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We’re picking up where we left off last time, exploring the “ethics of care” and how it applies to extreme poverty. Are we responding to global poverty in a moral way? Philosophers like Peter Singer argue that we have an obligation to prevent harm caused by poverty, whereas Garrett Hardin offers a “lifeboat analogy” to explain our obligations to focus on caring for our own.


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UNICEF estimates that 12 children who live in extreme poverty die every minute of every day. They die because they don’t have access to clean water. They die because they don’t have enough to eat. They die of malaria or of intestinal worms; something we don’t even let our pets suffer from. It’s a horrifying truth. And what’s maybe even more horrifying is that these deaths are easily preventable.

For $3, a child could get a mosquito net for her bed that would protect her from malaria. To cure her of intestinal worms, a dose of medicine costs less 50 than cents. As for food, you could probably feed her with the loose change in your pocket. We have this money; I definitely have it, you probably do. So, why are all of these children dying?

The United States is an affluent country. We have enough money to easily stop world poverty, just end it. But, why should we? Why should I give any of my hard-earned money to strangers I will never meet? What entitles them to a portion of what I have?

Thinking about world poverty and whether we have an obligation to do something to stop it, really comes down to questions of obligation. Most of us don’t know anyone who’s living in extreme, life-threatening poverty. The victims of that kind of poverty aren’t our family or our friends.

So, according to an ethics of care, as we discussed last time, we have no real obligation to those people. Or if we do, it’s much, much less than the obligation we have to those who are near and dear to us. So, many people argue that we simply don’t have any obligation to help strangers in need.

We didn’t make them poor, and we never agreed to help them. So, if we do choose to help, that’s great, but such actions are supererogatory. They go above and beyond the call of moral duty.

In this view, giving money to charity is like getting moral extra credit — if you do it, you can go ahead and pat yourself on the back, but if you don’t, you have no reason to feel bad about it.

Contemporary Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, thinks differently, however. To see how, let’s head over to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy.

Singer offers a thought experiment that has seen many variations over the years, but a basic version goes like this. Imagine you’re walking to class feeling pretty good about how great you look in your brand new $200 shoes. And soon you pass by a shallow pond. Suddenly, you notice a small child flailing in the water. No one else is around. The pond is shallow, but the child has lost her footing and she can’t get her head above water. As you watch, the flailing stops. You realize there’s very little time.

You could easily wade into the water and pull her to safety. But if you take the time to remove your shoes, it’ll be too late. You know the muddy water will ruin your new purchase.

So, what do you do? Singer’s pretty sure that we’d all give the same answer. Shoes are replaceable; that child’s life is not. So, none of us would think twice about running in to save her.

But what exactly would be wrong if you decided not to save the child? Singer says it comes down to costs and benefits. The cost of your shoes is so low compared to the value of the child’s life, that it would be appalling not to make that sacrifice to value shoes over a person’s life. But here’s the thing: we know children are dying right now – 12 every minute – and yet we do nothing. So, what’s the difference, Singer asks, between a life in front of us and a life halfway around the world?

“A life is a life, and both the child in the pond and the child dying of malaria are equally innocent.”

“If we do wrong in failing to save the child in the pond, Singer argues, we do equally wrong in failing to save some of those children who we know are dying right now.”

Thanks, Thought Bubble.

Singer argues that, if you can prevent great harm at a little cost to yourself, you should do it. And when you look at it like that, it’s hard to disagree with him. But his thought experiment points out some huge inconsistencies in our moral thinking.

Most of us don’t feel the weight of obligation to help dying children we can’t see, but at the same time we think we would have an obligation to help a dying child right in front of us.

What does it matter whether we can see the child or not? Some people argue the difference is that, in the thought experiment there’s no one else around. You’re the only one who can help, so you must.

But what if there were many people standing around that pond, but no one else was willing to save the child? Would that then make your inaction more excusable? Why would it? Singer argues that ...

It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. You are in control of your actions.

So, if you see a need and you know you can help, you must, even if there are others who could, but don’t.

