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.