Designing the Mind

The Altruist’s Dilemma

Peter Singer and the Sea of Systemic Problems


Do you give to charity? Compost? Support ethical, local, sustainable, minority-owned organizations? What are you doing about the issues in Uganda? Do you feel like it has become harder to be a good person?

Today I’m exploring the confusing world of effective altruism, utilitarianism, and Peter Singer’s famous drowning child thought experiment. I come to some counterintuitive conclusions, but I hope you’ll hear me out, and challenge me in the comments if you disagree.

We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

– Donella H. Meadows

Psychitects, I’ve got a juicy thought experiment for you today. There’s an essay that was written by Peter Singer back in the 70s called “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” which has become one of the most famous philosophical essays out there. It goes something like this:

The Drowning Child

Imagine that on your way to work one day, you come across a child drowning in a pond. You realize you could jump in and save the child fairly easily, but this would require you to get your clothes wet and muddy, and that would be a bummer. So, would it be acceptable for you to continue on your way to work and choose not to save the child – maybe tell your coworkers about the unfortunate dilemma at the water cooler? Or do you think you have a moral obligation to jump in and save the child, despite the inconvenience, and that your coworkers would rightly be horrified by the decision not to?

Now, just about everyone answers that it would be awful and ethically reprehensible to choose not to save the child. But sneakily, Singer goes on to argue that this stance has major implications for how we’re living our lives today. Here is the basic argument:

  • Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
  • If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of moral importance, then we have a moral obligation to do it.
  • The luxuries we spend money on are not of moral importance.
  • It is in our power to prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, by donating the money we spend on luxuries to those in need.
  • Therefore, we have a moral obligation to give up these luxuries to help prevent these tragic outcomes.

He argues that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between the scenario with the drowning child and the billions of people around the world who lack basic nutrition, clean water, shelter, or medical care. We could save a life, right now, without making any major sacrifices, and most of us choose not to.

And certainly, we shouldn’t consider proximity an important distinction. Why would it matter if the kid drowning is close to me or ten thousand miles away? Similarly, it shouldn’t matter whether we’re the only person who can help or one of many. If we let a child drown in front of us, it wouldn’t make things much better if there were other people there who also could have saved the kid and didn’t.

Singer concludes that given this symmetry, it is reasonable to conclude that from an ethical standpoint, we’re all pretty much evil. Or at least those of us who spend money on things that aren’t absolutely essential instead of donating it – there’s gotta be like two or three of those here, right? Giving significant money to charity, he argues, is not simply an admirable decision – it’s a requirement, and neglecting it is actively unethical.

It’s a pretty compelling argument, and that’s why there haven’t been that many philosophers who have come up with a strong critique against it since it was published. Most people who confront it sort of just accept that yes, we should be doing much more for people in need – but on the other hand, that trip to Italy.

The essay has also inspired a few people to make some radical sacrifices to help those in need, like William MacAskill, founder of the effective altruism movement. I think it’s great that this argument has gotten some people to reflect, change their lifestyle, and make altruistic contributions. But I personally don’t find the argument to be so airtight, and I also think it’s very possible that this type of thinking isn’t what the world needs right now. Allow me to explain.

Now, I can obviously agree that choosing not to save a drowning child right in front of you would be an atrocious decision that clashes deeply with my values. I can also agree that proximity or the number of moral agents who can help are largely irrelevant considerations. But I think there are deeper flaws with this metaphor.

Let’s imagine that upon seeing the drowning child in the pond, you jump in, heroically save them from drowning, and send them on their way. You feel good knowing that you’ve done your part. But to your surprise, the next day, there’s another kid in the process of drowning in that same pond – what is going on here? You jump in again, rescue the kid, and brush off this odd coincidence. But somehow, every day, there is a new kid drowning in that pond.

Now at this point, you are still saving the kid each time, but you also start looking into the causes for this odd situation. You talk to the owners of the pond, to the police, to city council, anyone who can create safeguards to prevent this from happening. You can’t be the sole savior of this town’s children. Yet no one seems to do anything to address the problem, and you find yourself the only person who can help. At what point do you have to give up?

