A challenging thought experiment

October 28, 2011

As I’ve written before, the philosophy of Peter Singer grosses me out. A new article in Commonweal describes Singer’s new openness to engage with Christian ethicists who profoundly disagree with him—and suggests that maybe there are some points of agreement after all. I have no idea, and that’s not really what interests me about this article.

What interests me is Singer’s “shallow pond” thought experiment, which the article describes briefly. My question is, How should a Christian answer this thought experiment? Or… Can we answer it in a way that wouldn’t require a dramatic change in our lifestyle? Just think about it.

Singer’s famous “shallow pond” thought experiment is in some ways similar, both in form and purpose, to the parable of the Good Samaritan. (In the thought experiment, Singer asks the reader what he or she would think if someone decided not to rescue a drowning child because it would require them to ruin a pair of expensive shoes. If you think that is terribly selfish, then, says Singer, you should also find it terribly selfish for people to buy those expensive shoes in the first place when they could instead send the money they’re spending on the shoes to an international relief organization.)

3 Responses to “A challenging thought experiment”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    An interesting thought. I don’t think his conclusion stands up to reason. An immediate life in danger is someone the Lord has “crossed our paths” with, and certainly very few things, if any, would justify our refusing to give aid. However, as Jesus pointed out, “The poor you will always have with you.” We should certainly give support for “the poor around the world,” but regardless of such efforts on our part (at least as individuals), we aren’t going to wipe out poverty, disease, etc. I think the emphasis on the tithe is that we must be willing to give substantially, but God certainly expects us to take care of our own lives and our families’ lives as well. Part of that is clothes, obviously. I don’t think that if God has blessed you financially and you are very generous with what God has given you, that you have to buy the cheapest thing on the rack. Consider the patriachs with all their wealth, King David, King Solomon, etc. It is more a question of being willing to give anything and everything if you understand God to be calling you to that “special calling.”

    Nevertheless, there is also something to be said for not being “extravagant” to an unseemly degree in a world of need. Personally (and I am certainly not the one to judge–“Judge nothing before the time”), I would have a hard time with a devoted Christian owing a yatch, for example. But that is a tough call on the margin, which I would leave to men better than myself. We have to remember that a year’s wages worth of perfume for the Master’s feet was more appropriately used that way than to feed the poor, Jesus said. Perhaps even a yatch can be used for the glory of God.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Good thoughts, as always. The perfume was used exclusively in service to the Lord, though. There was nothing left over for the woman. I don’t think this example solves the problem.

      It’s not a question of our saving a life OR helping ourselves. The question is, is there a way we can do both? It might involve not buying extravagant things for ourselves (not the same as depriving ourselves) so that we’ll have more to give to others.

      I don’t know… I’m the biggest hypocrite on this issue. I tithe, but I don’t believe that tithing lets me off the hook. I could still give plenty more by living on plenty less.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Good point about the perfume. My thought was that sometimes things somewhat extravagant can be largely devoted to the Lord; such as, a former Sunday School teacher of mine had a large house, but he would have our entire classs and our kids over on Sunday nights for fellowship (plus pay for all the food!)–great times.

        Also, I believe there is a verse that says, God gives us all good things richly to enjoy. I think there is something to be said for our not feeling “guilty” that we have nice stuff. A balancing process, though, and, as you say, usually we err on the side of too much for us and too little for others.


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