July 21, 2005

Duty and Proximity

There is a thought experiment by Peter Singer that runs something like this. Imagine you encounter a child drowning in a pool. Surely you are morally obliged to save the child, if it is of no great inconvenience to you. However, distance is not a morally significant difference. Therefore, if you are obliged to save this child, you are morally obliged to save a child hundreds of miles away, if it is of no great inconvenience to you. He derives from this the principle that we ought to save other people's lives if it does not involve a morally comparable sacrifice, and we therefore ought to donate as much money as we can possibly afford to famine relief and Third World development.

There are several difficulties with this thought experiment that I may argue at a later time, but I will summarise them here. First, it suffers from drowning baby syndrome, evoking parental instincts rather than moral intuitions. Second, it fails to define "ought". He assumes that there is only one scale of what we ought to do, and fails to make a differentiation between what is morally impermissable and what is merely morally criticizable. Third, he does not appropriately address the objection that multiple people can rescue the child, as he includes others' failure to rescue the child in the agent's premises while others are still themselves deliberating.

However, in this post, I intend to address the question of whether or not distance is a morally significant difference. At first, it seems like an obvious point. Why should we care more about the life of someone simply because he or she is close to us? Is that life of more value?

This, however, misses the point. Decisions are not based simply on the value of the lives involved, but on our relationships with the people whose lives are involved. For instance, we have a duty to care for our own children that we do not have for the children of others. We have a duty to console our friends when their parents die, but not strangers. We are not merely sources of potential benefit for others. We are parents, children, lovers, spouses, friends, co-workers, priests, doctors and so on. Each of these relationships carry with it an extra set of duties, and shift certain sets of moral duties from the morally laudable (like consoling a weeping stranger at a funeral parlour) to the morally obligatory (like consoling a weeping friend at a funeral parlour).

The question then is whether or not proximity is a morally significant difference. It is, as it is a relationship that imposes on us an admittedly small set of duties. At any time, of all the billions of peole in the world, there are only a few people with whom we have the honour of sharing space. Urban people tend to forget this, since we're often crammed together like sardines. However, encountering strangers can involve a whole host of etiquette, from greetings, to sharing information, to trading. Often, on a long journey, it is nice just to have some company. Sharing space with a stranger is a real human relationship, and while urban people may take it for granted, it carries with it some real moral obligations, one of which is saving people from drowning.

As such, saving the life of a stranger in close proximity is a moral obligation in the same way that changing the diaper of a child who is our own child is a moral obligation. Singer's thought experiment assumes that proximity is not a morally significant difference, and he can move from the moral obligation to save a nearby drowning child to the moral obligation to save any child. However, the obligation comes precisely from the morally significant relationship of proximity or company. As such, this thought experiment does not show that saving other children, while certainly morally laudable, is a moral obligation.

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