“Should Bystanders Have a Legal Duty To Intervene?” Of Course Not, But It’s Worth Thinking About Why It’s A Terrible Idea

The real mystery is why a law professor would ever conclude that it was a good idea.

Amos N. Guiora, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, has authored The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust, In it, he addresses the   bystander-victim relationship, focusing on the Holocaust. He comes to the remarkable conclusion that a society cannot rely on morality, ethics and compassion alone to move its members to come to the assistance of another human being in danger. He insists that it is a legal issue, and that society should make the obligation to intervene a legal duty, and  non-intervention a crime.

Wow. Here is a shining example of how bias can make smart people not only stupid, but blind. I have not read the book (I did listen to this podcast), because his contention is self-evidently anti-ethical, and typifies the attitude that has led to the criminalizing of so much in U.S. society that rigorous enforcement of the law would make the nation a police state. The Holocaust is the worst possible starting point for this issue: to state the most obvious absurdity, if the government is the victimizer, who would enforce the laws against not assisting victims? I get it, though: the professor is angry and bitter that the international community and Christians didn’t forcefully intervene before Hitler was on the verge of liquidating Non-Aryans from the face of the earth. But no law within imagination would have prevented this unique catastrophe. Nor would the kinds of laws he advocates improve the fate of most victims, or be practically enforceable.

Ethics Alarms has discussed the duty to rescue often and in great detail, and often notes, “when ethics fail, the law steps in.” The second stage of that statement is “and usually makes a mess of it.”  This is the compliance/ethics divide so exposed by corporate compliance rules, regulations and laws, which have done little to improve corporate conduct, and have provided cover for complainant and creative misconduct, like Wall Street leading up to the 2008 crash. Giving up on the teaching and strengthening of ethical values in society in favor of mandating what the state regards as “right” by inflicting punishment degrades society and insults humanity, treating it as if it is incapable of learning to care about others and society at large.  It also seldom works. The duty to rescue exists, but society must encourage and foster it by nurturing ethical society members, not by threatening them with punishment.

Society cannot mandate compassion—a law requiring charity?—kindness—a ticket for not rescuing an abandoned dog or helping a blind man across the street?—honesty–fines for telling a date that you’ll call the next day when you won’t?—-or courage —Sweep that child up whose in the path of a semi, or to jail. Of course it can’t. Increasing reliance on the state to force what a powerful group regard as “good behavior” is the catalyst of the current totalitarian bent of the American Left. Doesn’t the professor realize that what he is advocating leads directly to the Holocaust, and not away from it?

This is one slippery slope that needs a fence around it. Continue reading

Oh, Great: Ben Carson’s Model For How To Be President Is Barack Obama

And here's some advice for YOU, doctor: Shut up.

And here’s some advice for YOU, doctor: Shut up.

This is what I feared: Barack Obama’s irresponsible and deluded belief that being elected President makes him the Authority In All Things—the belief that I have referred to as the result of a flat learning curve,  would become a precedent luring future POTUSes into mischief. Sure enough, here is Ben Carson presuming to tell terrified people confronted by a mad gunman how to behave.

Ben Carson doesn’t have a clue how to be President, much less how to play hero. He has no relevant experience with either challenge, and this most recent silly statement, and it’s not his first, shows why Carson should stick to the operating room.  I covered a lot of this issue here, pointing out that the theoretical, hindsight heroes who just knew they would have reacted better than Mike McQueary when he witnessed Jerry Sandusky apparently molesting a child in a Penn State gym shower are engaging in convenient self-glorifying fantasies. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

Hindsight Bias Case Study: Shooting D.C.’s Post Partum, Mad-Dog Driver

"Ok, now, let's talk about this: what other options do we have to stop this mad-dog driver, other than shooting her? Ma;'am, will you pleas take 5 in your murderous rampage while we meet? Ma'am?"

“Ok, now, let’s talk about this: what other options do we have to stop this mad-dog driver, other than shooting her? Ma;’am, will you pleas take 5 in your murderous rampage while we meet? Ma’am?”

Hindsight bias isn’t the worst or most pernicious reasoning fallacy, but it may be the most annoying, and is certainly the most common. After an event in which one or more instant decisions had to be made in seconds or minutes, critics with time a-plenty solemnly explain how they would have done things differently, and how the original decision-maker was stupid, cowardly, misguided, incompetent, unethical, or even criminal. The most striking example of a hind-sight bias victim in recent years is Penn State’s Mike McQueary, but at least in his situation there is room for argument, though I argued here that few of his critics can know how they would have responded under similar circumstances. In the case of this week’s shooting of a crazed Capitol Hill kamikaze motorist, later determined to be a troubled dental hygienist who may have been suffering from post-partum depression, I don’t think the criticism is rational, fair or justified, and shows hindsight bias at its worst.


