From The “Duty To Rescue” Files: Am I Wrong That The Ethics Conundrum Of “The Drunk Young Woman And The Stranger” Has An Obvious Answer?

, the current author of the Times Magazine “The Ethicist” column and the first proprietor who is an actual ethicist, devoted a whole column this weekend to exploring a variant on the duty to rescue, via this question, which I have redacted a bit (you can read the whole question here), from “Laura”:

I went to a bar that was playing live music and sat at a table very close to the band. A young woman noticed an empty seat at our table and asked if she could join us. She was friendly, intelligent and also clearly drunk, slurring words and feeling no pain.  She came in alone.

Right beside her was a musician in the band. He wasn’t needed in all the songs, so he was free to chat quite a bit, and you could see there was chemistry between him and Kim, but they had not met before. Kim left to use the restroom and when she returned, the musician was with her, carrying her drink. Around 11 p.m., my companion and I were ready to call it a night. We said our goodbyes and left. I’ve thought a lot about  if I should have done something. Perhaps it’s because of #MeToo,but I felt uncomfortable leaving Kim there so drunk and alone. Should I have said something to the bartenders? They were so busy and not really able to watch over the customers. I would like to think that under normal circumstances they would have made sure she got in an Uber by herself (and not with a stranger), or at least would have made sure she didn’t leave with someone against her will. But was she too drunk to give consent? Should I have said something to her, like, “Are you going to be O.K. getting home?” She didn’t appear to be anywhere close to wanting to go home. she was of legal age. Should I have said something to the musician, who seemed like a decent man? have allowed myself the fantasy that he knew she was drunk, made sure she got home safely and did not take advantage of her, but instead took her phone number and checked on her the next day. What was the right thing for me to do in this situation?

The Ethicist devotes the entire column to this query, as if there is a real ethical dilemma here. In my opinion, there is not. “Laura” is suffering from ideological misandry, and presuming the young woman, whom she agrees is an adult, is in peril simply because she is in proximity to a man. He has done nothing to justify such fears. Moreover, the young woman has made the choice to get drunk in a locale where getting drunk is normal behavior. She deserves her autonomy, and the presumption that, as an adult, she can take care of herself….just like the musician she was talking to. The young woman’s social interactions are none of Laura’s business. It is not up to Laura to determine whether the young woman is capable of consent–and consent to what? Sex? Rape? In the absence of witnessing anything out of the ordinary or legitimately sinister except for Laura’s unjustified bias against men (or maybe musicians), she has no reason to impute bad intentions to the musician, or to assume helpless potential victim status for the woman.

This is where feminism is steeped in hypocrisy. I am woman, hear me roar, I ‘m as good as any man, but we are also poor little lambs and vulnerable victims that need constant protection from the big, bad world. Women want choices and control over their bodies, but the young woman’s choice to perhaps put too much alcohol ins hers at a bar requires intervention from older, wiser, good Samaritans. No. The woman is accountable for her conduct. As are we all. There is no duty to rescue when there is no genuine threat.

Appiah devotes almost a thousand words to this question—956, to be precise. He only needed five.

“You did the right thing.”

Hey, but I’m just AN ethicist, not “The Ethicist”…maybe I’m wrong. Your poll:


25 thoughts on “From The “Duty To Rescue” Files: Am I Wrong That The Ethics Conundrum Of “The Drunk Young Woman And The Stranger” Has An Obvious Answer?

  1. I believe there is no “correct” ethical answer this time. On the one hand each person is, as you indicate, responsible for one’s own behavior. On the other hand. when a person engages in behavior that may (not will, may) create a dangerous situation for her/himself, the kind thing for an observer who witnesses the behavior would be to gently intervene. “Would you like me to stay and drive you home when you’re ready?” probably risks only a negative reaction to the intervenor. The “intervention “ (if one insists on calling it that) should not and need not signal any belief that the man may be a bad actor…and I am optimistic enough to believe that most aren’t. Bottom line for me: probably not unethical to say and do nothing, unless the observer has actual reason to believe there is danger. Not “unethical” (and therefore ethical) to intervene. Now wonder the survey is about 50/50. In my view, there is either no correct answer or 2 correct answers — from an ethical point of view. If one decides to intervene, just don’t do it the way I did when I was very young and in the military. A big guy was hitting hard on a young woman who was having trouble managing to keep from falling off her barstool. “Knock it off, “I said, “I never met a marine that didn’t have ______ for brains”. Friends dragged me out of the bar. The furious marine left. What’s unethical? An inebriated person intervening with 2 other inebriated people?

