How Many Starving Kids Are Your Suede Shoes Worth?

I heard a really interesting thought experiment recently; it's about individual moral obligations and I think it has me thinking about some of my own duties, as well as what I've been busting other people's chops about.

It goes a little something like this (edit: apparently started or at least made popular by the venerable Prof. Peter Singer--thanks to reader Jack for catching that):

Let's say you're walking, clad in some sweet $300 suede kicks, and you pass by a pool. Some kid's drowning in it. Of course you're going to save them, but are you going to take the time to take off your suede shoes before you jump in to be a hero?

Most people would say, "of course not!" So you ruin a $300 pair of shoes, so what? Someone's life is at stake!

Let's Stretch This a Bit

So assuming you answered as most do, let's consider this: let's say there's a kid that's starving halfway across the world (don't really need to be too hypothetical about this, do we?), and you have a button you can press that sends $300 to give that kid a whole bunch of life-saving food. You don't even have to jump in a pond and splash around: would you obviously do it?

Before you decide the answer is yes, here's a link to a button you can click to donate $300 right now.

Here's Where Things Get Weird

Let's say you had already saved one kid at the cost of a pair of suede shoes. Some weeks later, you're back in a new replacement pair of suede shoes, passing by the same pool. And in an absurd turn of fate, the same idiot kid (with incredibly irresponsible parents) is back in the bloody pool and drowning again! Good gravy, seriously.

Most people would feel pretty confident in answering that they'd roll their eyes as they jump back in the pool and ruin their shoes again. They would not say, "nah, I've saved enough kids," and move on.

But, of course, if confronted with the same button, at some point we're going to say, "holy smokes I've given enough already." But there are still going to be kids that die of starvation this year. And you could have done something to save more. 

The Condemnation Gap

Imagine now that someone showed up to dinner and told you that they had passed by a drowning kid, didn't do anything, and let the kid drown due to the cost or inconvenience of being a hero that day. I'll guess that your mouth will hang open in horror. But of course we don't feel the same horror for all of our dinner-guests that chose that day to not incur the cost of dropping $300 to feed a starving kid. 

Implications: Proximity and Caring

So it's a pretty well-documented thing that we're just far more likely to care about people (even strangers) whose problems are right in front of us than those who are far away. It's probably a pretty terrible moral axiom ("be good unto others if they happen to be within Tinder distance"), but it's how our brains work.

Besides making you (and me) feel bad about passing up on opportunities to help others, I wanted to use this exercise to develop a bit of empathy for some others in our political communities.

Now while it is of course true that the things you care most about are definitely the objectively important ones, let's cut everyone else some slack for being so wrong, eh? We've all got the proverbial drowning kid right next to us, and most of us are quite willing to lose some suede shoes for them, but not necessarily for whatever the drowning kid happens to be in another state.

So before you assume that someone's a heartless monster for not caring about the drowning kid right next to you, consider: what drowning kids next to them have you ignored? 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.