Of course the Secret Service had to shoot her. It would have been reckless and negligent had they not. She had tried to crash through the White House barricades in an automobile. She had run down one officer, for all anyone knew at the time, fatally. She was refusing to stop, and was near D.C.’s Union Station, where there are people everywhere, and a car can easily run up on the sidewalks, which are wide. She had to be stopped immediately, or innocent people, maybe many people, were likely to die.

After she expired from the shots fired at her (but not before peeling away at a high speed), it was determined that the driver, later identified as Miriam Carey, was unarmed. The shooting agents didn’t know that, so it’s irrelevant. Besides, she was armed, with a deadly vehicle, and her motives were unclear. For all the officers knew, she was trying to kill as many pedestrians as she could. This wasn’t a typical situation or traffic stop. This was occurring at the center of our government, and security officers have to take enhanced precautions. The welfare of the individual causing the threat is not, and should not be, the primary concern.

Two factors in the incident seem do drive the unethical amateur second-guessing. One was that the woman’s toddler was in the car, and might have been harmed. This was not the Secret Service’s problem. Carey put her daughter in harm’s way, and if her conduct resulted in the child’s injury or death, she would have been totally responsible, not the agents who shot into the car. (They apparently were not aware of the child’s presence, so again, this in not a fair factor to consider after the fact.) The other factor: guns were involved. Thanks to programmed paranoia and gun-phobia irresponsibly planted in the culture by anti-gun zealots, many, too many, Americans arrive at a reflex position that any gun-related death is unnecessary, because guns, after all, are evil and should be banned. Such opinions should be treated as the products of deranged minds, or excessive Piers Morgan viewing.

A Facebook friend (and regular friend too), a distinguished and intelligent former journalist who I’m sure won’t mind my quoting him, asked his social network, “WAS THERE NO OTHER WAY?” That question is the epitome of hindsight bias. Sure there were other ways. Maybe an agent could have dived in the car window and dislodged her. Maybe a well-aimed shot at her hands could have made it impossible to drive. Perhaps they could have shot out the tires, hoping that the driver didn’t realize that you can still make a car with flat tires move at a pretty good clip, at least for a while. An electro-magnetic pulse might have stopped all the engines in the vicinity, neutralizing the car. Maybe Batman was nearby, or Corey Booker. None of that matters, because the security officials involved were in a unique and unprecedented situation, and had to accomplish their prime objective, stopping a dangerous individual in a highly populated area, under pressure, while in peril themselves, as quickly as possible. The proper question is not whether they could have done better, upon calm analysis and reflection. The question should only be, “Was the response reasonable under the circumstances?”

It was.


Sources: Washington Post 1, 2

The Man On The Subway Tracks


Subway Headline

It is destined to become a classic case in photojournalism ethics. Someone pushed 58-year-old Ki Suk Han pushed onto a 49th Street station  subway track in New York City. R. Umar Abbasi,  a New York Post freelance photographer was  on the platform when it happened, and took a photo as the subway train bore down on the terrified man. He was killed, and the photo became a lurid, if dramatic, Post front page.

There have been many ethical questions raised about the incident. Let’s examine them.

Was it ethical for the New York Post run the photo?

This is the easiest of the issues: of course it was. The photo is dramatic, the incident was news, the paper had an exclusive, and readers were interested. The Post might have decided that it would be in better taste not to run the photo, and that decision might be praiseworthy. Still, there is no good argument to be made that such a photograph is outside the range of acceptable items for publication. By the ethical standards of 21st Century journalism, admittedly low, the Post’s call isn’t even close to the line. Objections to the photo on ethical grounds are pure “ick factor.” Continue reading

Ethics Blindness in the Media: ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard Keep a Child Predator on the Prowl

I know it is difficult keeping up with all the sports child molestation stories. This isn’t the Penn State football program scandal, where university officials carefully looked the other way while football coaching legend Jerry Sandusky apparently was using the campus to trap and abuse kids. This isn’t the Bill Conlin scandal, in which the sports writer just accorded the highest honor from his peers has also been accused of sexually molesting children. The topic is the Syracuse University basketball scandal, where once again an alleged molester was allowed to escape detection and prosecution for years, this time because of a perverted concept of journalistic ethics.

