If I fall in a public place, I know from past experience that the strangers around me will try and help me up and ask if I am ok. As far as I know, no law can compel someone to go to the aid of someone else in distress, especially if the action might put the rescuer at some risk. But so strong and universal is the impulse to help others in immediate danger that most people instinctively do it without thinking of the consequences.
There have been some well-publicized cases of people not coming to the aid of another person but such behavior is so unusual that it has merited study and the usual reason is that when there is a group of bystanders involved, as opposed to a single person, inaction often results from each person expecting someone else to take action. But the impulse to help was still there.
Suppose for example, a car was backing up and it was clear that that driver did not see a small child in its path. If a person were in a position to either alert the driver or pluck the child to safety. I am confident that everyone except a true sociopath would act to save the child.
If we saw someone in danger, while we may not be able to do anything practical other than calling for help from others better able to do so, all of us would think it inexcusable to do absolutely nothing, to go on our way as if the plight of the person were none of our concern. Although no legal penalties would attach to such inaction, the social disapproval would be immense. And this disapproval would be much greater if we could have done something at little risk or cost to us.
Unfortunately in our litigious society, some of the targets of such altruistic assistance have sometimes sued the people trying to help them if their good intentions resulted in inadvertent harm, and it has become necessary to pass Good Samaritan laws to protect health care workers and other rescuers from such reprisals, provided the rescuer uses reasonable and prudent measures. Such laws have thus removed another reason for inaction.
It would not help for the offending unhelpful person to give as an excuse that the death of the child due to the backing up car was pre-ordained and meant to serve some greater good, and that he did not want to mess with this cosmic plan. No one would buy his argument, even if he were to quote the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said, “Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.” While appeals to some inscrutable cosmic purpose are often invoked in a time of tragedy, the tragedies are rarely asserted to be good things in themselves, and claiming so risks the ire of the person who is suffering the loss.
This raises an interesting contrast. If a person should suffer an untimely death, some say it is all part of god’s plan, and that is accepted as a good reason. But at the same time we say that if a human being can prevent a death but fails to do so, then that person is committing an evil. It is not a defense for that person to argue that there was a higher purpose for not acting.
So whenever tragedy strikes, while we would not approve of the inaction of someone who could have helped another because he thought he was acting according to some grand cosmic plan, religious people are only too willing to accept that excuse when the agent of inaction is god.
The reason is that while religious people can accept that people are not good, they start out with the assumption that god is good, even though there is no evidence to support that position. This requires them to hold god to a lower standard of goodness than they hold their fellow human beings.
In support of this double standard, religious apologists may argue that god is the only one who knows everything and thus is the only one who can truly invoke the ‘great web’ escape clause. Human beings are not privy to perfect knowledge and so must help others just to be on the safe side. But that argument, like all such excuses for god, will only persuade those who want to be persuaded. After all, the offending person can respond that if god had wanted him to help the person in danger, then he would have made him want to help. The fact that god did not induce that feeling in him means that god did not want him to help and so the whole tragedy must have been part of the great web.
But whether applied to a human or god, the ‘great web’ excuse is still silly, platitudinous, and fatalistic nonsense. The appropriate response to its use is that of Bertie Wooster in The Mating Season when Bertie was once again deep in a pickle and there seemed to be no way out and when Jeeves tries to console him by quoting Marcus Aurelius’s words to him. The agitated Bertie responds, “He said that did he? Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.”
POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist
For those who are not familiar with the origin of the phrase ‘Good Samaritan’, it comes from a story Jesus told about our obligation to help others in distress, and that a ‘neighbor’ is anyone who comes to another’s aid (Luke 10: 29-37).
In the story, a man was robbed and beaten by assailants and left for dead by the side of the street. A priest and a Levite, both privileged members of society, come along but they do not stop to help the injured man and even cross to the other side of the street to avoid him. It was a person from the despised Samaritan community who, at considerable time and expense to himself, comes to the victim’s aid.