Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

How to Save A Life

In 1972, the philosopher Peter Singer proposed a simple thought experiment: Imagine you’re on your way to work and you come across a child drowning in a shallow pond. You’re tall enough that you can run in and rescue him, but if you do so you’ll ruin your new suit. Should you save the child?

Almost everyone says yes: the value of saving a child’s life far outweighs the cost of losing your new suit. Indeed, someone who would let a child die to save their clothes seems like a monster.

But aha, Singer says. You — yes, you, the reader — probably spent several hundred dollars on new clothes recently, clothes you didn’t really need. (Or if not clothes, perhaps a dinner out, or music, or books you could’ve gotten from the library.) And instead of spending that money on luxuries, you could have sent it to Partners in Health, and they could have used it to save a child’s life in the developing world. (GiveWell estimates that you can save a life for between $150-$750.) How are you not a monster?

Calling your audience monsters is a dangerous move — it’s apt to make them very upset. (I know I got very upset the first time I read this argument!) Nobody wants to be thought of as a murderer, so people come up with all sorts of rationalizations for why they don’t give (it’s not my responsibility, I do my fair share, foreign aid doesn’t really do any good, etc.). In his recent book, The Life You Can Save, Singer sets about systematically debunking these arguments.

In the process, he complicates his original thought experiment. Imagine now that instead of just you walking by the pond, five people are. And imagine that five children are also drowning. Still, he argues, most people would say you should rush in to save a child — even if the other people passing by don’t.

But there’s one detail Singer leaves out — one that I think dramatically affects his conclusions: the children didn’t just wander into this pond on their own; they were pushed.

Imagine an evil man stands above the pond, grabbing children and throwing them in. People passing by see the children and rush in to try to save them, but as soon as one is saved or drowns, in goes another, and another, and another. You can rush in to try to save another child — or you can try to stop the man.

This doesn’t absolve you of moral duty. Most people do neither — they just walk on by the pond. But it does complicate the question. I think most people would say you should try to stop the man, if you can. Even a utilitarian analysis would suggest this: diving in the pond saves one life, stopping the man saves thousands.

The man, of course, is economics. People in the developing world are poor because they live in poor countries — countries without schools or good jobs or welfare programs or even running water. And their countries are poor in large part because of us.

It’s often said that visiting a developing country is like traveling back in time — the conditions seem little changed from those of medieval Europe. But how did medieval Europe stop being medieval Europe? The answer is through protectionism: Britain became the reigning world power by being one of the most protectionist countries on earth, expending enormous amounts of government money to promote local industries. Eventually these industries grew strong enough to compete on the world stage and it withdrew the barriers. The United States eventually surpassed it with more of the same — many long years of tariffs and industrial intervention (to this day the US government spends an enormous amount of money on R&D). Western Europe, the so-called “Asian tigers” — all the major developed countries of our era got there by following these principles.

But they don’t want others to follow in their footsteps. Instead of letting developing countries grow and compete in their own right, they’d prefer to use them as a source of cheap labor and raw materials. So enormous effort has been expended on building international institutions to prevent their economic growth. The World Bank and the IMF issue loans to countries, but only on the condition they dismantle all forms of protectionism. The WTO requires countries to agree to principles of “free trade”. Academic “experts” come up with reasons why protectionism really hurts everyone and rewrite the history of economic growth.

As a result, poor countries are forced to stay poor and children keep dying in shallow ponds.

Stopping this is hard. I can give you a phone number to call to donate to Oxfam and buy a child life-saving treatment. There’s no comparably-effective way to help reform the WTO. Nobody knows how to stop the evil man. But it seems weird to pretend that he doesn’t exist.

Singer considers this a purely practical question. As a utilitarian, he doesn’t support the notion that we have any special responsibility for the actions of our government. Instead, he says, people should donate to help the poor in the most effective way they can see — whether that’s saving lives or structural reform is up to them. But Singer pretty clearly doesn’t think structural reform is very effective; all of his examples are about people directly saving lives.

Would the passers-by really just keep jumping in the pond after the children he kept throwing? Or would they take a moment to stop and strategize and think of how to stop the evil man. I think most would do the latter. This isn’t an abstract question. Children are dying right now. What are you going to do?

You can donate to the Student Trade Justice Campaign here. Please post your suggestions on worthy groups in the comments.

You should follow me on twitter here.

August 18, 2009


“Britain became the reigning world power by being one of the most protectionist countries on earth, expending enormous amounts of government money to promote local industries.”

