(Cartoon comes from chaospet.com)


In his well-known paper (Famine, Affluence and Morality), the philosopher Peter Singer has presented a famous argument concluding that anyone able to help the poor should give an important part of his income to charities and humanitarian organizations. This famous argument goes like this: imagine that you walk past a shallow pond in which a child is drowning. You can easily save him, at a little cost: it will just muddy your clothes. Would it be morally acceptable not to save the child? Certainly not.

What now about not giving $5 to a humanitarian organization, knowing that it would help saving the lives of several children (by the production and administration of vaccines, or the distribution of food to starving populations). Is it morally permissible not to give $5 to a humanitarian organization? Many people think that it is – but it shouldn’t be. If you have the duty to sacrifice your clothes to save one life, why wouldn’t you have the duty to sacrifice $5 to save many lives?

This line of argument has been dramatized by Peter Unger, who contrasts two striking cases. Here is the first:


THE VINTAGE SEDAN – Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.


And here is the second:


THE ENVELOPE – In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.


Now, as Unger points out, many people think it is abominable to abandon the bird-watcher. However, the same people usually think it is absolutely OK not to send a check to UNICEF. This strikes Unger as fully irrational: why would we have the right to let 30 children die not to spend $100 but have the duty to sacrifice a valuable car to save one person from losing his limb? So, he concludes, the best way to harmonize our beliefs is to accept that we have the duty to give money to the UNICEF and other similar organizations.


The psychological puzzle

Beyond the philosophical argument, Singer and Unger’s arguments raise a related psychological puzzle: why do people think it is acceptable not to return the envelope but unacceptable to abandon the bird-watcher? This psychological question has been investigated both by philosophers (including Unger) and experimental psychologists. For example, the psychologists Nagel and Waldmann have investigated to which extent spatial proximity to the victim(s) could explain the difference between helping the drowning child and sending money to humanitarian organizations. Among others, they contrast the original pond case with the following:


You are on holiday in a foreign country. While you take a walk there, you alone learn via an information service on your cell phone that many children are drowning in a pond situated in a distant part of the country, and you alone can save one of them. To save the one, you must put the €500 you have in your pocket into a machine that accidentally is situated right next to you. This machine then triggers a remote-controlled rescue machine in the pond which will definitely pull one of the children out of the water and save her life. There is no other possibility to save one or more of the children.


How strongly do you feel obligated to put your €500 into the machine in order to save one of the children?


They found that distance has a significant but small effect on participants’ answers, leading them to feel less obligation when the distance to the victim was higher. However, on average, participants answered that they felt obligated to save the child, which means that distance if far from accounting for the whole difference between saving a child in a pond and giving money to humanitarian organizations.

Nevertheless, my aim here is not so much to account for this difference than to point out a very similar phenomena for positive moral judgments.


Singer’s problem for praise and heroes

Indeed, Singer’s original problem is focused on our judgments about whether not doing something is blameworthy, horrible and/or violate some duty or obligation. But the same puzzle can be found for judgments about whether someone is a hero and deserves praise.

Consider the following advertisement. It’s a French ad for blood donations and it says: “Have you ever dreamt of becoming a hero? Today you can decide to save lives”. What is implied is that, by giving your blood, you save lives and that makes you a hero.

Many of us will probably feel that the advertisement (like all advertisement) somehow exaggerates things. Imagine you meet a friend who say: “You know, I’m a hero”. You ask: “why?” and he replies: “I regularly give my blood and save lives”. Now, what your reaction will be? Don’t you think that you might be a little surprised and confused, and think that your friend is exaggerating? That seems a natural reactions: the man who saves a child drowning in a pond would probably receive congratulations and even appear on television – but it’s probable that we wouldn’t give the same honours to a blood-giver.

To make things more dramatic, let’s contrast two men: the first is a regular blood donor, and the second has once saved a child drowning in a pond. Imagine each one of them claims to be a “hero”. Though we might grant this title to the one who actually saved the child in the pond, it will feel a bit odd to give the same title to our regular blood-giver. But this is very curious, if you take into consideration the fact that the regular blood-giver has sacrificed more time (and blood) and probably saved more lives.

