Ethics Quiz: Once Again, Bystander Ethics, The Duty To Rescue, And The Imperiled Child

clarkkentThe free-range kids debate already raised this issue, and now my colleague and friend Michael Messer, the talented and versatile musician/singer/ actor who teams with me in the ProEthics musical legal ethics programs Ethics Rock, Ethics Rock Extreme, and Ethics Jamboree, just posted about his traumatic experience on Facebook, writing,

“I’m standing in Central Park and witnessed a tourist father grab his (approx 5 year old) child by the arm and shake him… The. open palm smack his child in the head. Hard. Twice. I screamed to him, from about 50 feet, where I witnessed it: “HEY!!! YOU DON’T HIT HIM” he looked up, startled to be called out, and waved me off to mind my business. “YOU DO NOT HIT A CHILD IN THE HEAD”, I repeated, at the top of my lungs, hoping to attract attention. The kid cried and then got himself together and went off to play. No one else in Sheeps Meadow saw or took notice. For about 5 minutes after I kept my eyes on him so he knew he was now being watched. What is the role of a bystander in this situation?”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for the day is…

What is the role of a bystander in this situation?

The answer is simple, really—its that oft-repeated Ethics Alarms mantra, “FIX THE PROBLEM,” at least as much as you can. Do something. Mike did the right thing, from a distance: show the abuser he’s being observed, protest, shame him. If one can, if one has the ability, the skill and the timely reaction and the child looks to be in genuine danger, intervene physically.

The latter course, however, carries risks, and also may be precluded by the natural reflex most humans have when they observe something unexpected and shocking. I discussed this issue when Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary was being pilloried in some publications for not immediately charging into the Penn State showers and stopping sexual predator Jerry Sandusky from sexually abusing a boy:

So let us see if we can determine when it is an absolute moral imperative to resort to violence in defense of a child, shall we?

Here is a hierarchy of potential rescuer categories, ranked by the degree to which they should be expected to do the right thing and intervene. If it is an absolute moral imperative to do so, then all 39 are equally blameworthy if they do something instead, like call 911:

1. Superman, or another super-hero
2.  The film versions of Chuck Norris, John Wayne, Jackie Chan, or equivalent male human hero
3.  Lara Croft, Emma Peel, Xena, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or equivalent female human hero.
4.  Navy Seals or other special combat military personnel.
5. Large, muscular, active male athletes in their prime
6. Large, muscular, active female athletes in their prime

7. Active male athletes in their prime of average build and height. (Tiger Woods)
8. Active female athletes in their prime of average build and height.
9. Young off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, male.
10.Young off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, female.
11. Middle-aged off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, female.
12. Middle-aged, out of shape off-duty police officers, fire fighters and retired military personnel, male.

13. Large, fit, inactive, former or non-competing male athletes (Mike McQueary)
14 . Large , fit, inactive, former or non-competing female athletes
15.  18-35-year-old fit male of normal build.
16.  35-45 -year-old fit male of normal build
17.  18-35-year-old fit female of normal build.
18.  18-35-year-old fit male of normal build.

19.  35-45 -year-old fit male of normal build
20.  45-60 -year-old fit male of normal build
21.  35-45-year-old fit female of normal build.
22.  60-75 -year-old fit male of normal build
23. A fat, weak,18-35-year-old male

24.  A 45-60 -year-old fit female of normal build
25.  A fat, weak,35-45-year-old male
26. A fat, weak, 45-60 -year-old male
27. A fat, weak,18-35-year-old female
28. A man 5’5” or less of normal build
29.  A fat, weak,35-45-year-old female
30. A fat, weak, 45-60 -year-old female
31. A slight woman of 5’2” or less
32. Any male over 75
33. Any woman over 75
34. A morbidly obese man or woman
35. Vern Troyer (“Mini-Me”)

37. Paris Hilton, or equivilent.
38. Steven Hawking, or equivilent.
39. Barack Obama

There are other variations, of course: individuals who have a phobia of showers, perhaps. What would be the obligation of Jerry Sandusky’s mother, to take another example? The same as anyone else in her category (37), higher because of the unlikelihood that he would fight her, or lower, because it is unfair to expect a mother to attack her own son?

