The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle

by Peter Singer in New Internationalist, April, 1997

peter singer


To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.

I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves. At the end of the nineteenth century WH Lecky wrote of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family and ‘soon the circle... includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man [sic] with the animal world’.1 On this basis the overwhelming majority of my students seem to be already in the penultimate stage – at least – of Lecky’s expanding circle. There is, of course, for many students and for various reasons a gap between acknowledging what we ought to do, and doing it; but I shall come back to that issue shortly.

Our century is the first in which it has been possible to speak of global responsibility and a global community. For most of human history we could affect the people in our village, or perhaps in a large city, but even a powerful king could not conquer far beyond the borders of his kingdom. When Hadrian ruled the Roman Empire, his realm covered most of the ‘known’ world, but today when I board a jet in London leaving what used to be one of the far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire, I pass over its opposite boundary before I am even halfway to Singapore, let alone to my home in Australia. Moreover no matter what the extent of the empire, the time required for communications and transport meant that there was simply no way in which people could make any difference to the victims of floods, wars, or massacres taking place on the other side of the globe. By the time anyone had heard of the events and responded, the victims were dead or had survived without assistance. ‘Charity begins at home’ made sense, because it was only ‘at home’ – or at least in your own town – that you could be confident that your charity would make any difference.

Instant communications and jet transport have changed all that. A television audience of two billion people can now watch hungry children beg for food in an area struck by famine, or they can see refugees streaming across the border in search of a safe place away from those they fear will kill them. Most of that huge audience also have the means to help people they are seeing on their screens. Each one of us can pull out a credit card and phone in a donation to an aid organization which can, in a few days, fly in people who can begin distributing food and medical supplies. Collectively, it is also within the capacity of the United Nations – with the support of major powers – to put troops on the ground to protect those who are in danger of becoming victims of genocide.

Our capacity to affect what is happening, anywhere in the world, is one way in which we are living in an era of global responsibility. But there is also another way that offers an even more dramatic contrast with the past. The atmosphere and the oceans seemed, until recently, to be elements of nature totally unaffected by the puny activities of human beings. Now we know that our use of chlorofluorocarbons has damaged the ozone shield; our emission of carbon dioxide is changing the climate of the entire planet in unpredictable ways and raising the level of the sea; and fishing fleets are scouring the oceans, depleting fish populations that once seemed limitless to a point from which they may never recover. In these ways the actions of consumers in Los Angeles can cause skin cancer among Australians, inundate the lands of peasants in Bangladesh, and force Thai villagers who could once earn a living by fishing to work in the factories of Bangkok.

In these circumstances the need for a global ethic is inescapable. Is it nevertheless a vain hope? Here are some reasons why it may not be.

We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfilment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market whose only message is: consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.

Consider the life of Ivan Boesky, the multimillionaire Wall Street dealer who in 1986 pleaded guilty to insider trading. Why did Boesky get involved in criminal activities when he already had more money than he could ever spend? Six years after the insider-trading scandal broke, Boesky’s estranged wife Seema spoke about her husband’s motives in an interview with Barbara Walters for the American ABC Network’s 20/20 program. Walters asked whether Boesky was a man who craved luxury. Seema Boesky thought not, pointing out that he worked around the clock, seven days a week, and never took a day off to enjoy his money. She then recalled that when in 1982 Forbes magazine first listed Boesky among the wealthiest people in the US, he was upset. She assumed he disliked the publicity and made some remark to that effect. Boesky replied: ‘That’s not what’s upsetting me. We’re no-one. We’re nowhere. We’re at the bottom of the list and I promise you I won’t shame you like that again. We will not remain at the bottom of that list.’

We must free ourselves from this absurd conception of success. Not only does it fail to bring happiness even to those who, like Boesky, do extraordinarily well in the competitive struggle; it also sets a social standard that is a recipe for global injustice and environmental disaster. We cannot continue to see our goal as acquiring more and more wealth, or as consuming more and more goodies, and leaving behind us an even larger heap of waste.

