Monday, July 11, 2016

Duty to Save Lives

I started my summer Contemporary Moral Issues class today. We discussed a bunch of interesting issues and, as usual in a course like this, we had to brush quite a bit under the rug. One thing that came up that I thought was worth writing about was whether one is morally obligated to try to save another person from peril. Although we were careful to distinguish legal from moral responsibility, we did briefly mention that there are some legal systems where a person is held legally responsible for helping others in peril. For example, in some countries, parents or guardians are legally responsible for rescuing minors in their care from peril, and so-called "common carriers" (such as airlines or cruise ships) have a legal responsibility to rescue their patrons if they are able to save them. But, of course, this doesn't show that we bear a moral obligation to save those in danger. The oft-reviled-in-academia Wikipedia has a nice summary of reasons for thinking that people have a moral duty to save others (and not simply legally in some places).

Ethical justifications

Legal requirements for a duty to rescue do not pertain in all nations, states, or localities. However, a moral or ethical duty to rescue may exist even where there is no legal duty to rescue. There are a number of potential justifications for such a duty.
One sort of justification is general and applies regardless of role-related relationships (doctor to patient; firefighter to citizen, etc.). Under this general justification, persons have a duty to rescue other persons in distress by virtue of their common humanity, regardless of the specific skills of the rescuer or the nature of the victim's distress.
These would justify cases of rescue and in fact make such rescue a duty even between strangers. They explain why philosopher Peter Singer suggests that if one saw a child drowning and could intervene to save him, they should do so, if the cost is moderate to themselves. Damage to their clothing or shoes or how late it might make them for a meeting would be insufficient excuse to avoid assistance. Singer goes on to say that one should also attempt to rescue distant strangers, not just nearby children, because globalization has made it possible to do so.[39] Such general arguments for a duty to rescue also explain why after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Haitians were digging family members, friends, and strangers out of the rubble with their bare hands and carrying injured persons to whatever medical care was available.[40] They also explain why, while covering that same earthquake, journalist and physician Sanjay Gupta and a number of other MD-journalists began acting as physicians to treat injuries rather than remaining uninvolved in their journalistic roles. Similarly, they justify journalist Anderson Cooper's attempt to shepherd an injured young boy away from some "toughs" nearby in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.[41]
Specific arguments for such a duty to rescue include, but are not limited to:
  • The Golden Rule: treat others as one would wish to be treated. This assumes that all persons would wish to be rescued if they were in distress, and so they should in turn rescue those in distress to the best of their abilities. What counts as distress requiring rescue may, of course, differ from person to person, but being trapped or at risk of drowning are emergency situations which this position assumes all humans would wish to be rescued from.
  • Utilitarianism: utilitarianism posits that those actions are right which best maximize happiness and reduce suffering ("maximize the good").[42] Utilitarian reasoning generally supports acts of rescue which contribute to overall happiness and reduced suffering. Rule utilitarianism would look not just at whether individual acts of rescue maximize the good, but whether certain types of acts do so. It then becomes one's duty to perform those types of actions. Generally, having strangers rescue those in distress maximizes good so long as the rescue attempt does not make things worse, so one has a duty to rescue to the best of her or his ability as long as doing so will not make things worse.
  • Humanity: the rules of humanity advise that the essence of morality and right behavior is tending to human relationships. Therefore, virtues (desirable character traits) such as compassion, sympathy, honesty, and fidelity are to be admired and developed.[43] Acting out of compassion and sympathy will often require rescue where someone is in need. Indeed, it would not be compassionate to ignore someone's need, though the way one fulfills that need may vary. In cases of emergency, rescue would be the most compassionate act compared with allowing a person to remain trapped in rubble.
There are also ethical justifications for role-specific or skill-specific duties of rescue such as those described above under the discussion of U.S. Common Law. Generally, these justifications are rooted in the idea that the best rescues, the most effective rescues, are done by those with special skills. Such persons, when available to rescue, are thus even more required to do so ethically than regular persons who might simply make things worse (for a utilitarian, rescue by a skilled professional in a relevant field would maximize the good even better than rescue by a regular stranger). This particular ethical argument makes sense when considering the ability firefighters to get both themselves and victims safely out of a burning building, or of health care personnel such as physicians, nurses, physician's assistants, and EMTs to provide medical rescue.[44]
These are some of the ethical justifications for a duty to rescue, and they may hold true for both regular citizens and skilled professionals even in the absence of legal requirements to render aid.

So it seems we might have some good reasons, after all, for thinking that we morally ought to help people in peril. I'm curious what arguments opponents to this position might give. What objections might be (a) raised against the arguments for thinking that we have such a moral obligation (at least sometimes) and what arguments can be given to show that (b) we don't bear such an obligation (ever)?

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