I ask you to imagine that you are walking across some park that you know quite well, and in this park there is a shallow ornamental pond. Let’s assume that you know that it’s shallow, because on summer days you see teen-agers playing in it, and it’s only waist-deep.

But today, it’s not summer, and nobody is playing in it. But there is something going on, some splashing around in the pond. So you look closely, and you see it’s a small child, a toddler, who has fallen into the pond and is apparently in danger of drowning, because it is too deep for a toddler to stand.

So your first thought is: Well, who’s looking after this child? Where are the parents or the babysitter? There must be somebody. But you look around and, to your dismay, there is nobody. In fact, there is nobody around at all except you and the toddler.

So your next thought presumably is: Well, this child appears to be drowning. Maybe I should jump into the pond and pull the child out, which I know I can do quite safely, at no risk to my life. Oh, but I did just put on my best pair of shoes, and maybe a nice pair of trousers, or whatever it might be, and they’re going to get ruined if I rush into the muddy pond, and I wouldn’t really have time to take them off.

So is that a reason why maybe I don’t have to save the child? Is it going to be okay if, because I don’t want to ruin my shoes or my trousers, I just say, “Well, it’s not my child. I didn’t push the child into the pond. I’m in no way responsible for this child being in a dangerous situation, so I could just be on my way?”

Well, I saw some heads shaking already, and I’m glad to see that. Because most audiences when I do ask that question say, “No, of course that would be totally wrong. It would be horrible to think that somehow your shoes or trousers outweigh a great danger to a child’s life. You forget about that, forget about them, just jump in and pull out the child. Of course I think that is the right answer, and I hope that is what we would all do.

But the way that this relates to global poverty, of course, is that there are children in many developing countries in danger of dying right now. There are things that we could do to help them for something like the cost of an expensive pair of shoes or shoes and your trousers as well. And yet most people are not doing it. So if you are going to condemn the person who fails to save the child because he doesn’t want to incur the expense of replacing the clothes, then don’t you yourself have to at least donate the cost of a pair of expensive shoes and clothes to those organizations that are helping the global poor?

from this interview.

Recall this recent tragedy.

The interview also suggests possible reasons of different reactions:

We have developed compassion and a readiness to help those in distress close to us, at least if we identify them in some way as part of our group, as one of us. So I think we probably would feel that that child in front of us is someone that we ought to rescue, and that we would rescue.

Whereas if you talk about something far away, we never evolved to help people far away that we can’t see. It’s obvious why we didn’t evolve to help them, because until a couple of hundred years ago, at the earliest, maybe even more recently, there was effectively nothing we could do to help them. We couldn’t know what their suffering was. And if we did, we couldn’t assist them in any way in time before they were going to die or whatever else was going to happen to them. So we haven’t evolved with capacities to think about those who are distant.

We also haven’t evolved with capacities to respond to more abstract problems, like the idea that there are—I think UNICEF’s current figure is a little over eight million children dying every year from avoidable poverty-related causes. So a figure like eight million is an abstraction; we can’t quite picture it, and it’s very different from the one child in front of us.

So I think there is that psychological difference. But it’s not really a moral difference. We wouldn’t really think of this as meaning that the child’s life is less valuable if we can’t see them, or they’re far away.