Now, is it fair for you to have to bear the burden of helping while others sit idly by? No. It’s not fair at all.

But fair doesn’t really matter in this case. What matters is whether or not you choose to take action, to prevent great harm at little cost to yourself.

Whether you alone watch the child drown or you and a crowd of people watch her drown, either way, you’ve failed spectacularly as a moral agent.

And Singer says the same goes for world poverty. If everyone in America donated just 1% of their income to help people in extreme poverty, we could save so many lives. Now, we know that everyone isn’t going to do that. But according to Singer, each of us is responsible for our failure to help, regardless of what everyone else is doing.

Now, 20th century American philosopher and ecologist, Garrett Hardin, took issue with much of Singer’s reasoning. Instead, he offered what’s known as the lifeboat analogy. Imagine, Hardin said, that 50 people are on a lifeboat with room for 10 more. And 100 people are in the water begging to be let aboard. Hardin said that if we understand that all life is equally valuable, then we have to admit all 100 of them. But of course, that would be too many for the boat. It would sink, and then we’d all die.

So maybe we only allow 10 people on board. But which 10? How do we make that decision? Even if we had some way to choose between lives, Hardin argued that filling our boat to capacity is still the wrong answer. By leaving those 10 spaces empty, we’d have more resources for those on board, maximizing their chances of survival.

Those people in the water are doomed, Hardin said. They’re doomed because they don’t have a boat, and they need a boat of their own if they’re going to make it.

Helping a few of them out doesn’t really solve any problems. If anything, it draws out their suffering.

OK. Here’s the thing about this analogy. The lucky people in the lifeboat? Hardin said, that’s a nation. And the people in the water, they’re other nations ... ones living in such extreme poverty that they don’t have their own boats. The boat in this case represents a strong social structure, a safety net that provides for its citizens.

Hardin said that, just as the duty of a ship captain is to its passengers, a nation’s obligations are to its citizens. So a nation should never risk the well-being of its citizenry in order to help members of another nation.

Of course, some nations don’t have the resources to help their citizens. In others, people live under governments that are actively exploiting them, rather than protecting them. But Hardin said, that’s not our fault. And to give aid to people who don’t even have a boat, well, that’s throwing away resources. Who cares if your mosquito net saves a child from malaria, when that child will still be living in inescapable poverty?

The real problem, according to Hardin, is overpopulation. And the hard truth is, if a nation has more citizens than it can support – just like a lifeboat that’s filled beyond capacity – no amount of aid will solve that problem.

So, quite counter-intuitively, Hardin said the most compassionate response is to do nothing.

Yes, people will die, but if aid were to stop, Hardin said, populations would be reduced to a point where nations would be able to be sustain themselves.

Now, there are at least two pretty immediate responses to this line of thinking. First, the lifeboat analogy breaks down when you realize that the problem really has nothing to do with the scarcity of resources. In the real world, there are plenty of resources to go around — they’re just distributed extremely unevenly.

So, it seems that Hardin has committed what’s known as the either/or fallacy. He said, either protect yourself, or help others. But with the amount of wealth we have, we could actually, and easily, do both.

Second, Hardin cast his analogy in terms of nations, but that scale is totally arbitrary. Any argument you could give for caring about your nation over others could also be given for caring about your state over others, or your city, or even your family. And you might say, darn right I care about my family more than yours! But be careful, because Isn’t that just like arguing that you only have to pull that kid out of the water if she happens to be related to you?

Morality calls for us to not draw arbitrary lines when it comes to who deserves help and who doesn’t.

A lot of people, like Singer, think that the only non-arbitrary line is to say that there’s really only one boat. And we’re all in it. So we’ve all got to help. Everyone.

So, what do you think? Are you in your own boat? One thing that might help you answer that question is the topic of our next, and next to last, lesson the value of human life.

But today we talked about extreme poverty and our responses to it. We considered Singer’s argument that we have an obligation to prevent harm through poverty when we can. And we also looked at Hardin’s lifeboat analogy.

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like PBS Idea Channel, It's Okay to be Smart, and Physics Girl.

This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.