Save a life in 3 minutes

February 1, 2014 • 1:21 pm

A reader who is taking Paul Bloom’s free online course “Moralities of everyday life” (it started Jan. 20), sent me this short video that Bloom uses in the course.  It’s based on Peter Singer’s argument on why we’re obligated to help strangers, and I find it very convincing.

The link at the end to The Life You Can Save site, which recommends some good charities. I also recommend using Charity Navigator, an American site that rates charities based on their effectiveness, financial transparency, and the proportion of donations actually used to help people. I was pleased to see that Doctors Without Borders, the Official Website Charity™, gets the highest rating (4 stars), and gives nearly 87% of its income for its medical program.

I’ve also used Charity Watch (formerly the the American Institute of Philanthropy), which has a convenient page giving the top-ranking charities by area (international relief & development, environmental protection, child protection, literacy, women’s rights, and so on). They give Doctors Without Borders an “A” rating, just a tad lower than the highest, A+.

h/t: Miss May

38 thoughts on “Save a life in 3 minutes

  1. Well, if Bart Ehrman’s NT analysis interests you, when you subscribe as a Member, 100% of the membership fee goes to charities that Ehrman vets.

  2. An interesting TED talk re the concept of proportion of charitable donations going to “direct” help (amongst other things).

    It even stops midway to take a poke at Puritans (although sadly for this audience, it seems rushed and nonsensical… possible a topic for a whole other talk).

  3. Poverty is a difficult problem, and the contributions that regular people make to organizations such as MSF definitely help.


    The real problem is societal and structural.

    There’re a couple dozen individuals on this planet who, collectively, have as much wealth as half the entire human population.

    There’s another small handful who, again, collectively, have as much as 99% of the other half of the population.

    It is quite reasonable and expected for some people to be wealthier than others.

    It is unreasonable in the extreme for a single person to have as much wealth as a billion other people combined.

    That is the real problem we need to solve.



    1. Ben,

      You absolutely right about that poverty being not a real problem.

      But I’d say the extreme income inequality is not THE REAL PROBLEM either.

      The thing is democracy and capitalism, as natural as it is, is unsustainable in the long run; much like 7 billion people are unsustainable either.

      But even that is not a problem.

      THE PROBLEM is the homo sapience as an organism-whole runs on automatic pilot and there is no any single group of people anywhere that want to throw their life under the bus for the well-being of distant descendants.

      We are not eusocial species and we are not using what science has discovered to speed up evolution of our institutions towards that end.

      We do not even give it any thought not to mention any action.

      Poverty will always will be with us for as long as people think they have the rights and freedoms to have children and/or “make” and spend as much money as they can on whatever they feel like as long as it is legal (and if it is not the laws can always be re-written since the average man always has time only for survival)

      1. THE PROBLEM is the homo sapience as an organism-whole runs on automatic pilot and there is no any single group of people anywhere that want to throw their life under the bus for the well-being of distant descendants.

        The problem with your problem is that the solution doesn’t involve the type of self-sacrifice you describe.

        Quite the opposite, in fact.

        Overpopulation is overwhelmingly driven by poverty; it is the poorest nations that have the highest birth rates, and birth rates decline over time with national wealth. And once you escape the sort of abject poverty that drives people to have as many children as they possibly can with the hope that a few will survive to take care of their grandparents in their infirmity, the next strongest factors are education and empowerment of women — and, of course, access to birth control.

        Solve the poverty problem and population levels will naturally not only level off but decline; save for immigration, most of the industrialized world has negative population growth.

        The next most significant global problem is the double-whammy of carbon pollution and the exhaustion of fossil fuels. But, again, the answer isn’t self-deprivation; the answer is solar. There’s already enough square footage on American rooftops alone to power the entire planet, and that’s even if we use energy-intensive processes such as condensing atmospheric CO2 and using the Fischer-Tropsch process to turn it into hydrocarbon fuels. It would be a massive capital expenditure, yes, to build out the infrastructure…but not nearly as massive as what we’ve already done for fossil fuels (and the destructive military orgies to support the industries).

        The best part about solar is that today, right now, it’s the best financial investment you can personally make in the developed world. My own roof is covered in panels, generating about half again as much electricity as I use — enough to power the electric vehicle I’ll someday buy. My panels will have paid for themselves after about seven years from initial purchase; if you remember the Rule of 70, that works out to about a 10% annual rate of return, a phenomenal result in today’s economy.

