Imagine walking along a road past a pond, when out of the corner of your eye you see a toddler boy flailing about in the water. You quickly look around. There is no other adult in sight. If you don’t jump in to save him, no one else will. He will drown. You know what you have to do. You dive right in and drag the drowning toddler from the water.
But what if that little child were drowning—proverbially—half a world away? What would you do to save him then?
This is one of many questions Peter Singer, an Australian professor of bioethics at Princeton University, asks undergraduates during his popular semester-long course on practical ethics. The lecture course covers euthanasia, animal rights, infanticide and abortion, effective altruism, and other weighty topics.
Singer puts a uniquely practical spin on how he gets his students to stretch their thinking. This semester, each discussion group in his course of almost 400 students was given $100 to donate to one of four organizations: the Future of Humanity Institute, the Fistula Foundation, GiveDirectly, and Princeton University. The Future of Humanity Institute is an interdisciplinary research center based at Oxford; the Fistula Foundation provides life-changing surgery to correct a devastating childbirth injury that affects women in poor countries; GiveDirectly is a charity that gives 90 cents of every donated dollar directly to impoverished families in Africa; and Princeton University is, of course, the prestigious Ivy League university these students are attending. Singer is not asking his students to play this giving game just to make things interesting. Singer wants them to consider why Americans and other privileged citizens of affluent countries show so little generosity towards those who have so much less. Why don’t we give more? What gets in our way, and what would it take for us to overcome that?