The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle

Old but classic thought experiment about ethics and our responsibilities to others. Have somehow not made meaningful use of this with my students but now that Ethics is no longer its own AOK, maybe it’s time to find a place for it. Below is a selection from the full text. Click on the link below.

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;–.htm

Here is a version of the thought experiment presented as a series of questions and answers.

If you want a video adaptation of it:

All of this is connects to the concept of effective altruism

The nonprofit, GiveWell, is “dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give.” It tries to
“determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent.”

Read more about the organization and their recommended charities.


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