Science | History | PSHE | Relationships and health

‘I’m not jumping in after you’ says officer

Would you save a person who was drowning? Millions are deeply shocked by the news that three US police officers refused to help a desperate man who died in an Arizona reservoir.  “I’m not jumping in after you.” That was perhaps the last thing 34-year-old Sean Bickings heard before he sank beneath the surface of a reservoir in Tempe, Arizona. Bickings had begged three police officers to rescue him as he floundered in the deep waters. Instead they watched as he sank beneath the surface. Footage of the incident is shocking to watch. But utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer believes that we are no better than the officers who refused to help Bickings. He proposes the following thought experiment. Imagine you are walking to a class when you see a child drowning in a pond. If you wade in your clothes will get muddy. Do you save the child? Every one of us would say yes. But, Singer continues, what if the child is many thousands of miles away, in a different country. If you could save them, at little cost to yourself, should you still do so? Yes, we would still say. Except, Singer points out, we are constantly making the opposite choice. Every time we buy ourselves some new clothes or a nice meal, we are deciding not to send that money to help people in need. But some have cast doubt on Singer’s reasoning. We tend to assume saving lives in the developing world is very cheap. Yet the reality is not that simple. For example: one of the most effective ways of saving lives is to provide people with insecticide-treated mosquito nets, which reduces cases of malaria. The cost per life saved through mosquito nets has been estimated at around $2,300. This is because, although the cost of purchasing and distributing each net is quite small, not every net saves a life. So saving lives in the developing world is not quite as cheap and easy as pulling a drowning child out of a pond. Singer’s trade-off is based on false premises. Would you save a person who was drowning? Sink or swim Yes: It is not morally inconsistent to save a person in front of you instead of someone thousands of miles away. It is only natural to feel greater empathy for an individual whose suffering you can actually see. No: Whatever you might think, you have already answered this question in the negative. Every penny you spend on things for yourself could have gone towards improving the life of someone in need. Or… It is not a question of saving someone who is drowning, but of draining the pond so no-one will drown there in future. KeywordsTempe - A city in the south-western US state of Arizona. It is named after the Vale of Tempe in Greece.

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