

    The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle, by Peter Singer
     
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  2. A_Thinker

    A_Thinker Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I do.

    I believe that we should minister to those who are in need, whether near ... or far ...
     
  3. Al Touthentop

    Al Touthentop Well-Known Member

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    I prefer James, inspired by God.

    James 1:27
    "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world."

    Not to dismiss what some secular authors have written, but my motivation as a Christian is to do what God asked me to do. I don't need any more convincing than that.
     
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  4. Tolworth John

    Tolworth John Well-Known Member

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    It is ignorance both of the needs and of the possibility of helping that limits most people's charity.

    Being involved in a church should keep people informed of the needs of others.

    If your church does not regularly pray for the perscuted church, collect for Christian charities both locally and internationally ask why and if nothing happens move.
     
  5. A_Thinker

    A_Thinker Well-Known Member Supporter

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    You realize that the proposed scenario is essentially the same as Jesus' "Good Samaritan" parable, correct ... ???
     
  6. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Yes
     
  7. Rubiks

    Rubiks proud libtard

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    Some people avoid helping others because they don't want to get sued.
     
  8. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Why do you say that? Would you mind saying more?
     
  9. Al Touthentop

    Al Touthentop Well-Known Member

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    So why would I prefer it to the scriptures?
     
  10. brinny

    brinny everlovin' shiner of light in dark places Supporter

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    Perhaps they could be helped anonymously, then? :)
     
  11. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I did not intend to recommend it as a preference over the scriptures. I simply said it was a compelling argument. I put it in this forum so that anyone, whether they accepted the scriptures or not, could comment. As far as my intention, I was hoping to generate conversation on this topic, nothing more and nothing less.
     
  12. ananda

    ananda Early Buddhist

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    From my Buddhist perspective ...

    To address underlying principles: we help others by helping ourselves first. Two main reasons:

    1. The highest goal in life is nibbana (cessation of all suffering) - not saving physical lives. Our physical bodies are all subject to old age, illness, and will eventually die in any case.
    2. The best way to help others is by exemplifying wisdom through personal example, not by physical, forceful intercession. The former can cause others to develop self-motivated change towards greater skillful behavior - in your example, they can learn the wisdom which causes them to prevent themselves from producing the conditions which leads them to drown. On the other hand, the latter - on its own - does not cause that deep change for the better, but only gives them a longer physical lifespan to repeat the same follies which got them into their situation in the first place.

    There are countless people, animals, etc. in the world. We are all undergoing old age, illness, and death. We also possess a finite amount of time and resources. If we spent all our time and resources physically intervening for others while we ourselves are filled with our own great measures of ignorances and delusions, we are left with none to focus on improving our own wisdom and skillfulness.
     
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  13. Al Touthentop

    Al Touthentop Well-Known Member

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    The reason I asked the question was that you asked me in response to what I said about preferring God's persuasions rather than man's. That's all. It's not an indictment on your post, I was just saying I find the scriptures convincing enough.
     
  14. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I realize now i unintentionally jumped into the middle of y'alls conversation.
     
  15. Al Touthentop

    Al Touthentop Well-Known Member

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    It's totally not a problem. No offense taken.
     
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  16. brinny

    brinny everlovin' shiner of light in dark places Supporter

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    You guys have inspired me (public hermit and Al Touhentop)

    Thank you.

    God bless us, ev'ry one. :)
     
  17. FireDragon76

    FireDragon76 Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Buddhist teachings certainly aren't incompatible with helping other people we encounter in our lives. But that's different from saying we are obligated to sacrifice our own happiness for others.

    There's a good documentary called Tashi and the Monk on Amazon, about a Tibetan monk, the Ven. Lobsang Phuntek, who runs an orphanage near the Indian border. The monk himself was an orphan, so, in his own words, it provides him the opportunity to be the father he never had. By helping others, he helps himself. That is because the distinction between self and other is the result of an incorrect, dualistic view.
     
  18. ananda

    ananda Early Buddhist

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    Thanks for sharing. The Buddhist tradition I follow does recognize the utility of dualistic views.
     
  19. FireDragon76

    FireDragon76 Well-Known Member Supporter

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    So you are saying letting somebody drown is not really a problem?

    I'm pretty sure Theravada Buddhists are capable of having the same kinds of sentiments even if they often articulate different religious ideals. They are after all, human beings.
     
  20. ananda

    ananda Early Buddhist

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    No of course not, we help others in the immediate present when possible, but we understand the limitations of that immediate help and do not forget our responsibility towards helping others on far deeper levels, in light of the limitations of our own time and strength.

    In other words, we can exhaust ourselves spending our limited time & strength to repeatedly "help" others in the immediate present, but that steals from our own time & strength to develop what would help others more, and more significantly and powerfully, in the longer term.
     
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