As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in 2002, I was one of four teaching assistants for David Sosa’s celebrated Introduction to Philosophy course, which had about 500 students. That day, Professor Sosa was teaching them about utilitarianism and the Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s arguments about our obligations to the poor, especially those in conditions of what Singer calls “absolute poverty”: the poorest of the poor, those who don’t even have enough food, water, and shelter to care for themselves or their families; the millions of people around the world who are dying for no other reason than that they happen to have been born in the wrong place and the wrong time.
“Suppose I was on my way to class and I saw a small child drowning in a fountain,” Sosa explained. (The example is from Singer, who likely originally found it in the works of Confucian philosopher Mencius.) “If I stop to save the child I will be severely inconvenienced: my shoes and pants will be muddy, I’ll be late for class, I’ll have the hassle of finding the parents of the child or the police to take over. That said, of course I would stop to save the child, and all of us would agree that I’d be a kind of moral monster if I failed to do so.”
I am paraphrasing Sosa, who was paraphrasing Singer. Singer goes on to argue that the situation of comparatively wealthy Westerners—that means you and me—is, with respect to those in absolute poverty around the world, morally equivalent to the professor who chooses not to inconvenience himself by saving the drowning child. Then Professor Sosa conducted a thought experiment—again, inspired by Peter Singer’s argument—that I’ll always remember:
“There are 500 of us in this classroom. Suppose we spend, on average, about $5 each on lunch, and we meet twice a week. Now suppose that we all decided to skip lunch just twice a week and donate that money, as a class, to the poor. That would mean that every week we would donate $5,000 to, say, relieving starvation: more than enough to save the lives of several dying children, and probably cutting some unnecessary calories from our own diets to boot. But we don’t do it. We don’t save those dying children every week. Now in Singer’s argument that makes us moral monsters. And I don’t feel like we are moral monsters, but I’m hard-pressed to explain why he isn’t right.”
It is Singer’s now famous argument that provides the title for Larissa Mac- Farquhar’s terrific, challenging, often disturbing book, Strangers Drowning. In it, MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker, looks at a variety of cases of what she calls “do-gooders”:
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