The shallow pond

As thought experiments go I like the original trolley problem the best. If one were made to choose ones preference under duress I mean. This is likely due to my proclivity and penchant for rolling stock. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate burning buildings, lifeboats and shallow ponds, its just that inclines, runaway boxcars and switch tracks resonate more deeply with me. If you’re going to spend time ruminating the nuances of your ethical chalk-line boundary, might as well add an element of trains.


Enter Peter Singer. Philosopher, savant and Australian. (I like to pair two positives with a negative, that way I don’t appear too sycophantic). Once upon a time Mr Singer proposed a thought experiment called the Shallow Pond, which has given me, over the years, a lot to think about. (And has possibly driven me a little mad)

You are wandering through a wood when you come across a child drowning in a shallow pond. It would require very little effort for you to reach the child and rescue him, perhaps at the expense of getting muddy and ruining your shoes. What would you do?

Most of us would rescue the child. We deem this the ‘good’ and ‘moral’ choice. (I agonize briefly about the use of single quotation marks, but then decide to leave it) As opposed to walking off and letting the child drown.

This thought experiment is then made analogous to real life, every day children around the world are dying, instead of drowning in a pond they are dying of malaria and bilharzia, yet we don’t do anything to stop those children from dying. (even though we could)

I can attest I would likely attempt to rescue the child in the pond…. but I don’t really care for the broader inclusion of children dying of malaria nor do I really care about the relatively small effort it would take on my part to donate a mosquito net through the effective altruism movement.

While I initially balked at my seemingly callous dismissal of this theory it would have been disingenuous of me to mount my hobbyhorse and defend something I didn’t believe in. I also suddenly realized I was deeply suspicious of Utilitarianism.

This was quite an interesting revelation to me. I suppose I could lie and say I don’t really have the means to support effective altruism. But I do. Unpacking my thoughts over time I’ve decided that the first brick in my bulwark against collectivism is out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Being put on the spot on the gently lapping edge of some indeterminate body of water feels somehow different to saving some nameless, faceless homo sapiens obscured from my field of vision by intervening terrain and the curvature of the earth.

But really most of my sea-wall comes from a belief that we are not responsible for other peoples happiness and well being and that ‘goodness’ in the pursuit of collective happiness is an academic pursuit at best.

That’s not to say I don’t have ‘altruistic’ tendencies, but they are limited to my immediate group, most likely doled out in anticipation of reciprocity or some genetic disposition that governs progeny.


Besides I get caught up worrying about rabbit holes. After all when faced with a frivolous consumer purchase or the opportunity cost of effective altruism, isn’t the ‘good’ decision always the effective altruism? Stare long enough into the abyss and almost everything becomes a frivolous purchase.

Sure. My inaction causes death. Guaranteed. Every hour I don’t donate a mosquito net, the statistical likelihood increases that someone in the world dies because of me. Over the course of my life I could have potentially saved… hundreds of people. But instead my apathy just causes death and misery.

That’s quite a responsibility. Its also why philosophy is bad for you.