Certainly Britain had plenty of protectionist policies at the same time as growing rapidly. That doesn’t quite prove causality, though… in fact it’s not even clear to me that the correlation between trade barriers and growth (even just among early-stage countries) would be positive.

posted by improbable on August 18, 2009 #

Simply googling for [correlation between trade barriers and growth] finds that it is. See, e.g.: “Trade openness and economic growth”: “contrary to the conventional view on the growth effects of trade barriers, our estimation results show that trade barriers are positively and, in most specifications, significantly associated with growth, especially for developing countries.”

Obviously I’m not going to be able to prove causality in a blog post on a different subject, but the evidence strikes me as convincing. I believe Ha-Joon Chang has done the most work on laying out the case.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

A hippie and a corporate security guard are fighting on the other side of the pond, near a group of children. Children keep falling in, but you can’t tell which man is pushing them in and which is trying to stop the other.

posted by Don Marti on August 18, 2009 #

Haven’t read the book, so maybe he addresses this. But can Peter Singer justify why he looks well dressed in his photos?

posted by tom s. on August 18, 2009 #

Hi Aaron, It seems particularly presumptuous to assume that there is a simple answer for why poor countries don’t develop, and that it is insufficient protectionism. I’m not making a judgement on the effectiveness on protectionism per se (indeed, I agree that it can be worthwhile), but there have been enough examples on both sides of the argument to make the case that it can potentially succeed either way — other factors like governance and cultural attitudes towards economics institutions (respect for property rights, etc) have a much greater impact than the tariffs they do or don’t pay.

It may nicely fit the narrative of a demagogue like Naomi Klein to say that the WTO and IMF are the main impediments to global development, but I think reality has a different message.

posted by curious on August 18, 2009 #

I think the answer to this is:

Q. Are you living a simple life and giving most of your income to the poor?

A. I’m not living as luxurious a life as I could afford to, but I admit that I indulge my own desires more than I should. I give about 25% of what I earn to NGO’s, mostly to organizations helping the poor to live a better life. I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give. Since I started giving, about thirty years ago, I’ve gradually increased the amount I give, and I’m continuing to do so.

Also, the practical exhortation he makes — giving around 10% to the poor — is pretty modest, even though the moral case suggests giving more.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

curious: I’d love to see your evidence. While we’ll never know perfectly what helps countries develop I think we’re morally bound to do the best we can. Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans makes a convincing case that governance and cultural attitudes are effects, not causes — he shows that most of the countries that went through major development started with corrupt governments and lazy cultures.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

Hi Aaron,

I haven’t read chang’s book but I’m highly skeptical of the claim that governance and cultural attitudes are effects not causes. A quick amazon full-text search indicates that he doesn’t mention countries like botswana who managed the developmental challenge quite well largely owing to cultural factors.

I’ll have to go back through my college notes to find some examples in africa, but free-market oriented countries that have developed well include some of the eastern bloc (even with the pain they’ve felt in this recession, it’s clear they’re still better off). There are also numerous examples of closed-market economies (think Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe) that have continued to fail — and not all of them are a result of a single atrocious leader along the lines of Idi Amin or Mugabe.

How much of Daron Acemoglu’s stuff have you read, by the by? I’ve found his to be among the most enlightening material on development economics, and he’s not particularly beholden to any ideology.

I do believe that trade policy matters, but at the saving-a-life level I’m not convinced it’s the thing that is the most determining factor.

Certainly, as william goldman famoulsy said, nobody knows anything.

posted by curious on August 18, 2009 #

How does one save lives through culture or governance structure? It’s moderately clear to me how to influence the WTO; what do I do on those other issues?

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

Interesting post! I’ve often thought about this in terms of supposedly earth-friendly international policies that curb emissions. Curbing the emissions of developing countries is like saying “everyone can only earn $50,000 a year” when some people already have $1m in assets and others have nothing - they’ll never catch up.

As an aside, though, it’s interesting that Singer lived in a time and culture that couldn’t possibly imagine the answer to the drowning child question to be “No.” Yet it sorta exists. There have been a large number of cases, and even studies, in the UK over the last decade where adults refuse to help distressed children due to fear of pedophilia (it’s so bad that there’s not a single male under 25 working in a daycare center in the UK). I must admit, I’d probably think twice too.

posted by Peter Cooper on August 18, 2009 #

Sorry if my reply was a bit snarky.

However I still dislike the way you’ve tangled up two things in this post: one is about under what conditions you have a moral obligation to act, the other is a claim that particular policies are having a particular effect. Understanding the the first point, about stopping evil men, doesn’t tell you anything about the second one, about whether certain policies are evil. This is a separate judment, which must stand on its own merits. If you’re not going to tackle “[proving] causality in a blog post on a different subject” then you should I think be careful not to imply that those whose views on this differ are somehow guilty of misunderstanding the moral lesson of the first part. I think that’s what irked me.