We tend to see ethics as opposed to self-interest; we assume that those who make fortunes from insider trading are successfully following self-interest – as long as they don’t get caught – and ignoring ethics. We think that it is in our interest to take a more senior better-paid position with another company, even though it means that we are helping to manufacture or promote a product that does no good at all, or is environmentally damaging. On the other hand, those who pass up opportunities to rise in their career because of ethical ‘scruples’ about the nature of the work, or who give away their wealth to good causes, are thought to be sacrificing their own interest in order to obey the dictates of ethics.

Many will say that it is naive to believe that people could shift from a life based on consumption, or on getting on top of the corporate ladder, to one that is more ethical in its fundamental direction. But such a shift would answer a palpable need. Today the assertion that life is meaningless no longer comes from existentialist philosophers who treat it as a shocking discovery: it comes from bored adolescents for whom it is a truism. Perhaps it is the central place of self-interest, and the way in which we conceive of our own interest, that is to blame here. The pursuit of self-interest, as standardly conceived, is a life without any meaning beyond our own pleasure or individual satisfaction. Such a life is often a self-defeating enterprise. The ancients knew of the ‘paradox of hedonism’, according to which the more explicitly we pursue our desire for pleasure, the more elusive we will find its satisfaction. There is no reason to believe that human nature has changed so dramatically as to render the ancient wisdom inapplicable.

Here ethics offer a solution. An ethical life is one in which we identify ourselves with other, larger, goals, thereby giving meaning to our lives. The view that there is harmony between ethics and enlightened self-interest is an ancient one, now often scorned. Cynicism is more fashionable than idealism. But such hopes are not groundless, and there are substantial elements of truth in the ancient view that an ethically reflective life is also a good life for the person leading it. Never has it been so urgent that the reasons for accepting this view should be widely understood.

In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people going short of food in Rwanda, the desire to sample the wines of Australia’s best vineyards pales into insignificance. An ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying food and wine; but it changes our sense of priorities. The effort and expense put into fashion, the endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the added expense that marks out the luxury-car market – all these become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective long enough to put themselves in the position of others affected by their actions. If the circle of ethics really does expand, and a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will fundamentally change the society in which we live.

Part of Introduction to Effective Altruism

Next: Scope Insensitivity

Comments (8)

Comment author: iwillnotgetaddicted 01 February 2016 11:59:08AM 4 points [-]

I deeply and truly want to believe this, but I wonder what empirical evidence Singer has that materialistically driven individuals are less happy than altruistically drive individuals. I agree that inwardly-focused or possession-focused individuals are less happy, but I don't believe that altruists are any more happy or satisfied with their lives. Having read several books on the science of happiness, but also having a small and forgetful mind, I am left only with a basic impression of our state of understanding. I also wonder how many of the results we do have are simply correlations based on a simpler underlying factor. As an examples, it has become widely reported and known recently that those who spend money on experiences, rather than things, tend to be happier people. But could it be that the relevant factors is an inclination towards greater social engagement, which leads to both happiness and spending on experiences? And again, we are told that practicing forgiveness leads to happiness-- but those who prefer isolation don't need to forgive, those driven towards social engagement would be driven to forgive and resume the relationship.

I seem to have gotten off track, but here is my observation: I know many people who are altruistic, and I know many people who are consumeristic. I see no pattern in how satisfied they are with their lives that arises from these characteristics. Rather, I find that my wealthy relatives who spend ever more money on wine and food are very happy-- and they tend to eat that food with friends. I find that my wealthy relatives who spend their money on wine and beer are unhappy-- and they tend to eat it alone. I find that my altruistic friends who own a business and give generously to charity are unhappy, but my altruistic friends who participate in church drives or international aid work are happy.

As someone who is not socially engaged, who is highly altruistic and deeply unhappy, I find little encouragement in the idea that an ethical life leads to happiness.

