Fixing Peter Singer’s drowning child analogy for sustainability

February 7, 2023 by Joshua
in Addiction, Models, Nature

Peter Singer is one of the best known philosophers. He’s won many awards. As a vegetarian since 1990 and vegan about a decade (I didn’t note the date I stopped eating cheese, the last animal product I still ate for a long time; also I ate less animal product than anyone I met who called themselves vegan for much of the time I was still vegetarian), I’ve known about his 1975 book Animal Liberation for a long time.

Peter Singer

I’m writing now because I recently re-heard his drowning child analogy and saw a new take on it relevant to sustainability. I’ll describe the analogy very briefly since you can look it up, then describe my take.

The analogy suggests you consider if while wearing a nice new pair of shoes you see a child flailing in a shallow pool at risk of drowning, you likely wouldn’t hesitate to save the child despite knowing you’d ruin the shoes. His point is that the value of a pair of shoes could save more than one child if donated to an effective charity, say that administers vaccines or oral rehydration therapy. If you believe you should save the child, shouldn’t you give more to charity.

Singer says, “It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away,” which only hints at the thought it can provoke, as well as behavior change.

The analogy has to change for sustainability

We have to change the analogy for sustainability.

First, the problem in sustainability is less lack of funds and more the behavior of people in nations polluting more per capita hurting people in less polluting nations. More specifically, Americans are contributing more to sea level rise, which Bangladeshis suffer more from. So giving money doesn’t solve the problem as much as stopping polluting.

Second, unlike ruining shoes or donating money, living more sustainably improves your life, despite most heavy polluters expecting deprivation and sacrifice. They haven’t tried so they don’t know. The challenge in living more sustainably isn’t that you lose anything. You personally benefit. The challenge is that most polluters are addicted to their polluting behaviors.

The drowning child analogy in sustainability would be more like: if you saw a child flailing and to save them you had to kick your heroin addiction, would you? To clarify, to stop polluting, you don’t have to do anything like ruining shoes or losing anything of value. On the contrary, you would improve your life, you’d just have to pass through withdrawal first.

Most people in rich nations don’t curb their polluting. They concoct excuses to rationalize and justify maintaining their behavior, just as addicts do. We could fix a lot of environmental problems by people Improving their lives, but they can’t see that not flying and air conditioning so much, and having fewer kids, would improve their lives.

If the goal of the analogy is to help motivate people to live more by their values, message matters. I believe you can motivate people more with that adjustment, though I admit it could use rhetorical refinement. I haven’t tried to optimize the message, just point out that to stop polluting, you don’t have to do anything like ruining shoes or losing anything of value but would improve your life after withdrawal.

The strategy of giving money doesn’t save lives as much in sustainability since the cause of the problems is more rich people’s behavior and culture than lack of resources. Changing culture doesn’t come from making lots of money and donating.

On a total other note, Singer started surfing at age 50, so I see him as a role model there too.

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3 responses on “Fixing Peter Singer’s drowning child analogy for sustainability

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