But let’s say this doesn’t fundamentally change things for you – you still consider it your moral obligation to save the kid each day. You take on this new responsibility, start wearing a swimsuit under your clothes, and accept your role. I applaud your ethical resolve – and it certainly seems more worthy of applause now. You didn’t really have a choice when it was a one-time thing, unless you were a psychopath. But now, it seems like you’ve gone a bit beyond your moral duty. So now, let’s change things up just a bit.

The Sea of Drowning Children

Let’s say that you eventually get the city to take action and prevent the children from falling into the pond daily. You get a new job offer you have to move for, and you end up buying a house on ocean-front property. Nice. But the day after moving in, you leave your house and are shocked to find that there are children drowning in the ocean. Lots of them. It must be millions – it’s a sea of drowning children, as far as the eye can see. Your first reaction is to jump in and start saving – it would be terrible not to. One kid, two kids, you save as many kids as you can. You look around and hardly anyone else seems concerned about it – everyone is just going about their lives.

“This is a tragedy!” you exclaim. Everyone agrees, but no one is taking action. Eventually, you go back to your house, completely exhausted. You wake up the next morning and see another set of millions of children drowning in the ocean. So you head out and save as many as you can before exhausting yourself once again. Even the dozens that you saved are a miniscule fraction of the millions that you couldn’t save. Day after day, you save drowning kids, but many many more inevitably drown. I know, this is a cheery thought experiment.

You are plagued by questions you can’t find answers for. Are you morally obligated to save children every day, or just on weekdays? How many of the millions of drowning children do you have to save to fulfill your moral requirements? You eventually accept that you won’t be able to save kids all day every day. You have to work; you have to eat. And this falls into the “necessities” category, so you’re morally in the clear, right?

But over time, the thought of sacrificing all of your free time and money to making a tiny dent in this colossal problem begins to seem less feasible. Your mental health takes a toll, and the darkness of dealing with hopeless tragedy each day without time for yourself starts making you depressed. You begin to see why no one else was jumping in – the urgent and acute tragedy has become an ongoing sorrow of life. It’s far larger than you or the other individuals at this beach.

You allow yourself to take free time for you – to spend money on things that bring you joy and give you a sense of personal identity. You try to make child-saving more of a part-time hobby, but you find yourself feeling hopeless about your inability to do more. Though you were once disgusted by the people ignoring the problem, you now find yourself so overwhelmed and depleted that you have no choice but to move away from the beach entirely. You know that putting the problem out of sight and out of mind is no solution, but you simply couldn’t sustain the lifestyle or mindset of constantly trying to solve an intractable problem.

Was it wrong to move away from the beach? Was it wrong to spend time and money on luxuries rather than dedicating them all to the cause? Did you neglect your moral obligation by eventually turning away from the problem? I certainly don’t think this would be the consensus. I think most people would empathize with your struggle and agree that the lifestyle was fundamentally unsustainable. In fact, I think most people’s moral intuitions would suggest that you went above and beyond by actually trying to save some of the kids, and for holding out for as long as you did.

See, Singer was right that proximity was not a relevant factor in the ethical equation of this comparison. If there was a child drowning on the other side of the planet and a simple donation would save them, virtually everyone would do it. But there isn’t a child drowning today. There are millions drowning every day. The problems we see in the world are massive, systemic, and, at least for an individual, completely intractable.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t make things any better, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t donate any money to charity or attempt to do anything good for anyone, because it’s just so hopeless. But it does powerfully change the relevant moral intuitions, to the point that I don’t think most people would call it a moral obligation that we should all be condemned for failing. This updated thought experiment shows that giving everything we possibly can to help the sea of drowning children cannot be an obligation. Is it admirable? Yes. But does failing to do it make us evil? Absolutely not. Now, let’s alter our thought experiment one more time.

The Sinking Ship

Once you’ve taken some time to recompose yourself after moving away from the sea of drowning children, you go on a cruise in the hopes of moving past your ocean-related trauma. To your disbelief, the ship’s captain informs you that the ship is sinking. You have no choice but to accept that water-based tragedies are going to be a permanent part of your life. The captain says that in order to keep from completely sinking, each passenger will have to do their part. Luckily, the ship happens to be delivering cargo containing hundreds of eye-droppers.

