House on fire
| Child or Picasso?
The test is:
are outside a burning building and are told that inside one room is a
child and inside another is a painting by Picasso. You can save one of
them. To do the most good, which do you choose?
An Oxford University
associate professor of philosophy argues it would be perfectly good to
save the Picasso because if you sold it and bought many anti-malarial
nets for Africa, you could save many more lives than just one child. (William MacAskill cited at BBC, posted and accessed 2 December 2015)
Here are some possible consequences I imagine about choosing the Picasso:-
- Emerging from the now-collapsing structure, I come face-to-face
with the parents of the child. As I cradle the valuable masterpiece,
they look at me with a mixture of horror and sorrow. They walk away. I hear the piercing wails of one departing parent. For the rest of my life, I will never forget their pain.
- Then others crowd
around me and
incredulously ask me "Why?" I proceed to give them a reasoned,
explanation of how my choice will save more lives. They shake their
heads, wondering aloud what has gone wrong with humans. Someone shouts
that I am not welcome in their community any more.
- Then I notice
painting is smoke-damaged. Damn, I realise the Picasso may now be
worthless. I then reason that I can earn much money in
the capitalist system to somehow compensate the Picasso's financial
worth. But it will take a long time. And I am upset that I can never
replace that child. I feel
- The owner of the
painting now appears and claims the painting. The legal system backs
him/her up. The owner gives me a bank note to say thank you. I now have 100 dollars to
save a life. I give it to a charity who buy some blankets with it. I realise
my logic is not working in the world we live in.
- A few days
later I hear
the owner has had a change of heart. He wants to sell the painting and
will donate to a charity that provides anti-malaria nets to Africa.
Despite the smoke damage, the Picasso does sell for a good amount. But
how do I know that the money will get to the people who need it? Is
it not more likely to swell the coffers of some dictator? Or many
other corrupt individuals on its alleged path to the needy people?
- So, it is possible my
Picasso altruism inadvertently funded a terrorist organisation, and
ended up killing another few hundred in a 2015 Paris-type attack. If I
had only saved the child, I would definitely have saved one life.
- On the other hand, the child could have grown up to be a terrorist and killed many. Less likely I reckon.
- Surely I have to act instinctively? Act in the now. Surely, Be Love Now?
Then there are other questions:-
- Why isn't government
spending less on war? The financial value of a Picasso painting is so
tiny next to this. It's less by a factor of 10,000! Compare $1.75 trillion (2013 global military spending) to $179 million (most expensive Picasso as at 2015). Then so much more money would become available for
really important health issues like creating equality and providing clean water and sanitation, etc, etc. For decades it has been known that a fraction of world defence spending could easily heal the world.
- What happens if the cause you support is doing more harm than good? For example, there is the controversial issue of vaccinations. You think you
save many, but what happens if you are doing the opposite? Yes,
you do your best...
- Is the test realistic? I'd say that the test is like many
scientific and psychological experiments. It is ecologically invalid.
It is disconnected from the world we happen to live in. The world
is so complex that it becomes impossible to disentangle issues, like
nature and nurture. Barbara Crowther of Fairtrade Foundation
explains the complexity well here. But it does make us think! And surely, the universal solvent of this Gordian Knot is Love?
- The test emphasises some sort of great miracle or hero. Should we be looking for Saviours? There is the danger of the Guru trap. Instead, the world needs the many working in small acts of love, rather than some great exalted Saviour. It is the Angel in all our hearts that is most important, not some grand gesture by Gates or Zuckerberg. Power in the hands of the few is surely not healthy? We are the future.
- The test emphasises the financial world as the basis of society. I think this is wrong. Surely, we need to emphasise GNH not GDP? Love, love, love - NOT growth, growth, growth. See 'Money' here.
- Can you feel the pain of millions? I am not sure we can
understand the pain of millions of lives. Despite his genocidal regime, Stalin
perhaps said it well: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is
- Are you going to choose
love or logic? One death is a tragedy and is enough to
move us to love. However, this world of capitalism and inequality, of advertising
everywhere and powerful Big Pharma all seem to neglect the personal,
the human. Do you want to base your decisions on Love (the Child) or on
hypothetical accounting (the Picasso)?
- Are you going to choose
love or logic? Both are important, but surely Love is the Way. I don't
think logic is sustainable. There is so much we don't know. Rather, we
need intuitive compassionate societies served by the rational mind -
see 'Intuition' here.
is necessary for the rescuing of the world. It is the only force which
can bring peace between the nations. Love is beginning to appear;
goodness, justice and light will triumph; it is only a matter of time."