These will do, however, to look at the problem. We will all agree, can’t we, that 1, the super-heroes, do have an absolute moral obligation. They are guaranteed of success, they have nothing to fear, and rescuing people is their job. We can also agree, can we not, that 13-38 would be acting with exemplary ethics, at very least, to try to stop the attack….but there are limits. The President would be violating his duty to do so; he cannot risk his welfare for one individual, even a child (especially with Joe Biden as Vice-President).  [Interesting thought exercise: which presidents, while in office, would have come to the rescue of the boy anyway? Teddy is obvious. Jackson, Washington…who else? Reagan? Ike? George Bush the Elder? Bill?]

If we accept that of Obama, who else can consider personal consequences without deserving our condemnation? Someone with an incipient heart condition? A pacifist? Would Gandhi (probably around 20)be obligated to fight Sandusky? What if someone at 15 or more has a large family of which he or she is the sole support? Can he or she consider that, even if it makes them hesitate, or opt to call the police instead (which still allows the rape to continue, perhaps to completion)?

Most Americans, even those who grow up large and athletic, are conditioned to avoid physical violence. Does that matter in deciding “absolute moral obligation”? If [someone] has never had a physical altercation in his life, can he be excused from avoiding one when a child is being raped? Does avoiding it make him a coward? Why? His gender? His age? His weight? His fat to muscle index? I am not even sure that 5-8 aren’t ranked unfairly high. Why do we assume that athletes are comfortable with physical violence off the playing fields and arenas?

I think the list makes clear that we do not, would not and should not hold all witnesses of a child rape equally deficient ethically for failing to intervene.

Moreover, I don’t think the issue is substantially different if the abuse is less than a rape. (“Oh, I’d definitely stop the guy if he were raping the kid, but since the full-grown man was just beating the snot out of the 5-year old, hey…not my problem!” Really?) The question still is, “Is that child in peril?” If the conclusion is “yes,” then the ethical imperative must be to take action. Those who are judging the incident after the fact and in the abstract are obligated to be fair and wary before they judge the action that is chosen to be insufficient.

Features of such incidents that must not be part of the bystander’s decision-making process, I should emphasize, are diversity and culture. My wife once admonished an African-American mother for striking her toddler in the head at a supermarket, and nearly got in a fistfight as a result. Later, one of our diversity-addled friends told her she was in the wrong, because such discipline is “part of African-American culture,” to which I said, then as now, “Hooey! Harming children by physical abuse isn’t part of this nation’s current culture, and that’s what matters. A concerned bystander shouldn’t have to make an abuser fill out a questionnaire to assess the ‘context’.” This ia just a contrived excuse not to act, and when a child’s welfare is at risk, and one has the presence of mind and the ability to act, there is a duty to act.

27 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Once Again, Bystander Ethics, The Duty To Rescue, And The Imperiled Child

  1. Your friend was wrong to shout, and you used a faulty springboard for a jump into an otherwise legitimate argument. The fact that all your friend did about the situation was shout at the guy is proof positive that the cuff wasn’t abusive. Who would remain seated while a child was being beaten in front of them? What child would go play moments after being beaten? No one else in Central Park saw this abuse and intervened? In a city that prides it’s self on it’s no non-sense social mores? No sir, this doesnt add up in the slightest. I’ve actually seen a child being abused in public and the difference in how people react is night and day.

    It’s far more likely that your friend just can’t handle the psychological discomfort associated with physical child discipline (even vicariously) and meddled where meddling was not warranted. I worry that your loose standard of social intervention is the kind of good-intentioned thought that’s eroding the hard but necessary values and behaviors that build and stabilize successful cultures – your usually good at pointing this out but here, and with the adopted Asian daughters, I think you’re letting your chivalry run away with your reason.

    • To follow up with the Asian daughter ethics situation – the interveining person couldnt tell the difference between a loving platonic relationship and sex-trafficking. I DO NOT want to empower people with such poor judgment to intrude upon the lives others by equipping them with platitudes akin to the “if it saves just one child” crowd – but that seems very much like what you’re advocating.

    • Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe it’s just a misapplication of the the man in the Arena argument. A lot of the posts on the topics seem to hinge around the idea that we shouldn’t fault these interlopers for taking a stand that turned out to be un-needed. A sort of “don’t criticize someone for trying and failing”. And in general I agree with that. But as you might have guessed from my use of “misapplication”, I don’t think it’s right to apply it here. I’m not criticizing the man in the arena for failing. In these cases, I’m criticizing the man for such poor judgment that he stepped into the area in the first place. Youre absolutely right that if someone believes that another person is being victimized they should step in. But. We shouldn’t also accept so loose a standard of “belief” that we hold any excuse, however poorly considered, as a legitimate reason for intrusion.

