Ethics Observations On The Florida Teens And The Drowning Man

The story from Florida about the five teenage boys who took a video of a man who drowned as they laughed and mocked him, never calling for help or alerting authorities, isn’t one of the apathetic bystander episodes that Ethics Alarms has discussed in the past. This is something worse, an episode that raises troubling questions about what kind of culture and society could produce young men so cruel and callous. One has to wonder how society can trust these young men, so obviously devoid of ethics alarms or conscience at such a young age….except that most of us will never know who they are, since their names have been withheld from publication because they are minors.

Meanwhile, the basic ethics question “What’s going on here?” is especially difficult. The episode naturally sparks such an emotional response that reason and analysis have a hard time clawing their way to the front. I’ve been pondering the story since it was publicized, and I still find it disorienting.

Here are some comments and observations, perhaps more random and disjointed than they ought to be:

1. There are quotes coming from law enforcement and others  suggesting that this event demonstrates the need for laws making citizen rescues a legal duty, and failure to rescue a crime. As we have discussed here before, that’s an irresponsible position, and these facts illustrate it. Rescuing drowning people is dangerous: the law can’t demand that a citizen undertake such a risk.

2. Should there be laws requiring a citizen to call police or fire fighters? At a visceral level this seems reasonable, but it would be practically impossible to define standards. In most cases there would be a problem determining whether the  individual involved was ignorant, cowardly, negligent or malicious. In this case, there is evidence that could prove malice, but there are Constitutional issues. Are we really going to prosecute people for laughing inappropriately? Or for saying mean things?  This isn’t even a good “intentional infliction of emotional distress” case”: if one is dying, the fact that kids are making fun of you is a secondary concern.

3. I’m not certain that the policy of not disclosing the names of the boys is appropriate in this case, and I’m not sure it isn’t. I  would fear that the reaction of some in the community would be excessive, and the teens would be in physical danger. On the other hand—where’s the accountability?  Doesn’t the public have a right to know if there are nascent  monsters in their midst?

4. If the teens apply to college, shouldn’t this matter? Medical school? What if one applies for a job as a life guard?

5. Ann Althouse’s take was interesting, as she displayed more sympathy for the teens than any other commentator. I’ll just quote her without  further comment (she is getting scalded in the comments:

I haven’t heard the recording, and I assume it’s very disturbing, but I don’t know that the boys are monsters. They happen to witness a person struggling and they decide that they cannot or will not help and they must deal with their predicament. They talk to the man. What they say is crude, but it communicates a truth to the man. They will not help him. And they struggle to explain why: He shouldn’t have gone in there. They laugh in the end when he goes under. I haven’t heard the laughing. But it could be anxiety, shock, and denial. The boys may nevertheless be charged with a crime. The authorities are threatening to charge them under this statute, which imposes, in some circumstances, a duty to report that a death has occurred. I think they’re grasping for a way to punish these boys for their speech and their laughter.

50 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On The Florida Teens And The Drowning Man

  1. I find this reprehensible, crude, disturbing and a symptom of a society well into moral bankruptcy. But, not criminal. And for the reasons given.

    If society is NOT in moral bankruptcy these kids will be punished by being shunned. I have no hope that they will be. I’m appalled by any attempt to find acceptable reasons for their behavior.

    • As disturbing as this incident appears, I have to agree with you here. I suspect that these kids, if they become known or not, will eventually end up in the justice system anyway, based on their actions, or lack thereof.

  2. Those kids probably don’t know how to swim. Which raises the question of whether it’s ethical to raise a kid in Florida without making sure they learn how to swim.

      • Leave it to BBC news to make this a race issue…

        Children do not learn to swim because parents do not care enough to teach them. The opportunity to swim (and thus teach) is available in any number of public access, from lakes, streams and pools to the local swimming hole. You have to make an effort, and that is too much for many people, even when their lives are at stake.

        Making Big Brother responsible is a trend now, where parents send kids to school to baby sit, feed, and sometimes clothe their kids so they can sit on the couch and make more kids for the system to take care of.

        • That was a really dumb news article. I note that it is from 2010, 7 years ago. Race, fear, and appearance are the major factors? According to the article, “Just under 70% of African-American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. Low ability merely meant they were able to splash around in the shallow end. A further 12% said they could swim but had ‘taught themselves’. The study found 58% of Hispanic children had no or low swimming ability. For white children, the figure was only 42%.” I would bet that statistic has changed in the last 7 years.


      • Wow that article is really racist.