Comment author: tjmather  (EA Profile) 03 February 2016 02:15:54PM *  1 point [-]

I have found that a healthy diet makes a difference in my own happiness. As a vegan, I have to pay a bit more attention to getting a well balanced diet, including b12 and vitamin d supplements. For breakfast I make a smoothie made with dates, bananas, berries, flax seeds, cacao nibs, walnuts, cinnamon, orange zest, and kale. I also drink green tea and try to avoid refined sugar/carbs/oils and alcohol.

If anyone is interested, http://nutritionfacts.org/ has a lot of evidence based nutritional advice.

Comment author: Patrizia 02 November 2016 06:58:39AM 0 points [-]

Interesting post without any doubt. Are you sure that consumeristic people are actually satisfied of their style of life and the altruistic ones not? What is happiness and what it is authenticity? Is happiness only immediate pleasure? Is there any difference between esthetic pleasure and authentic self-realization? Which are our existential needs? No one can ignore such deep question. If we do not ask ourselves we risk to live without any sense or significance. So I think that it doesn't matter if a lot of people are not altruistic but it matters if they have or not to be.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 28 September 2014 04:09:42PM 2 points [-]

At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.

This article was written before the explicit advent of effective altruism, and, as a movement, I believe it can motivate people to meet the moral imperative Peter Singer is concerned about while also taking care of the concerns raised in the above paragraph. Contra Dr. Singer's assuage of concerns above, they are a legitimate reason to perhaps not donate on a knee-jerk imperative. Effective altruism seeks to solve such concerns by doing good better, and doing stringent research about donations in terms of cost-effectiveness, cross-charity comparisons, cause selection, and counterfactual reasoning. I believe effective altruism is broader than what's put forth in Dr. Singer's above article, and necessarily so.

I also agree with the comments Dale made. Although there are other articles on this site that may cover for the holes in this one, I don't believe this is a fit introduction to effective altruism, especially if Peter Singer has a better essay written. I'd much prefer people just watch his TED talk.

Comment author: Dale 13 September 2014 02:17:26PM 2 points [-]

Gwern has an excelent article arguing against this thesis, which you should read in full. He argues that Singer ignores numerous cases in which our circle of concern seems to have shrunk. From the standpoint of our current ethics, it is hard to see these past concerns as bearing any moral significance, but this is always true of someone in a narrower circle judging someone in a wider one.

For example, our circle has narrowed with respect to gods:

When one doesn’t believe religion deals with real things at all, it’s hard to take religion seriously - much less recall any instances of its sway in the West increasing or decreasing.

But nevertheless, when one compares modern with ancient society, the religious differences are striking: almost every single supernatural entity (place, personage, or force) has been excluded from the circle of moral concern, where they used to be huge parts of the circle and one could almost say the entire circle.


Iceland is mocked when construction is held up to expel elves - but the construction goes forward. Japan keeps its temples on sacred places - when they earn their keep and do not block housing projects, of course. Lip service is paid, at most.


Peter Singer focuses on animals; religion gives us a perspective on them - what have they lost by none of them being connected to divinities and by becoming subject to modern factory farming and agriculture? If you could ask snakes, one of the most common sacred animals, what they made of the world over the last millennia, would they regard themselves as better or worse off for becoming merely animals in the expanded circle? If India abandoned Hinduism, what would happen to the cows? We may be proud of our legal protections for endangered or threatened species, but the medievals protected & acquitted ordinary bugs & rats in trials.

The circle has at best oscillated with regards abortion and infanticide:

Continuing the religious vein, many modern practices reflect a narrowing circle from some points of view: abortion and contraception come to mind. Abortion could be a good example for cyclical or random walk theses, as in many areas the moral status of abortion or infanticide has varied widely over recorded history, from normal to religiously mandated to banned to permitted again.