    • Shaking and Hitting a 5 year old kid in the head? Never. Per se abuse. My parents were not opposed to reasonable corporal punishment, but neither ever touched my head, or that of my sister.

      A person can only act on their own judgment, not someone else’s. If someone subjectively thinks a child is in danger, that’s enough. Later, you can fault the judgment, but not the action based on the judgment if the action was reasonable.

      How can you object to someone just investigating the Asian daughter scenario? He didn’t call the cops, or tackle the photographer. So the father was offended…so what?

      • Shaking and Hitting a 5 year old kid in the head? Never. Per se abuse.

        Oh? Then you are one of those who would stop it sight unseen, despite there being situations in which it could be the very best thing. Why, a couple of centuries ago you might have tried to stop a father chopping his little daughter’s arm off with an axe without stopping to think that he might have a good reason for doing it.

        I’m wondering whether it would be more constructive to let readers stop and think for themselves, or to give further and better particulars. I’ll go for the former for now, but I will tell readers that my hypothetical answer for the first scenario is based on a very real one I once heard of for the second.

        • Then you are one of those who would stop it sight unseen, despite there being situations in which it could be the very best thing.

          Stop, as in “making sure that parents know it’s wrong”? We all would do that, or should. I didn and don’t advocate a “never shake a toddler or hit him in the head law,” if that’s your (weird) point.

          I don’t know whether to amused or horrified that you think there would ever be a context in which doing these actions would be “the very best thing.”

      • Hardly. Shaking them to the point of damage? Abuse. Striking them in the head to the point of damage? Abuse. All shaking and head strikes regardless of damage? Not even close. I’ve been shaken and cuffed in the head before without even the slightest bruise or headache.It hurt, sure, for a minute, but it didn’t break anything so much as a blood vessel. By all accounts, including that of the interloper, the child was fine.

        For the middle paragraph, I agree with the last part but not the first. Reaction proportionate to certainty ti s a good idea. Giving a pass to anyone for anything is slippery slope to hell for the reasons I’ve already argued.

        I can object to it because the man couldn’t tell the difference between the social interaction that a father has with his daughters and the social interaction a sex trafficker has with his victims. You have an ethical responsibility to practice sound judgement before engaging in social confrontations. The fact that the negative consequence was mild doesn’t make the unethical intrusion ethical.

  2. I am not unalterably opposed to corporeal punishment, but hitting the kid IN THE HEAD? Can you say “concussion”? Or were these parents training the kid for a career in the NFL? That is why kids have butts. God put them where he did for a reason…good targets for an open-handed smack. Open handed because it ought to sting you, just a little, just like it does the kid.

    • And you may assume that I would, upon witnessing such an event, or a kid being hit with a belt, electric cord or paddle (ANY object, really, outside of a pillow), intervene, as forcefully as necessary.

  3. Dr. Hawking might rate higher on the scale. That power chair makes him potentially dangerous. Nor am I sure he can’t toss mini black holes at malefactors! You get this weird feeling that he can just by looking at him.

  4. >>Later, one of our diversity-addled friends told her she was in the wrong, because such discipline is “part of African-American culture,” to which I said, then as now, “Hooey!…”

    I once read that the word “culture” refers most properly to the positive values and elements within a society.

    For instance:
    >>Culture: The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively:

    I thus use “culture rot” to describe the negative aspects that accumulate and undermine a group, and disconnect it from its achievements.

  5. >> If it is an absolute moral imperative to do so, then all 39 are equally blameworthy if they do something instead, like call 911

    A note of clarification I believe is in order; it is important to call 911 (or instruct another bystander to do so) before physically intervening. Police will do the equivalent, request back up, before intervening. Requesting back up is itself imperative whenever intervention is performed, regardless of the circumstance of the intervention.

    Whenever one is approaching an active emergency, one must pause to access the situation and develop a plan, including how to alert others, and how to best intervene. Police and other professional responders have extensive training that allows them to assess a situation quicker than a lay person. Thus hesitation among lay responders, even a longer one, before a response is thus not a sign of cowardice; it is necessary step. Not following through after such hesitation though would be cowardly.

    The ethics incompleteness theorem of course applies; these rules should not be strictly followed when illogical. The instances where intervention without first assessing the situation or where proceeding without without back up is appropriate are impossible to define perfectly across all possible scenarios. Only illustrative examples could ever be provided.