        “Parents who don’t know how to swim are very likely to pass on not knowing how to swim to their children,”

        Like it is a flu or something? Ridiculous. You do not “pass on” a lack of knowledge like it is some genetic disorder or something. Unless the undertone is that and entire race, or large subset thereof cannot be taught, which is patently absurd.

        “African-American women, many of them if they go the beauty shop and get their hair fixed they are not going to swim,”

        This one is beyond the pale. I would get lambasted to suggesting this. Black women cannot swim because they get their hair done?

        • Are you being satirical?

          I haven’t read the article but I don’t think it’s difficult to accept that children are *more* inclined to learn what their parents encourage or emphasize, parents are *more* inclined to encourage and emphasize what they themselves are good at/see value in.

          Non-swimming parents are less likely to teach their children how to swim.

          My wife, who enjoys swimming, will not take a dive or swim if she has put effort into her hair that day. I don’t think this is an unreasonable connection either. The more effort and money a person puts into ANYTHING, the less likely they will engage in actions that will undo the very thing they put value into. Swimming undoes hair. If someone puts value into their hair, they probably aren’t going to swim.

          Barring reading the rest of the article. I don’t see anything actually wrong with the assertions you called out.

            • I just read it. I don’t think it has racism in it. But then again I’m not ‘woke’ (sic) enough to see the microaggressions the Left insists weigh us all down.

              I did read plenty of assertions about past conditions that contribute to the modern situation in which minorities seem to be less skilled in swimming than whites.

              But that isn’t racism. And refreshingly, I don’t recall the article making it out like modern whites are still to blame for this on-going drought of swimming skills.

              • I think the microaggression is the fact that each house does not have a swimming pool. I mean, really. Who doesn’t have a swimming pool in the back yard, where one can spend all day long tinkering with the filter, scooping leaves and other non-essentials out of the water, fixing holes in the surface, testing and retesting chemicals, checking water levels, cleaning the filters of assorted debris, and filling up floatables? Oh. That would be me. The only thing my wife and I agreed on when we went home shopping was that we didn’t want a pool. Come to think of it, a pool would make a really nice garden.

                That being said, we realized when our son was born that water is a real danger, so he should know how to swim and understand water safety. When he was 4 years old, we attended a baptism party for our friends’ daughter. They had a pool in the back yard. Some miscreant pushed him into the deep end of the pool; he was wearing his Sunday bests at the time. Rather than panicking, he swim to the side of the pool and got out. That is water safety is all about. Little did we know that he is a fish – he loves swimming and now competes in USA Swimming sanctioned meets.


                • “Some miscreant pushed him into the deep end of the pool; he was wearing his Sunday bests at the time.”

                  Well, it was a baptism party and the miscreant may have been a believer in baptism by full-immersion. Got to keep an eye on the Baptists near a pool.

                  • No true Baptist would use a swimming pool! If a built in baptistery is not yet built, (from countless bake sales sponsored by the church ladies, and long nights of barbecuing on an open pit by the elders) then a river, lake, or stock tank is appropriate.

                    /snark from one who LIVED this stuff.

                    • In our church we used what the kids referred to as the giant bathtub. My daughter went to a church here in Florida where they used what looked like an above ground swimming pool.

  3. Why do you call them nascent monsters? They merely mirror the views of those who see minmally adequate healthcare as a privilege only those capable of paying for it should have.

    It seems hypocritical to me to say otherwise, but of course I could be wrong.

      • Please distinguish the two situations for me then. I readily admit I may be completely off base, but if so, you should be able to easily show me where. It should be obvious, right? Given the comments.

        All I have so far in contradiction is assertion without reasoning. That’s not typical of this site, or at least, hasn’t been in the past. Maybe things have changed. Maybe the long cherished legal practice of table pounding and yelling like hell is now considered a superior substitute for reasoned argument. Entertaining, but sterile.

        If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell”

        Carl Sandberg

        That course is reasonable and ethical if the object is winning, rather than determining what reality is. Doing the best for one’s client, as you are their appointed Champion at law.. Not otherwise.

        As for me… I’m not trying to “win” some sterile battle of wits.

        “I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind.

        So please….Why do you call them nascent monsters? It seems to me “they merely mirror the views of those who see minimally adequate healthcare as a privilege only those capable of paying for it should have”. If that’s not the case, please show me where I’m wrong – as I may well be – using logic, reason and facts. I don’t see people holding such beliefs as nascent monsters. Should I?

        • The comparison. Please explain it carefully to me. It seems like you are saying these boys are reflecting the views of conservatives. Do I understand you correctly?
          The reason you are getting a dismissive response is because your premise sounds so outlandish. The only explanation I can come up with is you must be being or trying to be funny.

