09/13/2010 03:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Should You Save a Drowning Child?

In Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save, he opens his book this scenario -- if you see a child drowning and there is no one else around, would you wade in to save the child knowing that in doing so you will ruin your expensive shoes and be late for work? The answer to this is obviously "yes" most people would make these small sacrifices to save a life. He then extrapolates this to philanthropic giving and argues that everyone should therefore regularly make small financial sacrifices in order to donate the money to charities so they can save lives in other countries.

Unfortunately, aid is rarely as straight forward as the scenario the Peter presents. Here are some other ways that same scene could turn out:

  • What if the child isn't actually drowning, but instead is just being a drama queen like my nephew and what looked to you like drowning is actually just horsing around. Do you think the child would appreciate being suddenly grabbed by a stranger?
  • What if you aren't a strong enough swimmer and drown while attempting the rescue. To complicate things even further, what if the next person that happens along jumps in to try to save you and drowns as well. There were several recent instances of multiple drownings just like this near where I live.
  • What if the child was actually trying to escape a sex trafficker who hid when you came into view? Without understanding this, you might accidentally hand the child over to a life of bondage.
  • What if the child's family was hiding on the opposite bank because they were fleeing the country? They might have been able to save their child themselves, but couldn't because they were forced to stay hidden during your rescue efforts for fear of being caught.
  • What if you look down stream and realize that it's not just this one child that's drowning but there are hundreds of helpless children struggling in the river. Do you stay and try to save them all or do you leave to get more help knowing that many of them may drown while you're away?

To prevent these complicating arguments Singer includes many caveats in his scenario -- the child is a toddler, the water is only knee-deep, it's a pond not a river, it's an area you're familiar with. Thus making the situation as simple and clear cut as possible. Desperate for your donations, many charities present their work in the same manner. Unfortunately, aid is rarely that simple and clear cut in fact it's often just the opposite.

Even the most basic first aid class teaches would-be rescuers to take a minute and survey the situation before rushing in to help. A common saying in the search and rescue world is that "A dead rescuer is no good to anyone and often makes things worse." The same could be said for a poorly run charity. I urge all donors to take a minute to evaluate the situation before jumping in to help. Make sure the charity has a clear understanding of the problem and of all possible impacts of their work.