The 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.