The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle
There lies the analogy of 'the drowning child.'
Lizzie Wood | 7 November 2015

In 1997, philosopher Peter Singer published an article in the ‘New Internationalist’ magazine titled ‘The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.’ The premise of the article was that, in a world where there are increasing connections and movement of both people and information, our capacity for effective moral action increases. In order to illustrate this, he used an analogy which I will summarise.

Singer addressed a group of people and asked them to imagine that they are walking to work. The route that they usually follow takes them past a shallow pond. One day, they notice a child drowning in the pond. If they were to wade in and save them, they would wreck their shoes and expensive suit, and would be late for work. Of course, the cost of a child’s life far outweighs any of these factors, so the group unanimously decide that they would wade in and save the child. Singer asks whether, should they notice that there are several other people in the vicinity who had heard the child’s cry for help but had not come to assist, they still felt that they should save the child. The group answered yes, as it is not good enough to say that just because someone else is not doing their duty, they also should not.

Singer now asks the participants to consider whether their obligation to save that child is ever negated, for example, if the act was happening far away or in another country. The participants agreed that it makes no difference what nationality the child is, or where they happen to be at the time.

The ‘punch line’, as it were, to this analogy is that all of us are in this position all the time. However, we are not the person who wades in to save the child, but the people who stand on the bank and watch the child drown, because we do not want to ruin our shoes. The fact is that every time we buy something that is not directly necessary, we choose those things over human lives. The money spent on a new pair of shoes (say £20) could be used to provide 10 mosquito nets, protecting 18 people from malaria for three to four years, on average. The time we are not prepared to give, for fear of missing social appointments, could be used to raise awareness, or pressure change, and lead to an increased standard of living for others. Even if, as many people argue, much of the money donated to charitable causes is swallowed up by administration costs of large organisations, there would still be enough to create some impact - one that is decidedly more valuable than a new pair of shoes. The difference is between saving 100 people from malaria, or 5 people from malaria. The result is still positive.

There lies the analogy of ‘the drowning child.’

Singer wrote that article 18 years ago but it has become relevant today in a horrifyingly real way. On September 3rd the body of a child was found drowned on the beaches of Turkey. Unlike Singer’s drowning child, this one had a name. He was called Aylan and was escaping from Kobani, which has been torn apart by fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish Syrian forces. Meanwhile, the response from the Hungarian government is to build a razor wire fence to prevent migrants crossing from Serbia into Hungary. Viewed through Singer’s analogy, this is an example of where large amounts of money are spent on a non-necessary item, when it could have huge benefits if properly allocated to tackling the root of the crisis. Likewise, until the picture of Aylan Kurdi’s body hit the mass news, it was possible to see headlines across British newspapers to the tune of : ‘Outrage as immigrants illegally entering UK get cooked meals and £35 cash a week within days of arrival’ (the Daily Mail).

Forced migration (migration which has to be taken involuntarily due to conflict, persecution, natural disasters etc), however is not a new phenomenon, despite it only really hitting headlines in the last year. In 2012, the International Red Cross estimated that 70 million people were living as migrants, many of whom were displaced by conflict. Since then, the fighting in the Middle East has forced thousands more to move from their homes in order to find what they hope is safety. While the trigger cause of this migration is war, the root to mass migration, and the problems which a failure to cope with it bring, can, and always has been linked to world inequality.

The reason why so many of the world’s population (1 in 100) have been condemned to the status of refugee, is because around 2 billion people live on the purchasing power of less than $1.25 a day. Today, more than ever before, everybody is looking at everybody. Globalisation has made it possible for information and images to move at amazing speeds between people and countries. The world has changed and migration is something that will have to be integrated into our lives, not shut out with crippling legislation, razor wire fences and xenophobia. UN secretary general, Philippe Douste-Blazy said ‘You have to go back to the Second World War to see these kinds of atrocities.’ He had just come back from a trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa where he saw the bodies of 50 people who had been asphyxiated by engine fumes, having stowed away in a ship. He had seen the burns of mothers who had used their own bodies to shield their children from the sun whilst trapped aboard open boats. This human tragedy cannot be ignored. The international community has been forced to address it directly. There is a meeting of the UN in New York this month where the global agenda concerning migration will be set for the next 15 years. Douste-Blazy has hopes that a solution will be reached, as the new urgency brought about by the migrant crisis will force people to accept terms which before they would not have considered.  


Image used under Creative Commons license

James Routledge 2016