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Am I My Brothers' Keeper?

December 11, 2009

Am I my brothers' keeper?

Imagine you're walking across a park and see a child fallen into a shallow pond. No-one else is in sight. If you don't go to the rescue, the child may drown.

But you're wearing expensive shoes, and wading in the water will ruin them. Either you rescue the child and ruin your shoes, or you risk the child, but your shoes are fine.

What would you do? When philosopher Peter Singer tells this story, everyone says, "save the child." But, why that child?

Every year about ten million children die from preventable causes: from dysentery, malaria, hunger. Many could be saved for the price of the shoes.

What are our obligations to these children? They are not in front of our eyes, our immediate responsibility. Does distance mean that their lives don't matter, or don't matter as much?

Perhaps if we have the means, we have an obligation to help people in need, even if we don't know them. But shouldn't charity begin at home?

What should we do first: help those in our own country or rescue those most in need? Does distance matter?

As important, how great is our obligation? How much should we give?

Many would say that our responsibilities are primarily to our families, our kin, our community. Even if responsibilities are only to those close to us, how big are they: spare change, the cost of shoes, a day's wages, their basic necessities, 10 percent of our income?

What do you think? Am I my sisters' keeper? Which sisters, and how well kept?

By Madeleine Lynn

For more on this topic, see Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

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