On your way to work, you pass a small pond. Children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool, though, and it’s 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 her head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull her out, she 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 her, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment

I teach a course called Practical Ethics. When we start talking about global poverty, I ask my students what they think a person should do in this situation. Predictably, they respond that you should save the child. “What about your shoes? And being late for work?” I ask them. They brush that aside. 

How could anyone consider a pair of shoes, or missing an hour or two at work, a good reason for not saving a child’s life?

I first told the story of the drowning child in the shallow pond in “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” one of my first articles, originally published in 1972, but still widely used in courses in ethics.

The death of Wang Yue

In 2011, something resembling this hypothetical situation occurred in Foshan, a city in southern China. A 2-year-old girl named Wang Yue wandered away from her mother and into a small street, where she was hit by a van that did not stop. A CCTV camera captured the incident.

Qhat followed was even more shocking. As Wang Yue lay bleeding in the street, 18 people walked or rode their bikes right past her, without stopping to help. In most cases, the camera showed clearly that they saw her, but then averted their gaze as they passed by. A second van ran over her leg before a street cleaner raised the alarm. Wang Yue was rushed to hospital, but sadly, it was too late. She died.

The drowning child thought experiment in real life

If you’re like most people, you are probably saying to yourself right now: “I wouldn’t have walked past that child. I would have stopped to help.” Perhaps you would have; but remember that, as we have already seen, 5.4 million children under 5 years old died in 2017, with a majority of those deaths being from preventable or treatable causes. Here is just one case, described by a man in Ghana to a researcher from the World Bank:

Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles but out of poverty.

Think about something like that happening hundreds of times every day. Some children die because they don’t have enough to eat. More die from measles, malaria and diarrhea—conditions that either don’t exist in developed nations or, if they do, are almost never fatal. The children are vulnerable to these diseases because they have no safe drinking water or no sanitation, and because when they do fall ill, their parents can’t afford any medical treatment or may not even be aware that treatment is needed. Oxfam, Against Malaria Foundation, Evidence Action, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty, or provide mosquito nets or safe drinking water. These efforts are reducing the toll. If these organizations had more money, they could do even more, and more lives would be saved.

What you can do

Now think about your own situation. By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it would take more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes, but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovations. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an effective charity, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?