Development is a really knotty question, and does not have a one-word solution like “protectionism!”. I’m not claiming that protection of certain industries in certain circumstances can’t be a good thing for a country, but I don’t think that trade barriers are the main policies which bottom-billion countries lack.

If you wanted some unambiguously bad rich-country trade policies to cast as the evil man in a simple story, then perhaps the subsidies and barriers which prevent the poor world from exporting as much agricultural produce as it might would be a better choice. I don’t think there is much serious dissent that such policies are bad for Africa, say.

Regards, M

posted by improbable on August 18, 2009 #

I completely agree the moral and the factual question are separate; I’m sorry if that didn’t come thru. I think there’s also a moral case to be made that it’s wrong for rich countries to try to force poor countries to change their internal government structures, as the free-traders do, irrespective of the impact of these policies on growth, but that’s a separate piece.

If you have any that ‘trade barriers are [not] the main policies which bottom-billion countries lack’; I’d love to see it.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

” people come up with all sorts of rationalizations for why they don’t give (it’s not my responsibility, I do my fair share, foreign aid doesn’t really do any good, etc.). In his recent book, The Life You Can Save, Singer sets about systematically debunking these arguments. “

Is “foreign aid doesn’t really do any good” simply a rationalization that people come up with to justify their lifestyles?

Authors@Google: William Easterly White Man’s Burden http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_H0g30YwQ8

If the money you give really turns out to be a waste (caused by, say, the lack of CIAO of aid agencies as mentioned in the Easterly’s talk above), is telling people to spend (more of) their money on charity really a right thing?

posted by Stan on August 18, 2009 #

William Easterly is one of the people discussed in the book. I’m not going to repeat the whole argument here (there’s also a good debate between Easterly and Singer you can find online) but the gist of it is that Easterly never mentions private aid, the kind Singer is recommending, and that the public aid he does discuss usually isn’t intended solely or even primarily to help the poor but instead to promote other policy goals. I lost a lot of respect for Easterly after hearing that.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

Also, I should be clear that I’m asking for evidence on these things not because I want to prove people wrong, but because I’m genuinely researching this stuff now and am interested in all the reading recommendations I can get.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 18, 2009 #

“a good debate between Easterly and Singer you can find online”

I googled “singer easterly” and found this WSJ article, written by Easterly:


Adding a different perspective would be a good thing :-)

posted by Stan on August 18, 2009 #

Singer tells a compelling story. But I think I can tell another that is equally convincing.

If you ask people ‘would you condemn a person as a monster if they did not send all their available spare money to save lives in the third world?’ most people would reply in the negative. But ah ha! If you ask the same people whether a person is a monster for not jumping in to save a child because it would ruin their expensive suit they reply in the positive! Surely given their response in the first scenario the suit-preserver is not not a monster.

In other words, if we are going to take people’s instinctive reactions as bases for moral reasoning, doesn’t it work just as well the other way around?

Or in other words, are these thought experiments a good method of reasoning?

What Singer really reveals is that our morality did not evolve in a global world, where we are connected to everybody on the planet. It evolved in small communities of maybe 100 people at most, where everybody you met was part of the same tribe. These moral instincts just don’t work in the modern world.

posted by Tom Scrace on August 18, 2009 #

Sorry, that should be ‘not a monster’ at the end of the second paragraph.

posted by Tom Scrace on August 18, 2009 #


The vast majority of economists tell us that protectionism is harmful. How can you be so confident that money is better spent on protectionism than on directly saving the life of a child? And why should I listen to your advice, when nearly all the experts contradict it? I find your arguments unconvincing.

posted by Gabriel McManus on August 19, 2009 #

Tom Scrace makes a good point about whether these moral lessons scale well. Intuition from small groups doesn’t necessarily lead to a good strategy for organising millions of people. It’s a little bit like those “if there was a ticking time-bomb…” torture examples, where the gap between the toy model and the real world is wide enough that you simply can’t copy conclusions from one to the other.

Re”it’s wrong for rich countries to try to force poor countries to change”…: Isn’t any attempt to help citizens of other countries going to fall foul of this? There isn’t even really an option to leave them the hell alone, since we trade with them and this is already influenced by our internal policies. And should we not try to improve things for citizens of Zimbabwe & North Korea?

Certainly the gap is now wide enough that rich countries have some obligation to try to choose policies towards poor countries most likely to improve their lot, rather than just in self-interest. But this is defined according to our best current understanding, which is sadly rather vague.

