Peter Singer’s child-in-the-pond argument goes like this: Imagine you are walking past a shallow pond and you notice a small child drowning in it. Would you ruin your favorite, quite expensive, pair of shoes in order to rush into the pond and save the child, or would you rather save your shoes and let the child drown?
It is pretty obvious that only a sociopath would prioritize his shoes over a child’s life. So far so good.
But then comes the analogy: There are so many children all over the world, dying from starvation or preventable diseases, whose life you could save by donating to a charitable organization. Helping such a child would not cost you much more than an expensive pair of shoes. So if you agree that you are morally obliged to save a child from drowning at a relatively low cost, then you must also agree that you have a moral obligation to save starving children at a comparatively low cost.
Aye, there’s the rub! How is rescuing a drowning child the same as writing a check to a charity? The child-in-the-pond argument rests on a faulty analogy that is designed not to be accurate, but to trigger in our mind a heroic archetype and all the powerful prosocial emotions associated with it.
To correct for the undue pumping of our intuition, we can formulate a more proper analogy: Rather than rushing into the pond to save the child, you hire another person walking past the pond to do the rescuing. You quickly pay him your shoes’ worth in dollars, he saves the child, and everybody is happy.
What does your intuition say about that? Isn’t this even stranger behavior than letting the child drown? No matter its moral worth, paying someone else to do the rescuing is certainly more analogous to the bureaucratic act of donating money to charity than being the hero yourself is.
Thus, while the idea of the child in the pond may be a motivating story for some potential philanthropists, it is weak as an analogy, let alone a philosophical argument.
Now maybe you ask, “Why would I need to be the hero of the story? As long as the child is saved, I am happy with the outcome.” No, of course you do not have to be the hero of the story, but if you do not care about being the hero, why would you care about the story?