        …and that brings us right back to the question of income inequality. Much of the wealth of the top 1% is literally fueled by petrochemical extraction. Were solar to take off in a big way, the top 1% might move down to the top 5%, which they would view as absolutely unacceptable. Thus, they’re happy to leverage their monopolies of capital into even greater monopolies of capital, even if it means burning up the rest of the planet in the process.

        I don’t know if we’ll escape the looming self-made global catastrophe. I’m not particularly optimistic. But, I do know that, if we do, it’ll be because the human race lifted itself out of poverty and into prosperity, not because we sacrificed ourselves on the altar of asceticism.



  4. A comment on giving: most of us automatically pass on our property to relatives. It makes more sense to give children what they need when they need it, (for well-to-do Americans, this might cover first car, first degree,first house downpayment, first wedding).

    Live comfortably but not extravagantly, and give what you feel moved to.

    Then once your offspring are self-supporting rewrite your will so that the survivor of a couple leaves the bulk of their estate to charities, not children.

    1. In a similar vein, there’s also an overwhelmingly powerful argument that aid is properly the role of government, just as building roads and inspecting foods and putting out fires is.

      It’s also not much of a controversial position, either; it’s exactly the purpose and function of social welfare programs, from AFDC to WIC to food stamps to the EIC to Section 8 housing to unemployment insurance to FEMA.

      In a truly healthy society, private charity is exactly the same sort of luxury as private schools or private healthcare. There for those who want it and are lucky enough to be wealthy enough to afford it, but everybody else, regardless of wealth, is guaranteed access to basic (and good) education and care.

      We have much of that domestically and are generally headed in that direction for ourselves somewhat for the most part maybe. That’s clearly not the case globally, which is where foundations like MSF help pick up the slack.



  5. Science’s and, thus, .THE. greatest invention EVER ?

    . Over all the World ? Over all of Time ? .

    . — chemical birth control — .

    “education” important ? maybe. perhaps. but: not likely.

    Education will do squat unless it is specifically defined as: ” THE elimination of sexism over all the World over all of the Present and the Future. ” ( And NOT as “ encouraging the elimination of ” or “ promoting the elimination of “ or “ trying to stop the “ or “ attempting to empower folks to do The Right Thing “ or other such teaching.teaching.teaching – talk. IF one is always a teacher, then one is hardly … … teachable. )

    The elimination of sexism ? That, alone, will — .guaranteed. — eliminate poverty. Worldwide.

    The elimination of sexism ? The elimination of sexism dudn’t require ANY education. It ? It is THE cheapest and THE most readily available commodity there is. The elimination of sexism requires only a will.

    A will to do so.

    O, but wait: a will to do so … … required ? Thus, soooo not gonna happen.


    ps Bring it on: the blowback. I am used to it: s.o.o.o.o. used to it.

    pps: Challenge me, as you wish, on the “greatest invention ever” deal, too. Sex ? And subsequent populations … … thereafter ? That is not ever ceasing … … thankfully.

    1. This — likely .NOT. available at your local public library ( for the above – stated ‘ reason ‘ about requiring a ‘ will ‘, let alone, one to do more than teach ) — is American Experience’s explanation of The Greatest Invention over all the World over all of Time: .


  6. Save a life in three minutes, how about that? My son and I were eating at a Chinese buffet, when a woman at another table started choking. My son went over and did the Heimlich Maneuver and got her throat cleared. That’s saving a life in three minutes on the cheap.

  7. Jerry,
    I wonder if you’ve ever crossed paths with Dan Pallotta since you are both on the advisory board of Harris’s Project Reason non-profit. He had some interesting things to say on how much of a charity’s funds go toward helping people vs. overhead or marketing. He has a YouTube video discussing these points. I agree that it’s hard to do much better than Doctors Without Borders.

  8. I’m taking that course currently, and really enjoying it.

    As to Singer’s argument, it does seem prima facie reasonable. What I’m not clear on is what the implications are for this. Yes, I’d be willing to forego a pair of shoes to save a life – but does that mean that I shouldn’t ever buy new shoes (or any other luxury good) in the future? Is it okay to do it sometimes but not others? That the obligation is murky is not an excuse for inaction, but where does the moral obligation lie?

  9. [For the record, I sponsor ActionAid to provide education to children in Somalia/Ethiopia.]

