Shallow Pond and Charity
Topics: Charity, morally required actions, supererogatory actions, beneficence
Grade level: Middle School
Time: 50 minutes
Objectives: To encourage students to consider what duties we might have to those less fortunate, to consider the differences between actions that are morally required vs. morally permissible, and to provide an exercise in analogical argumentation
Materials needed: Piece of paper, writing utensil
First ask the students what makes an action “good” and what makes an action “wrong.” Create a list on the board. Some things often brought up for good actions are that they are directed at helping others, are beneficial in some way, and aren’t against the law. For wrong actions, some qualities brought up are how wrong actions harm others, are selfish, and are cruel in some way.
Then introduce Peter Singer’s “Shallow Pond” case, which goes like this:
“Imagine that on a walk one day, you go past a shallow pond. You notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy, but it means that your clothes will be ruined. Do you have any obligation to rescue the child?”
If you replace “you” with a character seen from the third-person, students will often have strong intuitions that the character should save the child. Whichever you use, ask the students what is morally required, if anything.
This should produce a natural discussion wherein students disagree about whether this action is absolutely morally necessary or just a nice thing to do.
Create a list, from the discussion, of reasons one must help the child and reasons why it may be permissible not to save the child.
Then introduce a second case, that runs like this:
“In a foreign country, a small child is very close to dying of malnutrition. For less than the cost of your clothes, you could donate money and save the child. Are you morally required to do so?”
Many more students will say that this is not morally required. Often students will explicitly connect the two cases, but, if they do not, draw out the connection. Ask them what makes the two cases different.
After some discussion, have the students write down their view in response to this question:
What kinds of help are we morally required to give to other people?
After a few minutes of writing, ask them to share their response with each other in partner groups, and then ask for volunteer to share their responses with the class.
Ask the class what they think of each response, giving them time to articulate their views about the topic.
(Optional) Peter Singer expresses his view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sagg2C30RMk
This lesson plan was contributed by Dustyn Addington.