A Facebook Suicide and the Duty To Rescue

One takeaway from Claire Lin's death: it's a good idea to have Facebook friends with character.

In Taiwan, a distraught young woman sent streaming photos* of her suicide attempt as she conversed with nine Facebook friends. Some urged her to stop, but none tried to contact police or rescue professionals as she asphyxiated herself with burning charcoal fumes. Yes, her attempt was successful. You can read the disturbing story of Claire Lin’s Facebook suicide here.

Would this happen in America? I wouldn’t be surprised. Sociologists are already weighing in with opinions about the isolation of social media and how the internet makes reality seem less real. I doubt that any of that was especially important in this incident. There have been so many other examples of people left to die with potential rescuers aplenty that were documented on Ethics Alarms and elsewhere, from the Mount Everest climbers who walked past their dying companion, to the more recent case of the Apple store employees who listened to a women get beaten to death in Maryland, that teach us that too many people have the natural inclination not to take affirmative action to help another in distress, and that the instinctive rescuers are the exception, not the rule.

Our culture should teach and reinforce the shared societal duty to come to the assistance of others in peril, but in fact it teaches the opposite. Most of us are told to mind our own business, to think of “Number One”, and  make reverse Golden Rule calculations to rationalize inaction (“He wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help me!”) We are taught to fear lawsuits, to wait for professionals (even if they aren’t coming), and to be fearful of making a bad situation worse. And, of course, we are conditioned to let the other person take the risk, so we can have our cake (not get involved) and eat it too ( see the situation resolved without anyone being harmed). And if we wait just a bit too long for that other person to do the right thing, we can always blame him (or her), saying, “I thought someone else would do it!”

What happened in Taiwan is the result of such life-long societal messages and habits, and it could easily have been the result in the U.S. What would have made a difference, and saved a life, is if one of Lin’s fearful, passive, slug-like friends were instead an individual raised in a home that emphasized individual courage, caring, responsibility, and resistance to accepting tragedy and wrongdoing when a person has the power to prevent them. America needs more such homes, as, apparently, does Taiwan.

As I wrote last year in regard to the Maryland incident:

Parents, while they are teaching their children such basics as “Look both ways when you cross the street,” “Don’t take candy from strangers,” “Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” “Tell the truth” and “Treat your elders with respect” need to make sure “Always do what you can to help another human being in peril” is on the list. 

We have an ethical duty to rescue our fellow human beings .

It really is as simple as that.


* My original information suggested a video, but this appears to have been incorrect. Thanks to Julian Hung for the correction.

9 thoughts on “A Facebook Suicide and the Duty To Rescue

  1. To their credit, some of them urged her to stop.

    But unless it was obvious that she was insane (e.g., claiming that Darth Vader or Porky Pig told her to kill herself), from whom would rescue professionals rescue her?

    We are taught to fear lawsuits

    Given how frivilous lawsuits in America can be, that is justified.

    • Herself. She was distraught and emotional….it is highly likely that she would not have persisted in her desire to die if she had been stopped. That is usually the case. Suicide is a crime..it’s murder.

      Fear is often justified.
      Submitting to fear is not, however, in cases where lives are at stake.

      • Jack, I agree with you on this one. If I have a choice about something like this I’ll err on the side of intervening, not fearing litigation (although I know there’s no legal duty to aid someone in peril).

  2. Slightly off-topic: judging from what’s been reported in the Taiwanese media, no video was involved, just photos. Also, it seems that NMA-TV (which some of you might know as that one Taiwanese news group that makes CGI videos about any sort of news that goes international) did not bother to censor out the names of the people whom Ms. Lin was chatting with, like I’d imagine most American news groups would do.

    But yeah, this is pretty much another example of the bystander effect.

  3. What a terrible story.

    Do we know, did her FB friends know her real name and location? A policeman quoted in the article suggested that they might not have.

    I mean, just thinking of my FB friends. Some of them I know in real life. Many, many of them are people I don’t know from Adam. Some of them have very common-sounding names, some have what seem like nicknames, etc.

    If I was chatting with someone in Italy who was committing suicide, I might think my best shot is to try and talk him out of it, rather than calling the police and saying “someone in Italy named “comicbookfan23″ is committing suicide!”

  4. I agree with Jack — human life is more important than our fear of litigation. As a father, the unnecessary, preventable passing of this lovely child really distresses me.

    Could it happen here? Go enter “Kitty Genovese” in Google. In New York 48 years ago a young woman was murdered in the presence of a number of cowardly witnesses because the bystanders “didn’t want to get involved”.

  5. I faced a similar situation a few months ago. I didn’t know the individual personally, but was requested to friend him from another friend because he was stationed in Iraq. When he returned home, he was having a lot of difficulties. One day, he posted something about how sorry he was and that everything would be better once he was gone and he said “goodbye” to everyone. I immediately contacted his base. They located him and got him help. Don’t know if he was depressed or actually going to kill himself, but I didn’t really care. Either way, he needed help, the sooner the better. The officer I spoke to at the base called me back to give me an update and to thank me for calling.

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