        • To pick up on what jack said – it’s like comparing apples and 1935 packards. And your response is, go ahead, I dare you to tell me how they’re different. Like jacks analogy, anyone could go on at lengths about how the two are different (ones a fruit, the others a car, etc.). But the short, sane, and rational answer is that the two LITERALLY have nothing to do with each other. They are nothing alike in even the slightest sense.

        • I assume that no one explained it because to do so would be insulting to YOUR intelligence. Which is also why I (and others) assumed you might be joking.

          But since you REALLY do seem to be on the level that your original comment suggested, here is a thorough explanation for you.

          1. Helping a drowning person is an emergency, life-saving situation. 100% of people in emergency medical situations will receive care in the United States, including an ambulance to rush them to the hospital. Zero people in emergency situations are turned away for insurance or financial reasons. 100% of Republicans are in favor of this arrangement. Therefore your analogy fails on the most fundamental level. I could just stop here.

          2. The different opinions in regard to health care have NOTHING to do with who receives care/is rescued (everyone does.) The question is who pays for the highly trained health professionals, and who pays for the expensive treatments and research. And so, in your poor analogy, the question is not whether the drowning man should be rescued (he will, in both Republican and Democrat-favored scenarios) but rather who pays later for the professional lifeguard rescuing him (in a Democrat-favored scenario, every citizen with a paycheck pays for both their own lifeguard, even if they don’t need one, AND picks up the full tab of everyone else. This is called “fair.” In the most libertarian of all Republican-favored scenarios, the patient is billed for his own care, and if he can’t possibly afford it or work out a voluntary payment arrangement, files for personal bankruptcy.)

          3. Rescuing a drowning man would be analogous, not to anything involving health insurance, but rather to a doctor administering life-saving treatment, on, say, an airplane to someone who was choking. I’m not sure if you really think that a Republican doctor wouldn’t save a choking person, or if you think that a Republican wouldn’t be in favor of a doctor saving a choking person…but given what data we have about the relationship between politics and personal compassion…it would be more likely to be the other way around.

        • Your assertion is like (as in, similar) to someone saying “Well, he could have been aborted and never lived, so the outcome is little different to progressives.”

          This comment I quoted reeks of sarcasm, cynicism, and political hackery: progressives do not take that position and attributing it that way is disingenuous.

          I assumed you were joking instead of thinking you were being deliberately disingenuous.

  4. 3) there was a post years ago where you covered a kid, as a minor, who had assaulted or killed another kid (I don’t recall), but he was never tried but the crime came out after he was an adult and he was tried as an adult for the crime he committed as a minority.

    I think the principle applies here: if we can’t publish the kids’ names because they are minors, I say publish them as they each become 18.

  5. I wonder why this surprises anyone. The most common response to any public activity is to pull out our phones to record it. Many folks go without hot food in restaurants in order to get a good shot of a meal. There are millions of YouTube videos, even whole websites, devoted to personal video of situations where someone could or, perhaps, should have intervened in some way. Neighborhood fights, abusive shoppers, the crazy guy on the subway, parents harshly disciplining their children, horrible accidents where the recorders are more numerous than those willing to help are just a few examples. The natural human reaction to observe has been enhanced by our ability to record, and it now seems to be the first response in almost every situation – the more harrowing the better. I’m sure there is some personal thrill involved in being able to post the result, garnering comments and ego-gratifying oohs and aahs.

    The situation in Florida is only the most horrible of them, right up there with the guy who posted pictures of himself with the corpse of his step-father, whom he had just murdered. Like everything else, this is a tiny part of a much bigger picture of who we are becoming as a culture. The 21st century ability to remain safely behind a screen while still feeling a full participant in life (Internet commenting a prime example) frees us of the necessary empathy (or simply humanity) to come from behind that screen to behave in ways that might be heroic or even civil. I have little difficulty seeing that behavior manifesting in children raised viewing life through a cell phone.

    The much larger question – at least for me – remains “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s a nagging question, versions of which swirl in and around almost all the major political issues of our day and, now, into our personal dealings with one another. It is always there, but we come up with more and novel ways to avoid actually answering or acting on it. Clearly, it never occurred to these boys. Cain didn’t want to answer the question. And, I suspect, neither do we.

    • “The most common response to any public activity is to pull out our phones to record it.”

      True enough for most of the known Universe, a group from which I self-exempt as a bitterly clinging, Samsung flip phone owning, Luddite.

