Living at the country club that is Bowdoin College, I often forget just how much suffering there is in this world. Deep in the stress and sleep deprivation we all experience as Bowdoin students, I consistently fail to recognize that my life is charmed beyond measure and that my experience at this school is, for the most part, one wonderful experience after another. To state the obvious, I am immensely privileged, and so, dear reader, are you. Independent of our family backgrounds, Bowdoin’s reality distortion field guarantees that we all have room to give and serve. As an elite class, what, then, are our duties? How much, if anything, do we owe to those in need?
The answer to this question—this question we do not ask nearly as often and as demandingly as we ought to—comes to us, I think, in the form of a famous thought experiment by the philosopher Peter Singer.
Singer asks us to suppose that our daily route to class takes us past a shallow pond. One day, as we are walking past the pond, we notice a baby drowning in the pond. We know that we can safely enter the pond and save the baby’s life but doing so will mean getting muddy and being late to class. Singer asks, do we have an obligation to save the drowning baby?
The answer, of course, is an emphatic yes. Without a doubt, we must save the baby. It will cost us very little and it will save a life. As we can intuitively agree, not only is it the right thing to do, it is the morally required thing to do—to choose not to save the baby would not be a neutral act, it would be a morally bankrupt act.
However, Singer then asks us if it would make any difference if this baby was far away, maybe in another country, but still at the same risk of death and still available for us to help just as easily. The answer, it seems, must remain the same: We still have an obligation to save the baby. Distance has no moral relevance. If people are suffering and we have the means to easily help them, it shouldn’t matter where in the world or country they are.
Having helped us conclude this, Singer then points out that this secondary scenario of the far away baby in need is, in fact, emblematic of the state of our modern world. By donating a few meager dollars, we can empower charities to provide food to the starving or malaria nets to those at risk. In short, instead of buying a latte, we can save a life. Every day we have this choice, and every day we choose simple, fleeting pleasure for ourselves over the very life of another.
This is certainly a radical conclusion, and a deeply divergent view of the true nature of morality, but I find it uncomfortably unavoidable. Singer, I think, is completely correct. Our duties extend far beyond what convention and intuition require, and we thus shirk our duties daily. In this sense, Singer and the Scripture have much in common: we humans are all sinners. We need to radically change our behavior and begin acting much more benevolently. This extends far beyond the way we spend our money.
It’s been over two years now since I first read Singer, and although I’ve changed somewhat, I still haven’t changed enough. I still spend nearly all of my time and money on myself, and I still daily choose my frivolous desires and preferences over the fundamental needs of others. I want to do better. That’s why I plan, sometime soon after I graduate, to donate my kidney to a stranger in need.
I first had this idea when I came across a story by Dylan Matthews of Vox. Matthews was similarly moved by Singer’s drowning child thought experiment and realized that in walking around with an extra healthy kidney while there were over 100,000 people on a waiting list desperately in need of a kidney, he was acting no differently than the man who walks past the drowning child. At little cost to himself, he could donate his kidney and save a life. So he did. Now, not only would I like to do the same, I think I have an obligation to do the same.
For as Matthews points out, donating a kidney really does come at minimal cost to yourself. It can take up to a month to recover from the surgery, but the long-term health risks are extremely minimal—a one or two percent increase in the chance of kidney failure. And should your remaining kidney fail, your previous donation will mean you are bumped to the top of the waiting list for a new one.
A kidney donation, then, can only really be life-alteringly positive. Selfishly, donating a kidney will provide you with a profound sense of meaning, purpose and happiness in a way only serving others can. As more and more research confirms, giving generates far more pleasure than receiving once we reach adulthood. Furthermore, you will create a lifelong bond with your donor, a bond about which countless touching testimonials can be found online.
We at Bowdoin have so much good fortune, and it’s nothing to feel guilty about. But let us also make sure that we find time to remember the drowning children around us. Let us always make sure that we remember that our duties extend beyond ourselves. For me, this means donating a kidney, but maybe for you it means something else entirely—and that’s fine. I just hope you’ll join me on the quest to live a more moral life. I guarantee you won’t regret it.