The Drowning Child

Thomas Jones

'If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive... For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.'

Peter Singer's (famous, and much disputed) contention in 'Famine, Affluence and Morality' (1972) may have acquired a new, literal force this week with the widespread dissemination of images of the drowned corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The pictures don't alter Singer's argument one way or the other, but reduce the perceived distance between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Daily Mail is displaying its usual cognitive dissonance in response to the 'migrant crisis', leading with 'Despair of father of tiny migrant brothers washed up on Turkish beach as tragic details emerge of how family fled Isis siege of Kobane to start a new life in Europe' but also running stories headlined: 'Number of migrant children entering Britain alone continues to surge as 100 youngsters are handed to Kent County Council in just ONE MONTH' and 'Revealed: The deadly new tactic used by migrants to bring Eurostar trains to a halt so that they can sneak on board.' As Stalin didn't put it, one dead refugee child is a tragedy; 100 living refugee children is a statistical surge.

But even on the crudest moral reckoning (you break it, you pay for it), Syrian refugees are Britain's responsibility, since the catastrophe in Syria is in part a consequence of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


  • 3 September 2015 at 8:29pm
    keith smith says:
    I'm not much of a believer in petitions, but something important may be happening. An online Parliamentary petition demanding that the Government admit more asylum seekers and provide better financial support for refugees has had nearly 300,000 signatories, most of them today. As I write, people are signing it at the rate of about 300 per minute. A second petition, demanding a complete cutoff to immigration, has had 18,000 signatures. Does this suggest that most people do not have a problem with Singer's principle?

  • 3 September 2015 at 9:54pm
    streetsj says:
    I'm not defending the Mail but cognitive dissonance is the inevitable response to this tragedy. The easy response is "of course we must welcome the refugees". But how many? Where will they live? Who will pay? Those difficult questions can be answered (not the how many). But what will the knock on impact be? It is almost inevitable that it would encourage yet more migration; more exploitation of vulnerable people; and it would be naive to think everyone will be happy once they're here.
    The principle is easy; the practice and the consequences not so.

    As for the breaker pays, I think the U.S. was more than marginally involved in Iraq.

    • 4 September 2015 at 6:22am
      Joe Morison says: @ streetsj
      Your questions are the equivalent to asking about how we are going to get our clothes cleaned after we wade into the pond and if it might make our cold worse - it's not that those questions don't need answering, it's just they are irrelevant compared to the immediate necessity of saving the drowning child. We are the 9th richest country in the world, and if you fly over it you see that it is mostly empty of people.

      Of course, we can't solve the problem on our own (although we could do a massive amount if everybody in the country saw it as Singer does); but we should be in the vanguard of those helping while at the same time screaming at the rest of the world to do more. Instead, we loiter at the back led by a government cowering in fear of, and pandering to (the low point, so far, being Cameron's use of 'swarms'), the xenophobic sentiments represented by Ukip & Co.

      There is nothing inevitable about cognitive dissonance here: there is no contradiction between knowing what we have to do now (everything that we can to stop people dying) and not knowing how we are going to deal with it in the long run. The Mail's cognitive dissonance comes from the fact that it makes its money by stirring up a hatred in its readers which produce outcomes those same readers find hideous.

  • 4 September 2015 at 11:33am
    IanGFraser says:
    The dissonance is deep. We believe in human rights, but we actually act on civil rights; we cannot treat all human beings as we do our fellow citizens.

    So Geneva Convention refugee policy -- especially that the first country of refuge is where the refugee must make his/her claim -- seems beside the point, yet we cannot agree on how to change it.

    So, too, the defining issue becomes how to grant citizenship, for that is the real test of equal care & concern.

  • 4 September 2015 at 1:35pm
    bo tong says:
    Using the Singer point as a kind of mood music to the article lands somewhere on the spectrum between pointless and bad faith.

    Singer's argument is that picture or no picture, near or far we should be retrieving children from the water wherever they fall in it. maybe a good place to start is the Myanmar refugees but that, apparently, is someone else's problem because they couldn't get the photo-op on beaches upon which westerners holiday.

    Singer's logic is clear - if during the coming decades of Islamic reformation, other countries combust, we should get in the pond as many times as it takes to pull out everyone there drowning. If unlike Singer a little unsure of the rightness of this course of action, we can then reach for our go-to argument that the West are partly to blame for anything that has any causal link to the Iraq invasion, as if the small matter of the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring was not the primary cause.