Re “the main policies which bottom-billion countries lack”: certainly more barriers aren’t a unanimous recommendation of recent books on aid & development. I guess I had in mind Paul Collier when I wrote the sentence.

posted by improbable on August 19, 2009 #

I would like to point out that many western countries (including the United States) are still subsiding large parts of their economy (agriculture for instance), but at the same time are pressuring other countries to adopt free trade and no subsidies. That kind of free trade is pretty unfair.

The net result is that we flod them with our cheap subsidized products, killing their own local self-sustained economy and making it cheap for us to buy all their lands and natural resources. Then, later, we see an opportunity to rase the price for our products (say convert cereals to bio-fuels), and they’re left with no money to buy anything (so they’re cumulating debts), no economy and no more land to rebuild it (we own the land and have integrated it in our own economy).

How to fix this? These countries need to resist our free trade pressure and erect trade barriers as needed to bring back their economy to a self sustained state, take back the lands we buyed extorted and put it in the hands the locals, and stop repying those ridicoulus national debts due to us they accumuated over these years of totally unfair trade.

The irony is that western countries encourage foreign governements to give in their economy, and when they don’t they are accused of being corrupted, socialists, communists, despots, etc. Our governements (not just the United States) often deploy significant financial resources to bring them out of power by funding friendly policical oposition or even sponsoring a coup.

Yes free trade benefits our economy, but only because we’re not really doing it and we let others do it.

A good read: Why is there rampant famine in the 21st century and how can it be eradicated?

posted by Michel Fortin on August 19, 2009 #

I can’t even begin to explain how disingenous calling the man throwing kids into the water “economics”.

Thanks to what you call economics, one billion people in China and India have come out of mind-numbingly crushing poverty in the last 20 years.

Of course, if you understood what you’re talking about (you’re a smart guy, just clueless when you talk about this subject), you’d know that the answer isn’t “protectionism”. But you continue ranting and raving.

posted by Gabriel Puliatti on August 19, 2009 #

That Easterly article is really weak. He admits Singer points to programs that do good for the poor, but says it’s irrelevant because other aid agencies are wasteful. How is that anything but a non sequitur?

On more minor notes, Singer no longer suggests people should give to UNICEF and his book has a whole section about Easterly (which isn’t disclosed in the review) answering the question “But why has so little changed, despite decades of effort and billions spent?” Instead of responding to it, Easterly just repeats the question. Shameful.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 19, 2009 #

The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. Apparently, if you let people into the “free market” of education, even the poorest get better education than what’s offered by the state.

Tim Harford on “Why Poor Countries are Poor”

Mark Perry: The Power of the Market: 600 Million People in China Have Been Lifted Out of Poverty Since 1981

Growthology: The Facts of Growth (Not a Mystery)

How about this: growth isn’t a mystery. By and large, we know what works and what doesn’t. Corruption doesn’t work well, property rights do. Globalization is working everywhere it is allowed. Protectionism is a disaster, in the long term and usually before. Democracy, unfortunately, seems insignificant in promoting growth, but free markets are essential. And, as every young American RTS playing teen knows, technology wins. And as almost every great innovator attests, entrepreneurship equals technology.

If you talk to almost anyone who knows what he’s talking about in matters of development, he’ll agree that protectionism isn’t what you want

posted by Gabriel Puliatti on August 19, 2009 #

curious said:

A quick amazon full-text search indicates that he doesn’t mention countries like botswana who managed the developmental challenge quite well largely owing to cultural factors.

From Wikipedia:

Debswana, the largest diamond mining company operating in Botswana, is 50% owned by the government. Mineral industry provides about 40% of all government revenues.

I think any country that literally lands on a diamond mine tends to have a certain intrinsic advantage that can’t be ruled out, regardless of its development policy.

posted by bostwana_guy on August 19, 2009 #

Presumably curious believes that they discovered the diamonds due to their superior culture. I think this goes to prove Chang’s point, which is how easy it is to pick out particular factors of a culture after the fact and claim they’re the reasons for success or failure. Every culture is a wild mix of traits.

posted by Aaron Swartz on August 19, 2009 #

This is of course reasoning by false analogy. An emotionally compelling story none the less. I hope it helps some worthy causes.

posted by John F. Miller on August 20, 2009 #

Actually, bostwana_guy, which I am guessing is botswana_guy, generally a country that lands on a natural resource in Africa goes to hell because of it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_disease

So the Botswana example is actually a really interesting one.

posted by quinn on August 21, 2009 #

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