    • Your analysis would explain The Ethicist’s long and (unnecessarily) complex answer, which follows:

      Was she too drunk, you wonder, to give consent? There are people who say that consent can be given in any state short of incapacitation, which is, indeed, the law in many states. (“Incapacitation” suggests that you’re drifting in and out of consciousness; that you don’t know what’s happening, whom you’re with, how you got there.) There are people who say that sex under the influence of alcohol is always wrong. Neither is a plausible position.

      Memoirs about drinking, as it happens, are one place where you find people thinking hard about alcohol and agency. “Many yeses on Friday night would have been noes on Saturday morning,” Sarah Hepola wrote in her powerful book “Blackout.” Were those yeses therefore less than consensual? Not in her view. She chafes against the notion that the bad actor who provides you with drinks got you drunk, as she wrote in Texas Monthly, and insists, “I’d gotten myself drunk.” One reason the issue of sex under the influence is complicated is that people often imbibe for its expected consequences — they seek a lessening of inhibition.

      “We found sex compelling and terrifying and foreign, and drank to deal with it,” Caroline Knapp recalled in her own memoir, “Drinking: A Love Story.” She wrote: “A naturally inhibited person, someone who grew up feeling mystified and insecure about what it meant to feel sexual, I turned to liquor the way a dancer turns toward music: It felt central to the process, central to my ability to shut down the voices of self-criticism in my own head and simply let go.”

      These are authors who struggled with alcoholism; they were hardly commending their decisions, or the way they turned to booze or what booze provided them. But they were clear that going home with someone you wouldn’t have otherwise gone home with doesn’t mean you’ve been assaulted. “The reason I liked getting drunk,” Hepola wrote, “was because it altered my consent: It changed what I would say yes to.”

      Somewhere in the gradient of intoxication, between the glass or two of wine at dinner to outright incapacitation, consent becomes attenuated. Yet there’s little agreement about when. Our ideas of consent derive from our ideas of autonomy — and those ideas become complicated when we take steps that we know will affect our decision making. That happens in benign contexts: You go out to a karaoke night knowing you’d never sing karaoke without a couple of beers in you. And it happens in more consequential ones.

      Where to draw the line? I can imagine various approaches. One would focus on the continuity of self: If a person drinks, up to a certain point, she might make decisions she otherwise wouldn’t — and yet afterward she can still tell a coherent narrative about herself, as a subject with beliefs, desires and intentions that are intelligible to her when she’s sober. She can replay her decisions and remember why she made them, even if she wouldn’t make them now. That continuity of self would be violated if she became blackout drunk and woke up with a stranger. The stranger, we can feel, should have known that she was in no condition to be making any decisions.

      But whatever approach we try, none of them will mark a precise point on the road from buzzed to blotto. As an ethical matter, moreover, you want to avoid making bad decisions, or letting others make bad decisions, even when consent isn’t at issue. When your judgment is impaired by alcohol, you’re more likely to engage in risky sexual activity, more likely to expose yourself to S.T.D.s, unwanted pregnancy and more.

      Which brings us to your second question. When is it a good idea, or possibly even a duty, to intervene in order to protect a stranger? In this case, a reason for restraint is that, as you note, it can be disrespectful to question a fellow adult’s decisions. Still, when someone is seriously intoxicated, her right to manage her own life is lessened by her diminished capacity. (Condescension would be in play only if you were treating her as incompetent when she wasn’t.) And the fact that she might be only 21 carries weight, too. Her experience with drinking and drunkenness might not be comparable to that of someone a few years older.

      Another reason not to intervene might be that there is someone else who has a duty to do so. In this case, that duty might lie, ethically speaking, with the bar and its staff members. So pointing out to them that she was drunk would have been a good idea. In most states, so-called “dram shop” laws make establishments potentially liable for some of the bad consequences of serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated people. Telling bartenders that a customer is drunk often gives them a reason to stop serving them. This would only leave you off the hook, though, if you thought that they would act on your information, and you had doubts about that.

