Cutting through Singer’s Paradox

Teacher and ethicist Peter Singer shares a puzzle with his students:

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.

The paradox comes in when Singer points out that if it's a moral imperative to save this child at the cost of ruining a pair of shoes, we certainly face that same imperative every day. Using Paypal, we can send $20 somewhere in the world and with certainty, save the life of a child.

What's the difference? The child is far away, certainly, but she's still a child and she's still dying.

Marketing helps us understand the two key differences:

1. CLOSE & NOW: The first child is dying right in front of me. Right now. The shame I feel in walking away is palpable. Many times, we act generously or heroically because to avoid doing so is to risk being shamed. The ALS challenge got many things right, and this is one of them. When someone calls you out in public, it is close and it is now.

2. GRATITUDE: Even though it might not be at the top of mind, the fact is that once we pull someone out of the pond, we anticipate that they will thank us, and so will the community. In fact, if that didn't happen, if the kid just walked away and no one noticed, I think we'd be perplexed or even angry.

And this is the problem every good cause outside of your current walk to work faces. They are trying to solve a difficult problem far away. They're working to do something that is neither close nor now. And often, because the work is so hard, there's no satisfactory thank you, certainly not the thank you of, we're done, you're a hero.

The challenge for real philanthropic growth, then, is to either change the culture so our marketing psychology is to donate to things that are neither close nor now, and that offer little in the way of thanks, or to create change that hacks our current perceptions of what's important.

We're learning that the most important problems to solve might be the long-term ones, the ones where our cultural instincts don't lead to emergency donations.

Some options. And here's a year-end smile.