      Another nagging question: why has no video surfaced showing, nay confirming, that an ”unarmed black teenager” with “hands up” in surrender mode (Michael Brown) was summarily gunned down by a racist White LE officer in Ferguson, MO in August 2014?

      One of the events that followed showed another example of monumental human depravity: the execution of a ‘White’ Bosnian, Zemir Begic, beaten to death by a pack of teens with freakin’ hammers.

      Another nagging question 2.0: Are “kids” that are so disconnected that they’d do something of that magnitude rehabilitatable?

      • I don’t know, Paul. I carry two cell phones, absolute wonders of technology, which remain in my briefcase most of the time although I’ll take one of them with me to a picture-taking occasion. My friends grit their teeth at receiving responses to texts that are weeks old. My relationship with my cellphone(s) was cemented when I had the opportunity to whale watch off of Maui. I realized that I was so concerned about my precious iThing getting wet or falling into the water that I wasn’t watching the whales. I put the phone away and decided that watching the real world with both eyes was more interesting and that’s what I try to do. I hope sincerely that that attitude would ensure that I offer whatever aid I can in a dire situation rather than wondering what it will look like on Facebook later on.

        Jack will tell you that I believe in the essential goodness of people and my capacity for the benefit of the doubt is probably well-developed past the point where it is good for me. Your 2.0 question begs that in a serious way, starting with the idea that in a once-removed way of living in and viewing the world (disconnected), these kids probably didn’t see that what they were doing was wrong which is a truly dreadful starting point. I can only hope that whatever innate kernel in us that speaks up for right and wrong does not shrink beyond our ability to hear it.

        Figuring out what and how to deal with this particular incident is screaming for a larger look at a far larger sense of general disconnection. I walk the streets of Washington, DC, every day and rarely meet the eye of another person – both their external and internal lives are happening on a device held in front of them. I recently had to explain to a friend that photographing and posting an event to his other, far-away, friends was impacting his attention to me, and I didn’t care for it. Suffice it to say, he didn’t see it that way. That was a fellow 50-something.

        • Mark; neglected to mention, I don’t text or “do” social media either. They tell me I don’t know what I’m missing; I reckon they’re probably right.

          I’ll use someone else’s “Boop-Beep-Beep” (Schlecht-Speak for iPhone) to take pictures…of them…so they have a complete picture with everyone in it.

          I take it a step further, when my 14 year-old nephew & 16 year-old niece visit we institute a “No-Boop-Beep-Beep” policy, which I’ll be the 1st to admit could use more consistent enforcement.

          Sent from my idesktop

          • Social media is a cancer on society, in the current incarnation. I refuse to use it (having been taught how to use it against others in years past) and suggest others avoid it as well. Everything is being saved by our loving Government, and can be accessed with a determined search, should they ever wish to.

            We also have banned devices from family activities, in certain cases. Family game night, for example, and family discussions.

            • Hear, hear! Phones are for making (here’s a concept) PHONE CALLS. Couple of weeks ago, I went to Houston to visit with my grandkids. Left my phone at home, intentionally. My son and his lady, along with my three grandchildren, were aghast that I would VOLUNTARILY cut my self off from contact. I don’t want to be in touch 24/7. One of the few advantages of going deaf is that I CAN’T HEAR THE DAMN THING RING.

    • The much larger question – at least for me – remains “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

      And the answer for me is “Yes, of course I am, it’s part of being a minimally decent human being”.

      Others may reasonably disagree. As I said, it’s the answer for me. While I would like others to be of the same view, I have no right to expect that, or to condemn those who feel differently.

      • “While I would like others to be of the same view, I have no right to expect that, or to condemn those who feel differently.”

        Hmmmmm, this is not a standard issue progressive point of view.

  6. If this is the culture encouraged there, I am going nowhere near Cocoa, Florida…or Brevard County, for that matter.

  7. Wyogranny said, “I find this reprehensible, crude, disturbing and a symptom of a society well into moral bankruptcy. But, not criminal. And for the reasons given.” I can’t improve on that but have some additional comments.

    According to what appears to be the latest news reports, it looks like the police are trying to pursue the charge of not reporting a death which is a misdemeanor. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the state’s attorney will go with that. It looks like it would be a pretty open and shut case especially since one of them reportedly discussed calling the police and was talked out of it (I have not viewed the video).

    Should there be a law requiring calling for assistance? It seems like it would be reasonable but as Jack says there are a number of thorny issues to be considered. My gut feeling is that there is really no reason for such a law. The vast majority of people who find themselves in this situation are going to be on their phone to 911 and most of those who swim would then go into the water to attempt rescue, often leading to there being two victims. The people who would not call 911 without a law are not going to do it because there is one.

