News & Politics

Peter Singer: Would You Save the Life of a Child?

If justice means anything, surely it means that when people are unable to meet their basic needs, then others who have an abundance ought to help them. It’s not hard to do.

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning.  You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. It would be wrong–monstrous, in fact–to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

Yet while we all say that it would be wrong to walk past the child, there are other children whose lives we could save just as easily–and yet we don’t. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimates that nearly 9 million children under 5 die each year from causes related to poverty. That’s 24,000 a day—a football stadium full of young children, dying every day (along with thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well). Some die because they don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia—diseases that don’t exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal.

Describing a case in Ghana, a man told 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.

 

Many organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care. If people donated more to these organizations, they could save more lives. Most people living in affluent nations have money to spare, money that they spend on luxuries like clothes they don’t need, vacations in exotic places, even bottled water when the water that comes out of the tap is safe to drink. Instead of spending money on these things, we could give the money to an organization that would use it to reduce poverty, and quite possibly to save a child’s life.

 

Of course, the situation in which you can rescue the child in the pond is not exactly the same as that in which you can donate to an aid organization to save a child’s life. There is only one child in the pond, and once we have saved him, we have solved the problem and need not think more about it. But there are millions of children in poverty, and saving one of them does not solve the problem. Often this feeling–that whatever we do will be merely “drops in the ocean” –makes us feel that trying to do anything at all is futile. But that is a mistake. Saving one child is not less important because there are other children we cannot save. We have still saved a life, and saved the child’s parents from the grief that the parents of that boy in Ghana had to suffer.

Saving a child drowning in a shallow pond is a simple thing to do, whereas reducing global poverty is complex. But some aspects of saving human life are not so complex.  We know that providing clean water and sanitation saves lives, and often saves women hours each day that they previously spent fetching water, and then boiling it. We know that providing bednets reduces malaria, and immunizing children stops them getting measles. We know that educating girls helps them to control their fertility, and leads them to have fewer children. 

In The Life You Can Save, I explore this argument in more depth, and consider objections.  I discuss whether aid is effective, and how we can be confident that our donations are making a difference. I also propose a realistic scale for giving. (You can also find that at www.thelifeyoucansave.com.)

If justice means anything, surely it means that when people are, through no fault of their own, unable to meet their basic needs, then others who have an abundance–as much by the accident of being born in an affluent country as by hard work or skill–ought to help them. It’s not hard to do.

 

Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He is the author, co-author, or editor of more than thirty books including The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (Random House, New York, 2009).
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