They distribute the eye-droppers and ask each person on the ship to use theirs to remove water from the boat. You start squeezing up water as you are told, but being the clever contrarian you are, it doesn’t take long before you make a few observations:

  1. Even if we all do our part, we will probably only delay the ship sinking – not prevent it indefinitely.
  2. If I defy the captain’s orders and go look for, say, a bucket, I might be able to do a lot more good.
  3. Ultimately, the problem will only be solved by identifying the source of the leak and finding a way to fix it.

So you have a choice to make. Do you follow orders and do your part with the eye-dropper, or do you risk neglecting your duties and attempt to make a bigger impact?

See, modern, global problems are fundamentally different from the child drowning in the pond. They are larger and far more complex. They are tied together by highly counterintuitive systems dynamics. Many of them aren’t just sticking around day after day – they’re accelerating. And they don’t just affect others – they could very well affect us and our families. Humanity faces risks today that could lead to extinction tomorrow. And most of them are the result of entrenched systems, operating on a scale far greater than individual citizens and consumers.

The problems that our brains and moral intuitions evolved to process were on the scale of the drowning child in the pond. Our ancestors were a part of small tribes, so if someone was in danger, we naturally felt a strong obligation to do what we could. In the modern world, we have these large-scale and systemic problems that our brains aren’t equipped to process, much less single-handedly take responsibility for.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions, but so often, those solutions aren’t provided, either because those with the power to solve them choose not to, or more likely, because no agent has the power to solve them. They are problems that require a level of collective coordination that society hasn’t figured out.

I see decisions like reducing your personal carbon footprint or cutting out meat as fundamentally inconsequential, symbolic gestures. They do nothing to address the underlying drivers of these problems – the social structures, policies, and economics that perpetuate them.

This systems-based view is largely the reason why I am not particularly interested in “doing my part” in the small ways we’re told we are supposed to. Despite the accusations of hypocrisy we may meet when we take this approach, the actions that show support for a certain cause really aren’t always the most effectively altruistic use of our resources.

Through Designing the Mind, I have chosen a mission, one at the convergence of education, mental health, and wisdom. This is where my strengths and passions lie, and these spaces play huge roles in the many interconnected problems humanity faces, so this is the battle I have chosen. With Mindform, I am working to build what I call a “superhuman system” for society. Just as the institution of science systematically debugs the biases of individual, flawed human scientists, Mindform aims to systematically debug the distortions, character flaws, and psychological struggles of its members.

Now to be clear, none of this is a critique of effective altruism – after all, if systemic solutions are more effective than donation and individual contribution, effective altruism should embrace them. I’m a fan of the movement, and I personally donate through and run an annual contribution match on Mindform. I value both altruism and effectiveness, so from the standpoint of the virtue framework I lay out in Become Who You Are, this is a no brainer, and it’s a nice way of hedging my bets against the very real possibility that DTM’s most ambitious missions will fail.

But I am generally wary of cultural expectations around altruism, and will quietly ignore the duties society assigns in order to serve bigger missions. I don’t think it is accurate or healthy to tell people they are morally culpable for not squeezing their personal eye-droppers of influence in the face of a sea of systemic problems.

Taking on the burden of the entire planet’s colossal and comingled problems can be psychologically crippling. It can destroy an individual’s motivation to do anything, or it can motivate them simply to take lots of little actions in the attempt to absolve themselves of guilt while failing to attempt anything of consequential impact. If you are making yourself depressed over problems you no real power over, I would encourage you to take a deep breath, step back, and study the underlying systems at play. Release your guilt, and see if you can find an opportunity to contribute that utilizes your strengths and excites you, rather than living and acting out of the shame of moral obligation.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my systems-based approach to altruism? Am I just a hypocrite making self-serving excuses for not doing more? Do you take a systems approach in your altruistic endeavors, or do you focus more on doing your part and helping your local community?

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