Saving Lives

Imagine you are walking to work and see a toddler flailing about in a pond, drowning. No one else is around to help. Without any risk to yourself you can easily wade in a few steps and pull the child to safety and save its life.

Surely none of us would ignore the child’s cries and carry on to work ?

But what if you’re wearing some brand new shoes – they’d be ruined by the muddy water. Would you still rescue the child ?

Again surely all of us would say “yes, of course – a child’s life is worth far more than a pair of shoes !”

This is the question posed by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in his powerful work The Life You Can Save.

But he’s not posing it in an abstract way, he wants us to think deeper about when we choose to help and when we don’t.

Every day tens of thousands of children die from preventable illnesses across the world, all with poverty as their root cause.

If we gave, even just a small amount – perhaps about the cost of a new pair of shoes, we really could save a child’s life..

So why don’t we ? And if we do, why don’t we give more ?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as being kind, moral, ethical, fair, compassionate – yet every day we fritter away some of our wealth on things we clearly don’t really need.

Singer uses the illustration of buying bottled water to highlight the profoundly questionable effects of some of our choices. Even though we have perfectly clean and safe drinking water available from our taps, unlike many in the world, we still spend our money unnecessarily to buy bottled water, rather than using it to invest in clean drinking water provision in the developing world.

By making one choice rather than another, it could be argued we are choosing to let more children die! Is that the right way to think about it ? Is it as stark and as simple a moral choice as that ?

This is a relatively modern dilemma. Before the Second World War there was little general awareness of extreme poverty elsewhere in the world, and in any event there was virtually no prospect of doing anything about it. But things have changed.

Now we live in an age of global media and communications, and our world is inter-connected. We know where the poverty is – we watch the news reports, see the photos and read the harrowing stories. Thanks to global media and the internet we can put it in front of your eyes with just a couple of clicks if we choose.

We’re also now able to make a difference, we know what works – food, clean water, santitation, vaccines and medical care. Even distance is not the problem it used to be – there isn’t anywhere on the planet we cannot deliver aid and humanitarian support in the matter of a few days.

The rich world is richer now than its ever been – even if it doesn’t feel like it for many of us right at the moment.

What is the moral thing to do ?

Does not giving make us monsters ?

Ultimately we must decide for ourselves what the right thing to do is. I humbly suggest that the moral thing to do is to wrestle with the issues, and then act as you see fit.

What we do, how much we give, who we give it to, and what for all seem reasonable things to discuss, debate and disagree about, but simply ignoring the plight of those most desperately in need, looking away and looking after ourselves without thought seems difficult to defend morally.

Many have reasons not to give: they argue that some of what is given is wasted by corruption or inefficiency, they claim they are already giving ‘more than our fair share’ and it’s for others to do more, they say they need to look after their own first – and might say something like ‘charity should begin at home’.

Of course there are many questions and concerns about how aid is delivered, in both the long term as well as the short. But we should be on guard against using these concerns as excuses to do nothing. Those who are genuine in these concerns should perhaps do more themselves to fight corruption, or to encourage others to give – perhaps by supporting national tax funded national giving more vocally?

Why people are generous or not is the subject of a lot of study. The economist John A List, carried out research that seems to show that a good proportion of people who give, are mainly motivated simply by not wanting to seem mean in comparison to others – it seems no one wants to seem mean.

Perhaps those of us who do give more substantially and regularly, should be a little more open about it, rather than keeping our giving quiet and private – not to ‘big-up’ ourselves, but to help create a social culture where giving is normal and expected. Perhaps we should also point out that being generous to others has been shown to raise oxytocin levels (the love hormone) – and so giving, might just prove to be better than receiving after all !

Of course there is something even more important we should do – we should become more familiar with the lives and hardships of the poor, both in our own communities and across the world.

It’s hard not to care about another human being once you’ve met them.

In the words of Mother Theresa:

“Today it has become fashionable to talk about the poor, but it’s still not so fashionable to talk to them”

RELATED ARTICLES – Charity DOES Begin at Home, Foto Friday – Meet Toby Ord, It’s NOT the Thought that Counts 


  1. Gareth

    I’m not really minded to say much in support of Mother Theresa. I’ve read quite a bit about her and she’s a fascinating figure, I think she did a lot of great work but in my view she was certainly not some kind of ‘near perfect person’, a position I’ve actually argued many times – though not with as much hostility as Christopher Hitchens does! Non of us are perfect people, of course, and overall I think she did far more good than harm.

    I think you might be out on a limb if you’re really claiming she did ‘nothing’ for the poor, regardless of what you think of her motives or methods, I’d suggest she clearly did plenty, and that this is widely recognised. The 150+ convents you mention aren’t staffed by nuns sitting around just singing all day, but volunteers working with the local poor – – But if you were simply making the point that no-one is perfect, then point made.

    I often try to balance my posts a little and in writing mostly about the humanist Peter Singer, but finishing with a Mother Theresa quote I was trying to give everyone something to relate to.

    Interestingly I’ve was planning to write a post about the film Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless, who turned his back on society and went off to live in the wilderness – but the more I’ve read about his story, the more morally ambiguous it seems, and the less clear the message. Another flawed character.

    The lesson of course is not to put people on pedestals – we’re all complex, questionable, sometimes good – sometimes not. Mother Theresa is often presented as some form of a paragon of virtue of goodness . . . but of course she’s more human than that.

    Similarly many of our other ‘heroes’ are too – from Martin Luther King Jr – who I do admire greatly, but was ‘supposedly’ quite a womaniser, to Winston Churchill – a great leader and writer, but who was responsible for maintaining the naval blockade of Germany for months after the end WWI until June 1919, resulting in the deaths of over 750,000 people (mostly women and children) from starvation.

    Obviously some people’s lives and actions are far worse than others, and you’re unlikely to see me quoting Stalin or Saddam Hussein . . . but in most other cases the following health warning applies: ‘quoting does not imply approval of all aspects of a persons life’.

    And when it comes to practising what we preach – then probably we should all look in the mirror more – me included.

  2. Gareth Richards says:

    I hate when people quote Mother Theresa, did she help the poor? Not really she used her donations to open convents in 150 countries, spreading her rather extreem religious idology, rather then use it to help the poor.

    As Mother Theresa associatited with Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, she obviously practiced what she preached.

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