Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence ISBN 0-19-510859-0 is a philosophical book by Peter K. Unger, published in 1996. Inspired by Peter Singer's 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Unger argues that for people in the developed world to live morally, they are morally obliged to make sacrifices to help mitigate human suffering and premature death in the third world, and further that it is acceptable (and morally right) to lie, cheat, and steal to mitigate suffering.
Unger argues that the intuitive moral judgments most people have of several hypothetical moral scenarios, The Shallow Pond, The Vintage Sedan, and The Envelope, are inconsistent.
Unger presents the hypothetical case of The Vintage Sedan:
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.
Unger reports that most people respond strongly that abandoning the hitchhiker is abominable behavior, and he contrasts this near-universal harsh judgment with the lenient judgments most people give to The Envelope:
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.
Unger argues that the factors that distinguish The Envelope from The Vintage Sedan, in which morality compels us to make a sacrifice, are not morally significant, using thought experiments such as variations on the trolley problem to illustrate his point. Unger contends that psychological factors obscure the moral questions, and that our moral intuitions about problems such as these provide an inconsistent window into our true moral values.
Unger conspicuously indicates that the author's royalties from the sales of this book go to UNICEF and to Oxfam America.
My issue with their argument is that they seemed to me to have used a bad analogy between saving the drowning child and donating. These are not analogous cases and the argument seems to rely on an intuition pump that bridges the two cases. That bridging is what gives the bite it has.
In the case of donating money to, say UNICEF, to save children, I believe that the reason people aren't as likely to criticize or blame others or themselves for not donating is because they understand, consciously or subconsciously, that donating commits one to far more than the case of saving the child.
In the case of donating, the case commits one to more, because the argument can iterate itself. Say you donate 10 dollars. The argument can be applied again making an additional $10 donation morally obligatory, and so on until all of one's disposable income is gone such that a person is on the brink of destitution. The demanding obligation does not discharge itself after one donation for most people and may not do so until one is in essential poverty. Both Singer and Unger seems to bite the bullet and see that this unforgiving conclusion must be accepted.
But now notice that there is no more analogy to be made because in the case of the saving of a drowning child, that was just a one-off, incident. The example only asks the reader to save the drowning child once. There is no stipulated or implied further commitments.
Now a better analogy would be made between donating all one's disposable income and something like a scenario where you'd have to continuously save drowning children, say, once every hour for the rest of your life.
I suspect that most people would still say that you are morally required to do so (if you physically can) but that we ought not blame someone for choosing to let all those children die. It is simply too harsh a requirement. It's like asking someone to be a moral saint. We cannot blame someone for their all too human weaknesses especially when we know that we may not have the moral resolve and integrity to choose such a harsh life ourselves. So even though it may be morally required to keep saving children and to donate all our disposable income, people ought not be blamed for not doing so because the demand is too harsh.