    As a hypothetical, suppose as soon as becoming aware of the situation one of the individuals called 911 and then filmed it with nothing changed in the way of taunts or name calling. Would they deserve the same degree of opprobrium they are receiving now? What if everything in the film was the same except that a rescuer showed up and saved him? I think I would give them credit for the call but have to consider that the rest of their behavior remained reprehensible, crude, and disturbing. Their behavior would be just as disgusting if the man had ultimately been rescued by someone.

    According to reports the man who could not swim voluntarily entered the pond for an unknown reason. One of the accounts notes that he had an argument with his fiance shortly before he went to the pond. Putting those bits of information together strongly suggests that this was a suicide or a suicidal gesture that went wrong. I think it is also possible that at least some of the group knew the victim. Cocoa is a relatively small town with a population of about 20,000. One of the group on shore called him a junkie suggesting that they possibly knew or at least knew of him. Dunn is tatted up in a way that suggests gang or criminal activity. There is nothing in the accounts to confirm it but it appears possible that they may have taken advantage of a situation to get a little payback.

  8. Not to muddy the waters, but from a “Legal Insurrection” post last January:

    “If You Saw Your Dog and a Stranger Drowning, Which Would You Save First?”

    Scroll down to the comment from “Sailorcurt.” it’s worth reading.

    “but the choice between my dog and a complete stranger would be a very difficult one.”

    I’m in that…um…boat, and I’ll know if my good Golden Girl senses that there’d be any question, she’ll be giving me the stinkeye.

    • Sailorcurt did, indeed, have a thought-provoking comment. I also found ss396’s comment interesting (I had one of those, once, in an El Camino. Awesome motor). The difference between the two is the difference between a rationalist (or, possibly a new word), “realityist” and a devoted religionist. Between the two, I’d opt for Sailorcurt’s approach, but just walking up on the scene, I’d PROBABLY choose the human over my dog. I’d grieve for the dog, however.

  9. I think that Ann A. would not have written as she did if she had listened to the recording. I listened to it and it is chilling.

    I also wonder if those teenagers live in a home with their married father and mother. It has progressed far beyond theory that boys raised by single mothers tend to turn out in ways that are objectively bad. Not every single time for those inclined to jump on a statement like that, but from a statistical perspective it is clearly true. A short period of time in an internet search will reveal shockingly high proportions of prisoners in our system come from homes run by a single mother. I think that this issue is a large part of the answer to your question about the direction of our culture:

    “an episode that raises troubling questions about what kind of culture and society could produce young men so cruel and callous.”

  10. I am usually deeply skeptical of these kinds of stories. They are often wrong or misleading on a lot of the details, and the people telling them usually expect bystanders to act like trained first responders, or even action heroes, instead of like ordinary humans confronted by a novel and frightening situation.

    I’m not saying that’s the case here — that laughter and taunting is hard to account for — but I wouldn’t be surprised if some details come out to soften the story. For example, the water seems to be posted with alligator warning signs. If you saw someone intentionally walk into alligator infested waters, and you yelled at them how dangerous it was and they didn’t turn back, would you go in after them?

    Then there’s the fact that at least one of the boys was as young as 14. The idea that he might someday actually find himself in a position to save an adult from drowning might never have crossed his mind. Not in a way that he’d be prepared to act on it.

    As for calling not calling 911, what good would that have done? It was all over in a minute or two. I’m not saying they they shouldn’t have called 911, but in all likelihood the only harm from that was that it took so long to find the body.

    For that matter, even if a rescue team had shown up instantly, would they have been able to save the man? First responders don’t just kick off their shoes and leap into the water. By the time they donned flotation gear and rigged safety lines it might all have been over.

    Again, I’m not saying that these boys didn’t do anything wrong, and the taunting and laughing sounds disgusting. but it’s probably not as bad as it sounds. These things usually aren’t. You’re right to be cautious in pronouncing judgement.

  11. It’s the taunting and laughing that are the most difficult things to hear about. And, are the things that point to some kind of social pathology. If I came upon a drowiing person I wouldn’t have the skills to dive in and attempt a rescue but I would try every thing I could do to make a rescue possible. Throwing a flotation devise, calling 911, running for help, whatever I could figure out.

    What I wouldn’t do is I wouldn’t stop to judge whether 911 responders would arrive in time. What I wouldn’t do is open up an internal dialog about how I had no duty to rescue or whether the drowning person deserved rescuing. What I wouldn’t do is taunt and laugh. What I wouldn’t do is point out to the drowning person that they got themselves into this fix and they can just get themselves out.

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