      It’s worth noting that, contrary to the assumptions people often make, the fact that the musician wasn’t drunk is a good thing, because it means he was more likely to exercise sound judgment. (Our minds run to the calculating predator and his impaired victim, but statistically, alcohol use by the perpetrator is a big risk factor.) You evidently struck up a conversation with the student in which you learned her name and her circumstances — that’s a good thing, too. But yes, you would have done well to say something to the musician, conveying your concern for the young woman. A subtle sense of being in the public view can make it more likely that people will behave the way they know they ought to.

      • No one ever mentions the possibility of being preyed upon by another woman. This fact alone demonstrates the inherent bias against males. Sexual exploitation of drunken persons can occur by any gender. For that reason the responsibility falls on the establishment to protect the customer if any duty to rescue does arise.

  2. The question related to a duty to intervine. I believe there is no duty to do anything especially given she was not a member of their party.

    With that said, because she engaged the writer’s group it would be appropriate to ask her, given her inebriated appearance, if she needed help getting home . If she says no you are done. Attempting further involvement is wrong.

    The only exception to this is if you know she will drive. Then notify the staff and let them handle it because they are the ones at risk of liability.

    • This is pretty much my answer, too. Ethically, Jack is right that there’s no need to intervene, but it seems like the nice thing to do is simply ask her if she needs help getting home, as a “common courtesy” sort of thing. If the answer is no, then it’s “OK, enjoy the rest of your evening”, and I go on with my life.

  3. I just voted ‘No’. ‘Hell No!’ seems a little extreme, and you, as usual, are spot on with your analysis. Just a by-the-bye, you ARE “THE” Ethicist for some of us.

  4. When I was in the military, we had this kind of training called bystander intervention. It basically stated that every one of us had a duty to intervene if we thought something bad would happen. This scenario sounds similar to the one they presented in these videos they showed to all of us. The scenario there was a woman at a party, too young to legally drink, but drinking regardless. She ended up getting together with an older man, who she claimed raped her in her drunken state. We were taught that people should have intervened when they saw her drinking. I would agree. Anyone at that party could have received administrative punishment for being at a party where someone underage was drinking.

    However, even if she had been of legal drinking age, we were taught to intervene when it seemed like the older man was going to take her to a private room. In other training, it was taught to us that no meaningful consent could be given if there was even a small amount of alcohol involved. It took me a while to figure out what seemed off about the whole thing, and I eventually came to the conclusion that the whole program was designed to take personal responsibility away from individuals. Not intentionally, but that was the culture that was slowly being incorporated into the military, at least the places where I was stationed.

    It seems that the general culture is trending away from personal responsibility. And perhaps that’s why Kwame Appiah felt the need to write such a lengthy response. For many people, the notion of self responsibility might be completely foreign. It’s important to realize that one’s decisions can cause terrible consequences. That doesn’t mean that nobody should help anybody else, but at the end of the day, whatever happens can be traced back to the individual.

  5. Not only no, but “Hell no!”

    If I were drunk off my ass and somebody tried to “help” me avoid a hook-up, whether I was consent-worthy or not, I would tell them to pound sand and mind their own bees-wax.

    Why should a woman be any different? Isn’t she supposed to be the full equivalent of a man, especially in the area of deciding what is best for her, including:

    a) how much to drink;
    b) who to flirt/ associate with;
    c) who to go home with;
    d) who to do… whatever with?

    If not, #MeToo has no meaning. Sorry, girls, but you’re on your own. If you pass out and someone I know you don’t know wants to take you somewhere while unconscious, I’ll intervene. Hell, I’d intervene as soon as you went unconscious and get you medical attention or a friend to help.

    But if you’re conscious, you’re on you own unless you ask for my assistance. I’d damned sure demand the same of you.

  6. If Kim wanted out she could just ask for an “angel shot” or whatever other bs term is used to signal the bar staff that she wants to be led out the back door, or have a cab called, or have the police called. It’s not anyone else’s business to go trying to white knight, any more than that idiot from Texas was doing the right thing by telling a gate attendant who treated another passenger roughly “I’ll knock you flat.”