The use of torture comes and goes:

State use of torture can be cyclical - some northern European countries going from minimal torture under their indigenous governments to extensive torture under Roman dominion back to juries & financial punishments after Rome to torture again with the revival of Roman law by rising modern centralized states and then torture’s abandonment when those states modernized and liberalized even further. China has gone through even more cycles of judicial torture, with its dynastic cycle.

As well as other parts of the judicial system:

Some areas have changed far less than one might hope; arbitrary property confiscations that would make a medieval England freeman scarlet with anger are alive and well under the aegis of the War on Drugs, under the anodyne term “asset forfeiture” as a random form of taxation. (And what are we to make of the disappearance of jury trials in favor of plea bargaining?)

Our ancestors no longer command the respect they once did:

Another possible oversight is the way in which the dead and past are no longer taken into consideration. This is due in part to the expanding circle itself: if moral progress is indeed being made, and the weight of one’s voice is related to how moral one was, then it follows past people (by being immoral) may be ignored. We pay attention to Jefferson in part because he was partially moral, and we pay no attention to a Southern planter who was not even partially moral by our modern lights.

More dramatically, we dishonor our ancestors by neglecting their graves, by not offering any sacrifices or even performing any rituals, by forgetting their names (can you name your great-grandparents?), by selling off the family estate when we think the market has hit the peak, and so on.

Given these shrinking circles, should we call it an expanding circle or a shifting circle?

Comment author: iwillnotgetaddicted 01 February 2016 11:48:32AM *  0 points [-]

The expanding circle refers to the range of sentient beings that humans include in their scope of concern. The fact that we have recognized the non-existence of gods or the non-sentience of a fetus is not the same as shrinking or the circle. The fact that we no longer have concern for the dead is, again, not relevant. Our consideration for property is equally rejected by this simple consideration. You could certainly argue that from the perspective of a past human, the circle would seem to shift, but that does not change the fact that using our reasonable modern understanding of the world, the scope of human concern for sentient beings has consistently expanded, rather than shifted.

Comment author: mjpicot 21 June 2015 05:46:38PM 1 point [-]

I find it difficult to shift from a life based on consumption, but not impossible. It's difficult, because our society doesn't think nor feel deeply. The lack of time for thinking carefully of the way we are living is the trap. It seems as if all the things we do every day had to be done fast and easily, without questionnig anything. Each question about our way of life can be considered inappropiate. In addition to this, the pursuit of self-interest, has been installed in our lives as the greatest pourpose of them. We have developed an alarming capacity of postponing others needs while our self-interest is focused on money and property.

In spite of the content of these previous lines, it's a fact that many people collaborate with NGOs which make donation to provide benefits to those who need our help, even if the charities' management is often questioned. We could consider that this generosity isn't enough to reverse our society's attitude so far, but it means that there is a little hope to get it

I agree with the idea of expanding the circle of ethics and spreading a higher ethical consciousness to get better our society. In my view, all of us should learn and feel moral values that we need like justice, dignity and equality. Obviously, education is envolved in it and has a complicated but fascinating challenge nowadays.

Comment author: Christy77 01 July 2016 03:22:23PM *  0 points [-]

Excellent introduction! I am so glad I found this course. I think the article is extremely intelligent and insightful.

Recently, I have been trying to launch a wildlife campaign on Twitter. I am finding it a challenge to get people to care. Often when I tweet posts about the environment or endangered species, followers drop off. I am asking myself - is it possible to change how somebody feels? Can you change somebody's internal thought process and desires? Unfortunately, I think the answer might be no. I think you can move people to act, but you can not change somebody's internal values and ethics. I also believe everybody has a different purpose, fate and destiny, and that good and evil are inherent.

For example, does a poacher care that Kenya lights a fire and burns ivory? I think the answer is no. Would he care if he got thrown in jail? I think the answer is yes. If you were trying to support your family, would you shoot the last elephant ? I wouldn't. I would look for another alternative. But I think many would.

Maybe the solution is to gather the people who do care and that can make a difference - private investors, companies, etc.