In a simple case, the duty of rescue is easy to recognise: As you are traveling on a path by a pond, you hear a woman scream and see a small child sink into the water. You run into the shallows (at no risk to yourself), save the child, and return it to its mother’s arms, at the cost of a few minutes’ time and the wetting of your shoes and socks. Obviously, that’s what you should do in this case. If for some reason you are unable to do this — you are confined to a wheelchair, for example – you must at least feel like saving the child. Most people would feel that way, as Mencius famously pointed out, arguing that we all have a natural potential for goodness.
It’s not so easy to see what to do in every case, however. Suppose you are able to save this child, but only at the cost of letting five other children drown. Most of us would save the five, although we would feel that losing the other carries a moral cost. Or suppose you are caregiver for one child and have promised to keep it safe. Then you have a specific duty to that child that may outweigh your duty to save strangers. Suppose, again, that the waters are deep and turbulent, and you would be taking a huge risk to your own life if you try to save the drowning child; if you dived in, you would have a one in five chance of surviving and a one in ten chance of saving the child. In such a case, you have a good excuse for not making the attempt, unless you have taken the responsibility of a lifeguard for this stretch of shoreline, in which case you have undertaken a more demanding duty of rescue than is incumbent on a mere passer-by.
If rescue entails saving a life, then rescue must often go beyond pulling a child from a pond. Rescue may entail a commitment for the long term.Suppose that, in the first case, the mother is alone and starving; in that case, pulling the child from the water is not enough to save its life. If you merely pull the child out and set it on the bank, it will die in the next few hours. Leaving it on the bank is little better than leaving it in the pond. Mother and child will need food and medical attention, and not just for today, but for the long run if the child is to survive. The duty of rescue may be demanding.
How far does your duty of rescue take you away from the journey that took you down that path in the first place? What sacrifices of time and wealth are incumbent on you in view of the real demands of rescue? The recent case of the young soccer players who were towed out of a cave in Thailand illustrates the issue clearly. These boys were already living on the margin. Some of them, like their coach, were stateless refugees. They are only a few of the many stateless refugees in the world today, many of whom will die if sent back into the situation from which they fled. Sending them back would be like throwing the child from my first example back into the pond to drown. A genuine rescue cannot end until the child you rescue is in safe hands. But whose safe hands are they supposed to be? Yours? If that exceeds your capacity, then you are involved in what I call the corporate duty of rescue. Even a short-term rescue may exceed your private capacity; no one person acting alone could have pulled the boys in Thailand from the rising waters.
When no one acting alone could effect a rescue, then, if indeed there is a duty of rescue, it must fall on some sort of corporate or social entity. What is your duty as a private individual in such a case? Does it matter whether you are a passer-by (as in the first case) or a neighbour? If it matters that you are a neighbour, what counts as a neighbour? That, after all, was the question addressed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. Could it be that every human being is your neighbour for this purpose? Then we face a further question: Of the many social entities that might effect rescues, to which ones do you have an obligation under the duty of rescue? Do you have a duty to give time or money to any group or institution whatever that rescues children or looks after them after plucking them out of ponds or caves? These issues are murky, much murkier than the issue raised by the story with which we began.
A single pondside emergency is one thing, an unceasing worldwide emergency that takes many lives each day seems like another, and yet both kinds of emergency seem to trigger the same sort of duty: the duty to save whatever human lives we can save without undue risk to our own. On close analysis, however, we will find that there are at least three different kinds of duty involved in these cases. Some duties belong to us as a result of choices we have deliberately made, others arise as a matter of justice, and still others from the general values of philanthropy. My first case was simply philanthropic. Philanthropic duties are what Kant called wide or imperfect, as there may be many ways of carrying them out. Duties of choice and duties of justice, by contrast, are specific and leave less latitude.
We choose duties when we promise to do something. Often, we do this when joining organisations that require duties of their members.When you join the U. S. Marines, you undertake a duty, rooted in long tradition, to attempt to rescue your fellow Marines when they are in danger, even at great risk to your own life. As a passer-by you are not obliged to risk your life to save the child in the pond if the water is treacherous. But the case of the Marines is different; you cannot consider yourself a mere passer-by when a fellow Marine is in danger. You have chosen otherwise. Firefighters, lifeguards, and policemen have all chosen to take on more demanding duties of rescue than fall upon passers-by; they have assumed a higher degree of risk in rescue operations. Some family obligations are duties of choice: you are choosing certain duties when you choose to have a family. In doing so, you may make yourself more philanthropic, coming to care more than you would otherwise for the children of others. U. S. Marines do not restrict themselves to their chosen duty; they have a record of bravery in saving non-marines, as in the flight from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Duties of choice are more specific and more demanding than ones that are merely philanthropic, but practicing them may build your capacity to be more philanthropic in general.
Duties of justice fall into two groups with regard to rescue. First is your duty of justice to avoid freeloading. If you are a beneficiary of a practice of rescue, you have a duty to contribute your fair share to that practice. Sailors rescue other sailors when they find them in danger. Even if no one has ever rescued you at sea, you are safer because of this practice, and therefore you are among its beneficiaries. As such, you are obliged to do your part. The same goes for any safety net, such as your local food bank, which rescues people from hunger and might rescue you some day. You may never draw on the food bank, but it is there for you if you need it. Such safety nets as food banks are especially important under governments that neglect to provide them at taxpayer expense. Safety nets are beneficial to you even if you never fall into them, just as fire insurance is worth money to you even if you never lose anything in a fire. Your fair share of the food bank is hard to calculate, but this at least is clear: If you benefit from its presence you must not be a freeloader. Give something.
Second is your duty of justice to return stolen property. If you find yourself in possession of stolen wealth, you have a duty to return it to its rightful owners. In doing so, if the owners are desperately poor, you will save them from drowning in hunger or ill health. Kant argued that great inequalities of wealth represent injustices that the wealthy have a duty to remedy, as a matter of justice. Great wealth is, in effect, stolen property and must be returned to those from whom it was extorted. Justice demands that stolen wealth be given not to those to whom it would do the most good, but to those who rightfully own it. To the extent that the wealth of the first world was extorted from the third, the first world has a duty to return wealth to the third world, and, in doing so, to rescue many people from desperate poverty and ill health. But some of the rightful owners of your wealth may live in the first world, in the very shadow of your wealth. You owe a return to them as well, even though you could rescue more people by applying the same amount to the third world. Third world rescues are less expensive than first world rescues, but that is not relevant to the duty of justice.
Ethical giving requires attention to all three kinds of duty. Some effective altruists argue that we must always do the most good that we can in our charitable giving. That’s good philanthropy, but it cannot exhaust our ethical duties. If we followed that rule, we would give only to the organisations that are most efficient in saving lives or health, and these operate almost exclusively in the third world. In restricting our giving in this way, we would neglect local obligations we have chosen, as well as our duties of justice, some of which are local. Ethical givers keep all of this in mind: global needs, our chosen duties, and the call of justice.