Philosophy Bro explains complex ideas of philosophy in easy to understand language, created by Tommy Maranges, the author of Descartes' Meditations, Bro.

Peter Singer’s Drowning Child Argument

Hey, so, suffering is bad, right?

Yeah, you know what? I’m going to go ahead and just assume that for some reason, starving to death and freezing to death and having a disease to death are all bad things. I’m not going to argue for that shit, but if you need some argument about whether those are bad or not, then fuck you, I guess.

And if I can stop some bad shit from happening without giving up anything important – I mean, nothing really important – then I should do it, right?

Like, let’s say I’m on my way to a bitchin’ party and I’m looking fly as shit and I smell good because you already know, and I’ve got a 30-rack of Natty because I’ll be goddamned if I show up empty-handed to the house I’m about to burn down. Once I get over this bridge, and turn the corner I’ve arrived and so has the party. Except I hear a bunch of splashing and I look over the bridge into the river and – fuck me – there’s a kid flailing around and calling for help, like he’s drowning for some reason instead of handling his shit like an adult.

I should save his life, right?

Sometimes in philosophy we like to ask obvious questions and waggle our eyebrows suggestively, like maybe you don’t exist after all, hmm? but bro, this is not one of those times. I should obviously jump in and SAVE THIS FUCKING CHILD’S LIFE. So I ruin a Polo and I don’t smell good anymore and a couple of the beers explode because I dropped them. Who gives a shit, right? A child was going to die.

Can you imagine what a tremendous asshole I’d have to be to NOT save the kid? Like, imagine that conversation.
“Oh you brought beer!”
“Yeah bro, I wouldn’t let anything stop me, not even the child who literally drowned on my way over here.”
“Wait… what?”
“Yeah, I let a child drown to death, but I brought some beer.”
“But a child died.”
“Sure but beer! Plus I smell good. Who’s DJing tonight?”
“But a child died.”
“Agree to disagree?”

No fucking way. Fuck me, right? I think we can all agree that if I can save a child for the low low cost of who gives a shit, it was just some beers and a shirt and a weird smell, I should save the child. Not saving the child makes me the actual worst, most selfish person.

And what if a child is farther away, but I can still save him? Like maybe the next morning I’m stumbling home from the party with my friend and I’m carrying the now-empty keg we killed, when way downstream I see ANOTHER kid drowning. I’m in no condition to swim that far, but I know that if I throw this empty keg in, it’ll float to him and he’ll be able to grab onto it and float to safety. Obviously I throw the keg in, right?

Again, OBVIOUSLY. If my friend is like “Eeennhhh, fuck him, he’s kinda far away” I would be like “Yeah, but we could still save him. This plan is going to work.” and he’s like “Oh, I know it will work, I’m just saying, even if I know it’s going to work: any more than a football field away, and I don’t give a shit.” Like fuck that guy, right? How did I become friends with such a trashhat? It doesn’t matter that he’s FARTHER AWAY, I can still prevent a CHILD from DYING A HORRIBLE DEATH and all it cost me is I have to be like “sorry we had to use the keg to save a life, but we can just buy a new one.”

So everyone agrees, then: Who gives a shit how far away he is, right? If I can save a child’s life for the low low cost of still who gives a shit, I should save him.

And maybe next weekend I’m going back to the same house for another party and this time I’ve got like five of my bros with me because it was so sick last time even though I smelled like river water, and we’re crossing Look Out For Drowning Kids Bridge, and this time I hear FIVE KIDS drowning. Fuck me, It’s like someone told a classroom full of first graders there’s candy on the bottom of this river or some shit? 

So I jump in and as I drag the first kid to the bank, I look up and I see that NO ONE ELSE HAS MOVED. My bros’re all on their phones checking social media or texting “hey u up” like it’s ever worked once. Why are ALL my friends such unmitigated dickholes? What life choices brought me here? No time to worry about that, because there’s another kid drowning, and I can’t be like “…Oh. No one else is going to do anything? Alright, well, I did my part, sorry kids. It was one kid per bro, plus one left over. Not my problem anymore.” Fuck that, I should save as many of the kids as I can and then get better friends.

So we all agree: Who gives a shit if a bunch of OTHER people are standing around with their dicks in their hands, right? If I can save several children’s life for the low low cost of seriously, still, who gives a shit, I should save them.

At this point I’d like to point out: GOTCHA BITCH.

Just to recap: if you can save a life and give up nothing important, it doesn’t matter how far away that life is or how many other people could also save a life; you should save that fucking life.

What if I told you that for $5, you could buy a life-saving vaccine for a child? Sure, he’s far away, but we already agreed: who gives a shit, right? It’ll still save his life, and it only costs you not having a fifth drink at the bar on a Thursday. Remember that $300 bar receipt you posted with the caption “just another Thursday night wearing matching plaid with my bros, we’re special and impressive and are the ACTUAL six dudes with the biggest dicks, unlike all you OTHER overconfidences of bros who think that, well guess what, it’s us?” What you were really saying was “I routinely pass up the chance to save two dozen lives with science so that I can black out and pretend that I like myself for a night.” That’s fucked up, bro.

And sure, literally everyone else in the bar was ALSO passing up the chance to save a child’s life, but that doesn’t let YOU off the hook, right? Step up and do the right thing. What’s the worst that can happen? People give too much money, and then no one starves to death but also not everyone has the car they want? THAT WOULD BE TERRIBLE, WOULDN’T IT? GOD FORBID WE SOLVE POVERTY TOO HARD. Or, sorry, no, fuck you, that’s a risk worth taking since it might mean NO ONE STARVES TO DEATH.

Right now, all over the world, literally hundreds of thousands of children are in situations that are totally fucked, and even though you’re far as shit from them, you can save their lives. For like $3 you could buy a shitty rum and Coke , or you could buy a mosquito net that helps PREVENT CHILDREN FROM GETTING MALARIA. And as we’ve ALREADY AGREED, who gives a shit that these kids live far away, or that lots of OTHER people could buy the net, too? Neither distance nor the number of people standing around has anything to do with whether you should SAVE THEIR LIVES OR NOT.

That’s what’s fucking crazy! We all have SO MUCH SHIT WE DON’T NEED. This isn’t about “sell your house and live in a monastery.” Maybe you should do that, but we don’t even have to have that talk right now. All I’m saying is that if you agree that “it’s shitty to let a child die to protect a case of beer and a shirt,” then it’s weird that you’d buy a top of the line TV when for the same amount of money you could buy a smaller ridiculously huge TV and also feed two fucking villages.

Here’s the situation, an actual situation in the real world right now as you shop online or make plans to go out with your bros tonight: Somewhere a child is hungry, and even though he is very far away, he will still be alive in a week if you give $5. If you instead spend that $5 on a drink or a shirt, he will have starved to death, and you will have a drink or a shirt. So let me ask you: How badly do you want that drink or that shirt?

As you can imagine for an argument of such tremendous force, there’s been a lot of controversy about this argument. For the argument that we shouldn’t let morality dictate EVERY decision we make, see my OTHER recent summary of Susan Wolf’s Moral Saints

Property and Substance Dualism