    The analogy in the video and, originally, in Peter Singer’s argument between the girl in the pond and the girl in Africa is flawed.
    In the first example, I am the ONLY person who can save a SPECIFIC girl. In the second example, I am one out of millions who may save one unspecified girl out of millions. Whereas in the first case it is my personal and immediate responsibility to decide whether to save a specific girl for whose death I alone would be responsible, in the second case, it is not my personal and immediate responsibility to do so. A completely different set of issues applies, chiefly how to escape the prisoner’s dilemma whereby everybody expects everybody else to take action. In the latter case, the most efficient action may not be to send aid individually to help one unspecified individual, but rather to advocate and campaign for systemic change.
    For example, any action that diminishes the influence in Africa of the RC church may in fact save some lives than an individual (average) donation.
    One could go on about the unsatisfactory philosophical basis of Singer’s position, but may be not.

  10. I must say, I don’t find that sort of video convincing. Sure, I’d help someone drowning in a pond and I’d be willing to contribute money to support certain causes but I’m not convinced there’s any ethical obligation to do so. I can see good ethical arguments against actions which are harmful to others but not so much to doing things that help others.

    They’re obviously good but the situations seem too vague. Donating a little money is good, but donating more is better. It’s always going to be better to donate more until I’m only keeping that which is necessary for survival. At that point there doesn’t seem to be a place to enjoy one’s own life, which seems to me a waste.

    So in the end I have to say that helping is great and it raises my respect and esteem for a person. However, while pushing someone into the pond to drown is obviously unethical, I find it very difficult to find good reasoning why just walking past the pond would be unethical (It’s obviously a dick move though).

    1. You should help the drowning girl because you are the only person who can help her, and because, if you ever want others to help you when you’re in similar need (such as trapped under a burning car wreck), then you should work to create an environment in which offering that sort of help is the norm..

      The poverty-on-the-other-side-of-the-world question is more complicated, mainly because you’re not the only person who can help and because it’s not just one person needing help…and because the real help needed isn’t a simple drowning rescue but structural reform of an entrenched society.

      Donating aid is good to do, but it’s a bandage in a triage situation. It helps, but it’s nowhere near sufficient and it doesn’t dramatically change the likely outcomes. It’s a drop in a flood. Yes, with no drops there would be no flood…but, the flood will still be a flood if you’re addressing it a single drop at a time. In such cases, your resources might be better spent filling sandbags, or helping relocate people out of floodplains, or that sort of thing rather than bailing water out of somebody’s living room.



      1. I seem to remember that in at least some versions, Singer goes on to ask “if there are other people who could stop and help the drowning child but don’t, does that absolve you of responsibility to stop?”

        If someone IS helping the child in the pond or if someone IS helping every last child in distant lands, you’re off the hook. If they COULD help but DON’t, and you still CAN help, it’s still on you.

      2. I get the helping so others will help you as a good principle for guiding one’s actions, I’m just not sure that creates an obligation to help in the same way I see it creating an obligation not to harm. We could say harming would be anything that violating personal autonomy, but helping isn’t based on any particular right.

        If I were walking down a road and passed three people, one drowning, one trying to change a flat tyre and one sorting a deck of cards, would I obligated to help every single one of them? What would determine which ones it’s okay not to help? It’s always possible to help someone.

        Looking at the drowning situation again. You say I must help because I’m the only one who can. That seems to imply my responsibility is over as soon as there are more people who can help. Which would suggest it’d be wrong for me, alone, to watch someone drown but perfectly fine for a group of people to watch someone drown, as no one person there is the only one who can help.

        1. Since we’re getting more detailed, permit me to suggest Three Good Rules that I think you’ll find represent an effective strategy for living in a society such as ours:

          I. Do not do unto others as they do not wish to be done unto.

          (The First Rule may be broken only to the minimum degree necessary to otherwise preserve it.)

          II. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

          III. An it harm none, do what thou will.

          The rules must be applied in that order. For example, following the second rule is not permissible in circumstances which require violating the first rule (except as provided for by the Exception).

          So, you’re right. Tossing the girl in the lake would be bad, very bad. (Unless she were a ninja terrorist little girl beating up a bunch of little old ladies in a retirement home, of course.)

          If you’d like people to rescue you when you’re drowning in a lake, you should, as you are able, rescue them. But if you’re happy with a bunch of people standing by watching you drown, then, no, you don’t have any obligation to be the one to jump into the water.

          And, lastly, even if you don’t care whether or not other people will help you out of immediate life-threatening situations, if that’s the sort of thing that you’d like to do or otherwise would get a kick out of, by all means, jump right in.



