Drown the fat man

Steve Sailer is fond of mocking the hackneyed fat-man-and-trolley thought experiment. While there’s indeed much to mock there, I think it unfairly deprives Peter Singer’s Drowning Child of a much-needed mocking. The latter goes something like this: you’re all dressed up in an expensive suit and nice shoes, and see a child drowning in a shallow pond on your way to work. You can rescue him at no bodily risk, but your clothing will be ruined. The obvious right thing to do here is to sacrifice your designer threads and Italian leather to save the poor kid; Singer has no problem getting something like 100% of the college students he indoctrinates teaches to get onboard with that. The trap has been set — now all he needs to do is to teleport the kid to Africa (and make him starving rather than drowning), and demand to know why these so-called ethical students aren’t regularly donating the cost of a decent outfit for Good Causes.

It’s astonishing to me how many otherwise intelligent people buy this as a valid moral argument. (The Galef-Pigliucci duo certainly did on their podcast, without the meekest of objections.) Yes, they rush to concede, this argument brilliantly exposes our willingness to embrace contradictions. On the one hand, we all agree that we’re morally obligated to ruin expensive clothes to save an unfamiliar child. On the other hand, only a small minority choose to donate a substantial part of their income to fight hunger in Africa. We can only conclude that the majority must lack Singer’s moral sophistication, and those capable of grasping his arguments who still fail to follow through must be egotistical moral monsters.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Singer has already been thoroughly eviscerated on this and other nonsense, but that’s not going to stop me from going full Sailer on him. And so, without further ado…

First of all, whose child is this? Since I’m walking to work on foot, chances are good that this child and I are from the same area and I know the family. And even if I don’t know the family precisely, I can maybe vaguely recall seeing him around. Or maybe this child is family — part of some large, partly inbred extended family, that is. Now only an evil man like Sailer could pursue this line of reasoning, so we’d better abandon it quickly. But before we do, can we agree that I have a greater obligation to family members than to strangers? That perhaps the radius of these expanding circles  Singer draws is inversely proportional to my empathy and obligation level? I don’t think even a hard-liner like Singer would deem it unethical to have higher empathy (and hence willingness to sacrifice more) for one’s son than for a random child — to hold otherwise violates the most basic, primal human instincts. But to concede this point is to step right into my trap. Next thing you know, you’re an invited speaker at hate-events.

Secondly, is this drowning child going to be a one-shot deal or a daily occurrence on my way to work? (The income-donation analogy, to be meaningful, requires the latter.) Because, y’know, after a few dives in the pond, I might start seeking a new route to work. (I’m kidding. I’d take the kid to his parents and give them a stern warning to keep him away from that pond.)


A standard “serious” objection to the fat man and the trolley is that we hesitate to push him to his death for the same reason that we don’t hack apart a healthy man and use his organs to save several lives. It’s some principle of bystanders not being made an unwilling party to someone’s misfortune. In other words, if the trolley rail has a fork and I must decide between a fat slob and 10 cherubic kids, then bye-bye blimpy. He’s not being made a party to this predicament; he’s in the predicament. But if he’s a bystander who can just walk away from this, the above principle dictates that we not drag him into it.

3 thoughts on “Drown the fat man

  1. J.B.S. Haldane’s reply when asked if he would give his life to save a drowning brother:

    “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

    — as quoted in Mathematical Models of Social Evolution : A Guide for the Perplexed (2007) by Richard McElreath and Robert Boyd, p. 82; as you share on average half your alleles with a brother and one-eighth with a cousin, Haldane was giving the number of relatives one would have to save to “break even”.


    1. It would have been more correct to say that the empathy decreases as the *square* of the radius of the expanding circle, which is proportional to the number of people such a circle would fit.

      Liked by 1 person

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