In his book The Life You Can Save, philosopher Peter Singer poses an ethical question about where we should put our money. Consider this: You are walking to work in your nice clothes and see a drowning child in a pond. You can save the child but you will get your clothes and shoes wet. Should you save the child? Would you?
The point Singer is making is that every day we look past children dying that could be saved but for some minor inconvenience on our part. For the equivalent of a cup of coffee a day, or a meal out once in a while, we could save possibly hundreds of children from malaria, or starvation or the measles. But we don’t. We are more likely to support a child who is known to us, naturally, but Singer points out an anomaly: We will spend thousands of dollars sending one sick Western child to Disneyland, for example, when that would save the lives of so many other children elsewhere. You can see why Singer is somewhat controversial, but he is also considered one of the century’s most inspirational and influential thinkers – and not just on the basis of his book Animal Liberation.
I had to reflect on the life I can save, and the value and proportionality of spending money recently. I read another ethical dilemma. It goes like this: You are driving along with your dog in the car and suddenly the last wolf of a species runs in front of you. You could slam on your brakes but that will kill your dog. If you don’t, you will kill that last wolf. What do you do? What should you do?
Usually you would save your own dog, who is known to and by you and loved. When my much-loved house rabbit Duggie got sick and near death a couple of weeks ago I took him to the vet, and they threw the best that modern animal medicine could throw at him. You can imagine how expensive that was.
But what would the money I spent on Duggie do for conservation? By spending my scarce financial resources in disproportionate amount on Duggie, am I acting immorally, when the right course of action would be to “save the last wolf” instead – or at least save the last kiwi or kakapo?
As we speak, UNICEF are calling for donations for children in Beirut, Yemen, the Pacific Islands, and even here. We all know worthy conservation projects across New Zealand are inspiring success stories. There are so many worthy causes. They’re not mutually exclusive. The Effective Altruism movement which informed The Life You Can Save can calculate how you can do the most good.
Now that Duggie’s back to good health, sitting in front of the fire, being his cute little self, I know his life was worth saving, too.