          1. They are good rules, though they’re shortcuts, not the actual reasoning. I’m trying to find the reasoning which would say in what situations one should help and when it’s optional and the amount of effort one should expend.

            As an everyday example, I want people to let me into a lane when I’m driving. So, of course, I let others in when they want to come in. But I’m only going to let a couple of cars in, I’m not going to wait until no more cars want to get, which could take hours. Presumably no one would object to that.

            Now let’s say there’s a starving child and I give the child a meal, as I’d want in the same situation. Now there are hundreds of starving children (probably literally in my case), would I then have to keep giving until I can give no more? In the video, that wasn’t what was said but it didn’t say why.

            Those examples say to me that helping is not an obligation, it’s an act of generosity. I doubt you’d find a similar situation where you could say you didn’t hurt X number of people, so it’s now okay to hurt them. I see avoiding harm (at least unrequested harm) as an obligation.

            1. I think where you’re getting tripped up is that the help / don’t help question is a binary one being applied to a continual problem.

              Can you help one person? Yes. Can you help everybody? No. But where’s the dividing line? Seven people? Seven thousand? Seventy? But if you can help seven, why not eight? If you can’t help seventy, could you help sixty?

              Eventually, a line must be drawn somewhere, but there’s no valid place to draw the line.

              So, you do the best you can. What else is there to do? And, no, your best won’t ever be enough, no matter how good it is — but, then, we’ve already established that, so there’s no point in beating yourself up over that fact. Just do what you can the best you can.

              There’s another factor to consider. If you try to help too many people, you’ll wind up in need of help, yourself, or otherwise wind up making things worse. Your traffic example is a good one. Let too many people merge and you block traffic behind you. Or, to go back to the case of the drowning girl: if you yourself can’t swim, you’re under no obligation to try to rescue her that way (though you probably are under an obligation to call 9-1-1). Imagine you yourself are drowning, and somebody who himself can’t swim tries to save you. If a lifeguard actually makes it on the scene, her ability to save you is jeopardized by the well-intentioned incompetence of the would-be hero — not what the drowning girl wants, not you’d want at all for yourself, so don’t do it.



              1. I guess I could just leave it as a sort of fuzzy grey area. Help people when it can be done without inordinate amount of risk to oneself and with increasing importance according to their need and other potential sources of help. Not hugely satisfying but I guess it’s practical and some help is better than none.

              2. That’s a pretty good place to start from, actually.

                So long as you don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, you’re probably in good shape.


              3. This discussion sounded trollish to me, but perhaps I’m too cynical. (Noooo!)

                I do think you’re making it entirely too complicated, at least regarding the nearby drowning girl. IMO it’s simply a matter of, can you live with yourself if you don’t help or not?

                There are good evolutionary reasons for us to have empathy; I suppose the strength of that emotion may vary from one person to another, but IME most of us have a pretty good sense of it and generally try to act accordingly when the situation is as black and white as this one.

              4. Our moral intuitions are generally helpful, but not always. Certainly, in the case of the drowning girl, they are. But your moral intuition might also be to pop somebody one in the mouth after he said something disparaging, and that would generally not be the wisest course of action.

                As such, I think it’s helpful, even if in response to a trollish comment, to engage in a dispassionate analysis of these sorts of things.

                But, yeah…after you’ve figured out that you really should help the drowning girl, it’s not at all a bad idea to let your emotions guide you if you encounter that sort of situation in the real world, as those types of shortcuts can save precious seconds from the decision-making process.


              5. I certainly agree that our best course of action is probably dictated by some combination of reasoning & emotion, an approach that’s been adaptive over the millennia.

                And despite my cynicism my first response to possible trolls is to give them the benefit of the doubt, too. At least overtly.

                Be careful, though–someone will accuse you of committing philosophy. 😀

              6. Oh, it doesn’t take much to get people to accuse you of committing philosophy. Hell, drop some fruit from the balcony a la Newton and you’ll get accused of committing theology!

                As annoying as it gets, I try to use it as an opportunity to point out that the difference is independently-confirmable evidence, which the philosophers eschew in favor of the purity of righteousness.

                For example, as you note, we’ve generally done reasonably well with moral decisions made with both emotion and reason working in concert, with those who lean too heavily upon the one or the other being more likely to go astray. Perhaps we can improve upon it, and we should certainly strive to do so, but the evidence points to that as a good starting point.


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