    Further, because there are cases where there is a duty to respond, we all have an ethical imperative to consider how we might respond. The steps to best prepare a response might include First Aid/CPR courses, self defense courses, Scouting programs for youth, “CERT”/civil defense programs for adults, etc.

    As the Boy Scouts say, “Be Prepared”.

    • And conditioned. My father was amazing…it took him seconds to act when someone was in peril, where most observers were still in brain lock. That’s because his default response was action, not inertia.

  6. … when a child’s welfare is at risk, and one has the presence of mind and the ability to act, there is a duty to act.

    No, no, and no (and I was going to be downright rude about it). There never can be any such duty, ever, not nowise, not nohow, except on the part of someone who has incurred it in some specific way (whether explicit or implicit). Any other view is equivalent to slavery.

    That does not mean, of course, that acting under such circumstances is impermissible or somehow not praiseworthy – if properly informed and well judged (it does not exonerate the rushing in of fools) – but to make out that it is a duty enslaves those brought under it.

    • You sound like Frederick in “The Pirates of Penzance.” There is no “slavery”: one is never enslaved by one’s own dedication to responsible membership in the human race. It is an ethical duty, not a moral one. Nobody’s enforcing it, unless its society’s disapproval / praise after the event, which reinforces our values. So a bystander with a bucket of water has no ethical duty to use it to put out the flaming child in front of him? Interesting theory.


  7. The “call-out” to the abuser is a good thing. But the next step should have been taken: The observer should have called 911, told them where he was, what he had observed, and that he thought a child was in danger. (The fact that this child had likely been “in danger” by his father for some time prior to this instance is not the immediate issue.)

    The police would respond, and for a short time at least, the child would be separated from the father while some investigation proceeded. This may seem cruel to the child who likely still loves his father and is used to this kind of treatment. But that kind of treatment is WRONG. And if the father is willing to engage in that kind of behavior in PUBLIC, what the hell might he be doing in the privacy of his own home?

    Here the time-worn, over-used “it takes a village” adage comes into play. If you see abuse going on (with kids or between adults), or a crime being committed, isn’t is your duty — repeat, your DUTY — to call 911 and get someone else (presumably trained for this kind of thing) involved to stop it? It IS your duty as a citizen of a civilized society.

    Those of us who are old enough remember the famous New York City murder that was witnessed (or heard by) about 50 people — NONE of whom called the police. There was great discussion at that time… people afraid to become involved, people afraid of the attacker, ad nauseum. Clearly this front-page story did little to change the behavior of observers of dangerous or illegal behavior by others, and the story is not remembered or brought up in discussions of the moral duties of average citizens.

    I have “called out” people — but through the police. One time, years ago and at the height of summer, I drove to the drug store and parked next to an SUV that had three kids in it — with windows rolled up. The youngest was in a car seat with a blanket on him (!), and one of the older kids was teasing him with it and he was crying loudly (his face was bright red and he was very, very agitated). I went into the drug store — directly to the manager — and told him what was going on. Within minutes, the police arrived, found the mother (shopping leisurely inside) and apprehended her. Her response was fierce, loud, and angry: she said that that her children were safe, that the police had no right to interfere, etc., etc. But the police (pretty politely, I recall) noted that that OUTSIDE temperature was 92 degrees, so that inside the car it was much higher. Their decision: take the kids to a safe place, take the mother in, and find out what really was going on. I did see Social Services arrive and take the kids, as well as the mother being put into the patrol car. I did not make the call: the store manager did, the minute I told him what I had observed outside his store. I was in no danger — the fact as the police found it was res ipsa loquitor — but I believed (then and now) that the manager and I had done the right thing. I’ll never know what happened, but those kids could have DIED in that hot car, and I wasn’t about to simply shake my head and shop for what I needed with that going on outside.

    Another time I personally “called out” another person, who threatened me physically for doing so. (I was quick enough at the time to tell the person that the mere threat was battery, and that I should be hit I’d have her in jail for assault). I probably wouldn’t handle it just that way again, but really, morality, kindness, civility, and safety are important to me. An aside, but to the point only insofar as every observer of untoward/illegal/dangerous behavior has several options.

    And the best one is to call the cops and let the supposed professionals handle it. But I do believe — especially in the case of observed child abuse — that it is a duty as a citizen of a presumably civilized nation — to take appropriate (and safe) action to help — really — save a child.

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