Announcing my blog's new name: Muddy Clothes
Why we should walk right into the pond
Hey all. Quick announcement: I’m changing the name of my blog.
Let’s be honest. ‘Julian’s Blog’, while simple, wasn’t going to stick. Henceforth, my blog will be called Muddy Clothes.
Why the name change?
Why not? I’m the boss around here, and I like the name.
Just kidding. Sort of.
I went with Muddy Clothes because it captures one of the most essential parts of my identity and worldview. It comes from the shallow pond thought experiment in Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with.
For those who aren’t, the thought experiment goes something like this.
The shallow pond thought experiment
One day while walking to work, you come across a shallow pond that would only reach your knees at its deepest. You see a small toddler flailing her arms as she helplessly drowns near the centre of the pond.
You swivel your head in a state of panic, but nobody seems to be there.
Surely there must be an adult around to supervise her! But after looking around, you realise you two are alone — her life is in your hands.
You can easily save her without risking your own life. But, because she appears to be very close to drowning, you don’t have time to take off your Brioni suit and John Lobb loafers. They’d both surely be ruined by the muddy water in the pond if you decide to wade in.
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So what should you do? Do you keep walking to work, leaving her to die, or do you wade in and save her but ruin your fancy clothes in the process?
You would have to be heartless to say you’d keep walking. It feels utterly intuitive that the ethical thing to do would be to walk into the pond to save her life, suit and shoes be damned.
The implications of this thought experiment
But as Peter Singer points out, saying we would save the child raises tricky ethical questions about how most of us in high-income countries live our lives. There are drowning children (metaphorically speaking in this case) all over the world, and we can save them — often for comparatively small amounts of money.
GiveWell, a charity evaluator, estimates that donating $4,500 — less than the cost of the suit and dress shoes from my example — to charities working to prevent malaria can save a child’s life who otherwise would’ve died had we not intervened.
You might think that this would be a drop in the bucket. Malaria would still be a massive problem, so what’s the point? And why do I have to be the one to save these children when everyone else isn’t? But imagine applying that logic to the drowning child. Well, there would still be drowning children out there, so why bother? Why must I be the one to wade in to save her? Because we can, and we should — it’s really that simple.
Why Muddy Clothes?
I chose Muddy Clothes because it represents an ideal worth striving for.
The world is a mess. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Those of us in high-income countries who often take the resources at our disposal for granted can do something about it. It might require getting our clothes a bit muddy, and it might be unfair that we have to be the ones to do it. But if not us, then who? A bit of mud is nothing compared to the importance of saving a child’s life, preventing the world from going extinct, or improving the welfare of animals who suffer on factory farms. It would be a shame to sit idly, expecting others to step into the pond when we can do it ourselves.
Much like telling myself I will exercise five days a week, I don’t expect us to actually get our clothes muddy at every given opportunity. That’s hard, and we’re still human. Beating ourselves up about not being perfect is a recipe for disaster. That being said, I think it’s a goal worth striving for. The idea that we can still live great lives with a bit of mud on our clothes is important to keep in mind, even if we might not always live up to our ideal selves.
I hope to occasionally encourage this ideal with my writing and make you feel empowered enough to want to charge into the pond to save the child. Perhaps in doing so, you’ll see that the mud is often not particularly bothersome, especially compared to how good saving the child will make you feel. And if we can find clever ways to save the kid while avoiding the mud, we should do just that — indeed, I expect to write about these kinds of opportunities whenever I find them.
Muddy Clothes is not about relentless self-sacrifice or feeling guilty about not doing enough to fix the world. It’s about the act of caring, accepting your limitations and flaws as a human, and doing the best you can despite them.
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