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We're in a taxi on our way to the airport in Mumbai, India. Which is much the same as saying that we are stuck in a very large traffic jam. It is about 10 o'clock at night. There is a knock on the window. Neither of us turn to look; we have been in India for some weeks now and we know what it is. Outside the window will be a small boy of 7 or 8 years and he'll have matches or a newspaper or cigarettes for sale. He'll be wearing a dirty, faded T-shirt, come full circle from the sweatshop; he'll have ragged trousers caked in dirt, and he'll be barefoot.
We know that if we don't look at him he'll knock a few more times and then wander off into the five lanes of congestion and smog. We know that if we do look at him he'll start his sales pitch. This 7 year old has lines that would make a man five times his age blush. He'll recognise the possibility—probability—that we are, at some level, soft and susceptible. “Please, please, please” he'll moan. Maybe crocodile tears. Sometimes when crying he'll look away to his friends (his family?) and smile. Then he'll catch us watching him do it, and smile, slyly and cynically at us. Forgive me; sometimes I might smile back.
Change the scene. We're in London, or Brisbane, or Glasgow. Same time at night, same traffic jam, same 7 or 8 year old boy. This is where I get hazy. You see,
I'd like to say that I'd leap out of the taxi, sweep the child up into my arms and carry him to safety, give him my coat, take him to a police station, call a social worker. No police or social worker? Well, I'd like to think that I'd do something. Anything. Anything, that is, except look straight ahead and hope, wish, that he'd go away.
It's different of course. Mumbai isn't Brisbane, and, besides, we liberals have the ultimate get out clause: “You can't do everything”. Peter Singer, in his book “Writings on an Ethical Life” quotes another ethicist, Peter Unger, describing an interesting thought experiment. There is this man who, instead of having a retirement plan, has a valuable Bugatti motor car, in which he has invested everything. It is his financial security for the future; without it his retirement will be a long, hard struggle. He can't insure it, but loves to drive it and so takes it out one day. Perhaps foolishly, he parks at the end of a railway sidings, and heads off for a walk. However, as he is passing a set of railway points he notices two things. Firstly, there is a child on the track, a little way away. Secondly, there is a runaway train, with no one on board, heading towards this child. Standing at the points, there is no time to run to the child, or to run and move his car. He is faced with a stark alternative: divert the train into the sidings and destroy his beloved Bugatti—and with it his financial security—or stand and watch the child be killed.
I don't think that there is a choice in this situation. I think the Bugatti has to go. But then you get to the next part. Similar scenario; still the Bugatti or the child, but the owner is sitting at a computer the other side of the world, with control over the way that the points direct the train. The immediacy of today's technology means he can have a nearly instant impact; financial security versus the child's life. Again, the choice seems pretty easy.
Shift the scenario a little more; instead of the Bugatti and the points, there is a telephone and a credit card. Again, financial security versus the child's life. What would you do now? I sat in that taxi in Mumbai and stared straight ahead; focusing on the Bugatti. I muttered soothing liberal justifications to myself: “There are just too many”, “You can't do everything”, “You work pretty hard and give money to charity as it is”. I sat in the taxi and watched the train bearing down, closer and closer to the points.
Funny really; I'd thought I was better than that.