Human test

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2011, 12:00am


The Australian philosopher Peter Singer devised a thought experiment in his classic essay on global justice, titled Famine, Affluence and Morality. Singer asks his reader to imagine that a small child is drowning in a nearby pond. Without assistance, this child will soon die. Singer presumes that any reasonable passerby will immediately help the child, jumping into the pond without concern for their shoes or clothes. Singer extrapolates this argument to an international level, asserting that transport and technology have rendered distance morally irrelevant: even if the small child is on the other side of the globe, we are morally obliged to help.

Singer's argument hinges on the supposedly uncontroversial premises that, first, suffering is bad, and, second, if we are in a position to do something about suffering without undue burden to ourselves, we ought morally to do it. Recent events in Foshan, in which a toddler was left critically injured, and later died, after being run over by two vans is a poignant counterpoint to this reasoning.

There has been a great deal of soul-searching about what others would have done had they been present at the time of the accident. The CCTV footage of the incident depicts a number of people walking past with relative indifference. Many viewers on the mainland and overseas have derided the passersby for their heartlessness. A handful, however, have noted that they would not have paused to help the little girl either, for fear of being held to blame for the accident - the potential financial burden far outweighing any moral or ethical duty of assistance.

Although this tragedy is an extreme example of a lack of humanity and compassion for the innocent and helpless, it raises questions about what we owe each other as human beings. Treating others as human beings requires equal moral concern and respect. It means seeing the value in others not solely in terms of their financial worth (or cost) but in capabilities, aspirations and opportunities.

The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant's famous imperative is to treat others as ends in themselves, and not merely as the means to an end. Treating others as human beings also requires acting like one too; leaving a child to die in the street is behaviour unbefitting even the lowest of primates.

With less than 10 weeks to go until 2012, now is as good a time as any to take stock of our current situation. Socrates, philosophy's most distinguished martyr, argued that the unexamined life is one that is not worth living. What this means is that, in order to be worthwhile, it is important to think about and evaluate our own lives. But rather than thinking about what others can do for you, why not think about what you can do for others?

The average Post reader is relatively affluent and can make a difference. This doesn't always have to manifest itself financially, but can entail donations of time and energy (like volunteering) as well as other resources (such as clothes, books or even blood).

In Hong Kong, we sometimes like to comfort ourselves with the thought that what lies across the border is a whole different world. But, rather than chastising those passersby and taking solace in the thought that things are different here, why not take the opportunity to prove it?

Rachel Tsang is a PhD candidate and has taught political theory at the London School of Economics