Suppose someone walks by a pond and notices a bit of garbage floating in it. A devoted environmentalist, he wades into the pond, retrieves the garbage, and throws it in a wastebasket. However, he doesn’t help a small child who has fallen into the pond and subsequently drowns. We would all condemn this person, wouldn’t we?
This implausible-seeming story is a metaphor for a movement called effective altruism. One of its major proponents, the philosopher Peter Singer, argued in a famous article published in 1972 that rich Westerners should contribute money to charities that help poor people in developing countries. Singer argued that failing to donate one’s excess income to international charities such as Oxfam is like failing to save a child from drowning when one can do so at no risk to oneself. A small amount of money can pay for malaria nets that save the lives of children in foreign countries. There is no morally relevant distinction between saving a child in a foreign country and saving a child one sees in a pond. If one is ethically obligated to save a drowning child at the cost of ruining one’s shoes or being late to an appointment, then one is ethically obligated to make donations to save children in poor countries. Singer is not always clear about how much wealth one should contribute for the poor, but he does mean a lot more than nearly anyone gives.