And this asymmetry is not limited to the title of “hero” – it seems also to apply to the expression “saving lives”. Indeed, we immediately agree to say that our second man saved the live of the child. But, it seems weirder to say that someone who has given his blood has saved lives. Imagine again meeting your friend who says: “yesterday, I saved a life”. You ask: “how? tell me?”. If now he tells you that he saved a child drowning, you’ll agree. But if he tells you that he gave blood, you might think that you friend was a bit over-enthusiastic and exaggerating.

This problem is close to Singer’s original problem, for people will treat the man who saves the child in the pond as a hero and will agree that he actually saved a life, while they will be more reluctant to treat the man who gives $5 to humanitarian organizations as a hero and even to say he saved a life. Thus, there’s a match: act that are heroic (as saving the child in the pond) are those we have the duty to do, and those we’re not obligated to do are those that are not heroic.

(Admittedly, the match is not perfect. Superogatory actions as sacrificing oneself for saving others might be perceived as both heroic and not obligatory – but in the context of Singer’s problem, there’s a curious correspondance.)


A possible account

 So, we are now left with a second psychological puzzle: why do we tend to think that it is heroic and counts as saving a life to save the child in the pond but not to regularly give money or blood to those in need? A possible account is that the man who saves the child in the pond is directly responsible for the child’s rescue. That’s him who gets the child out of the pond. This direct responsibility is not present in the other cases.

Indeed, it is useful to make a distinction that seems important to our everyday understanding of causation - i.e. the distinction between causes and background conditions. Imagine that a lightning bolt hits a tree and that it starts the fire. We’ll say that the lightning is the cause of the fire. Nevertheless, the fire wouldn’t have started if there wasn’t oxygen and wood nearby. Though, we do not naturally consider these as causes, but as necessary background conditions.

In the case of money or blood donation, the donor doesn’t appear to us as the direct cause of lives being saved. Indeed, it is the doctors/the member of organizations who make the crucial act that help the child. They do so by using the resources supplied by the donors, but it is nevertheless them who are ultimately the heroes. Thus, the donors’ contribution is perceived not as a cause but as a contribution to background conditions, that is as a part of the necessary conditions for the real cause to occur.

This (psychological) distinction might be the reason why people do not perceive donors as heroes, though they might contributed to save more lives than so-called heroes have actually saved.


Back to the original problem

This is only a tentative hypothesis, but let’s now apply it to the original problem. Imagine now that people’s intuitions about Singer and Unger’s cases are driven by the following rule:


If you can save a life, and that the cost saving this life is not too demanding, then you have the duty to save this life.


And keep in mind that people consider saving the child in the pond as saving a life, but not the fact to give money to organizations. What we obtain is that this rule apply for the pond case (you can save a life, so you must save it) but not for the envelope case (giving money doesn’t count as saving a life). Thus, we can solve the first psychological puzzle if we consider that people fail to (intuitively) consider that contributing to the background conditions of a rescue counts as saving a life.

For sure, it is note the sole and unique factor. Imagine that a renown surgeon (who works mainly in plastic surgery) receives a letter inviting him to be a volunteer surgeon for saving lives in a third-world country. By receiving and reading this letter, our surgeon is offered a real occasion to save lives. However, we won’t consider his refusing the offer as abominable. This is why other factors must also come into play, as the cost of saving lives (in the case of our surgeon, it amounts to much more than just giving $5), or maybe some kind of diffusion of responsibility (our surgeon is not the only able to save children of the third world - so, we might not feel as much responsible as the man who walks past the pond).


PS: Thanks to Nicolas Delon, I also discovered this comic, that perfectly illustrates the puzzle about heroism I'm talking about.



  • Nagel, J. & Waldmann, M.R. (2010) "Deconfounding distance effects in moral reasoning", in S. Ohlsson & R. Catrambone (Eds.), Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society
  • Singer, P. (1972) "Famine, affluence, and morality", Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229-243.
  • Unger, P. (1996) Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Oxford University Press.