  7. I am so with the “Hell, no” response. I’m a woman of the 60s who just wanted to have the same opportunities as men–no more, no less. I’m disgusted by the current “feminist” attitude that women are victims. Victims of what? My first job interview in 1969 was with a bank for a trainee position in lending. I was told that the bank didn’t hire women because they got married and pregnant and left to be mothers wasting the bank’s training resources. My initial response was to laugh at him knowing that he was short-sighted. I thanked him and went out and found a better job that led me to an MBA and a far more interesting career than banking offered. Why women (all humans for that matter) think that life won’t present obstacles (usually in the form of another human being) is silly. One of the great characteristics of mankind is our resilience to bounce back–something that is sadly lacking in this victimhood generation.

  8. They didn’t even know this woman. They don’t know what she wants. They don’t know why she is there. I know more than one woman who has gone to a bar on purpose to get drunk and find a man to have sex with. I know women who did this habitually in their 20’s and were angry if men wouldn’t have sex with them. I even know a woman who went to a bar near a military base to get pregnant because she could be sure of child support and the child would have good benefits (she had 4 children this way).

    Now, if they knew this woman and knew some reason to keep her from leaving with a strange man, that is different. I once went to a club with a large group one night. A woman who had just broken up with her boyfriend got very drunk and started (uncharacteristically) dancing with younger men she didn’t know. We decided to let her have her fun, but to post people near each exit to make sure she didn’t leave. We knew her well enough to know that she was going to be embarrassed the next day from the dancing and we just wanted to keep her from doing something she would really regret. We ultimately didn’t have to. After dancing for awhile she sat down with the group and exclaimed “I can’t believe I just did that” about 10 times, then wanted to go home.

  9. No, but not quite ‘hell no.’ As a relative stranger, the LW did not know if the woman intended to get drunk and have a hookup. I saw a bunch of that in my college days, newly 21, who would have not only gotten mad to be questioned in public but quaffed more in spite. (My school had a rep for drinking)

    Any ref more personal than checking if she had a lift home because of how jovial she was, was too paternalistic. Sometimes people learn life’s lessons the hard way…

  10. -Hell NO
    most I might ask is “Do you have a ride home?” Treating women as children is one of the many ways we are destroying agency in America.

  11. Naive fool that I am, I went with ‘intervene’, and I blame this poor decision on my lack of significant bar-hopping, pick-up, hook-up experience, which I have hopes of correcting some day, should my wife not object too strenuously.

    But, ‘intervene’ includes a wide range of actions, and I would have gone with the least offensive one (to my simple mind), something along the lines of, “We’re heading out in a few minutes and we can give you a ride home, if you need one.” (Note: were I and my companion in this scenario both Male, I would go all Pence and that offer would not be made. Instead, ‘We’re going, you okay?’)

    We’re supposed to be kind and responsible, right? She was at our table. We conversed. So, not a member of our party, yet, a bit of a member.

    I did not see this as a boy in the band trying to get lucky with a drunk woman. I did not see it as a woman getting drunk to precipitate a hook-up. I did not see it as a situation where a simple act of human kindness would be cause for a hostile reaction. Naive fool, as I said (although, toxic white male that I am, I have experienced harsh glares when holding a door open for a womyn).

    Nope. I saw it as a situation where a fellow human being might need a little friendliness, and I could provide that by intervening, modestly. Heck, even some of the ‘Hell, no’ people here were not completely ‘Hell, no’.

  12. I say hell no! But I’m focused on this part:

    I felt uncomfortable leaving Kim there so drunk and alone.

    She wasn’t alone, of course. She was with a musician who seemed nice, there were two or more bartenders, and there were enough customers that all of the bartenders were busy.

    If she had been alone — if I had been one of the last people left in the bar with a person who was alone and very drunk, especially a woman — then I probably would have said something either to her or to the bartender to make sure she had a safe way to get home. Otherwise, I would butt out.

    In answer to the question, why “especially a woman,” my answer is that I think a drunk woman walking around alone at night is generally in greater danger than a drunk man,

  13. There’s nothing wrong with not intervening in this case. There’s also nothing wrong with a friendly “Hey, we’re heading out. You okay here?”

    From Kim’s perspective, even with all agency intact, it’s nice knowing someone has your back just in case.

  14. There is no “duty to rescue” unless there is something real to support that the woman is actually in danger; this doesn’t appear to be the case. Choose to stay and observe if your suspicions overwhelms your reason but otherwise keep your nose out of it.

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