In 2002, ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard were given an audiotape on which the wife of Bernie Fine, the Syracuse University assistant basketball coach now accused of serial sex abuse, told one of the alleged victims of molestation that she knew “everything that went on” with her husband’s crimes. Both the paper and the network decided not to run stories based on the tape and the victim’s claims, and never sent it to law enforcement authorities.

They kept the tape in the files, until the step-brother of Bobby Davis, the former ball boy who made the initial recording, came forward to accuse Fine of molesting him, too. Then the tape was released, and Syracuse University fired Fine the day it aired.

The question: why didn’t the Post-Standard or ESPN give the tape to the police? How many children were molested because they didn’t? Continue reading

Judging McQueary: Child Rape Bystander Ethics

You have no excuses, Kal-El. But the rest...

“It was cowardly for a 6′4″ graduate assistant to witness the rape of a child by an older man and not only take no action to stop it but also not even call the police,” writes David French in the National Review.

He is, of course, referring to Mike McQueary, then a 28-year-old graduate student assistant coach for Joe Paterno at Penn State. Others have declared that it was an “absolute moral imperative” that McQueary physically intervene to stop the sexual assault.

It is interesting that the absolute moral imperative is nonetheless linked to qualifiers. French references McQueary’s size and the fact that the alleged assailant, Jerry Sandusky, is older. Some critics have focused on his gender. Still others, making the argument that McQueary failed to intervene because he didn’t take a child rape seriously enough, have suggested that he would have acted differently had Sandusky been beating, rather than raping the child. Of all the ethical debates surrounding the Penn State scandal, the question of how much scorn should be heaped on McQueary for not acting immediately to stop the rape in progress has been the most fascinating, and to my mind, the most disingenuous. It appears that every commentator, male or female, young or old, fat or fit, is convinced that would have charged in and battled the 57-year-old former wide-receiver, pummeling him into wet submission while the child escaped. Maybe. Studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that in fact, most people wouldn’t physically intervene. Perhaps sportswriters and op-ed writers are made of sterner stuff that the rest of the public.

Yes, that must be it.

None of this is to suggest that physically stopping a child rape in progress isn’t the right thing to do; it is. For his part, McQueary reputedly didn’t take any action to stop the assault,* which in order of effectiveness would be… Continue reading

Penn State Primer: 15 Ethics Alarms on the Duty to Rescue and the Bystander Problem

Tiring of the smug and remarkably vicious Paterno defenders who have designated Mike McQueary for infamy because he failed to stop the Penn State child rapist in action, and who have accused me of supporting such inaction in rescue situations when my position, record, writings, belief and life experience proves the opposite, I offer these previous Ethics Alarms posts on the topics of rescue and bystander inaction. It is a useful, if sometimes disturbing review of various aspects in a complex issue. I don’t really expect the commenters previously referenced to allow rational thought to interfere with their certitude and vendetta, but most visitors here are not so wired.

A new post, focusing especially on McQueary, will be along soon, but today is Veterans Day, and I have my own duty to attend to: honoring Maj. Jack Marshall, Sr., 1920-2009, WWII veteran, Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart veteran, a true hero his entire life, in every way imaginable.

I am quite confident that he would not only have stopped Jerry Sandusky from molesting the boy, he might well have shot him.

Here are the 15 selected essays: Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Mike McQueary and Me”

Some recent Ethics Alarms commenters

Joseph Edward bought me some time with this superb Comment of the Day, because I am writing a post on the same topic. Mike McQueary’s conduct in the locker room, when he allegedly witnesses Jerry Sandusky raping a boy,  has generated some of the most self-righteous and, I may say, annoying comments I’ve encountered on Ethics Alarms, characterizing my commentary (in “Mike McQueary and Me”) on why McQueary might have acted as he did with excusing his conduct. Most of these, I’m relatively certain, are motivated by those who want to shift responsibility for the Penn State debacle away from Joe Paterno.

One particularly persistent and vociferous commenter has decreed that it was an “absolute moral obligation” for McQueary to physically intervene to stop the assault he witnessed. Joseph touches on that dubious contention; I’ll have more to say about it soon. Meanwhile, here is his Comment of the Day, on “Mike McQueary and Me”: Continue reading

Ethics Mystery: How Can Penn State Let McQueary Coach the Team For Saturday’s Game?


It is almost too weird to contemplate. Penn State has fired both its president and football coach Joe Paterno over their failure to take necessary measures to protect young boys who they knew were targets of what appears, and appeared to be, a serial child molester, Jerry Sandusky. Paterno was fired yesterday specifically to eliminate the pall that would be cast over all Penn State activities, including this Saturday’s game, if he were to continue as coach, and to make sure that the university didn’t project a “business as usual” attitude by allowing its community to blithely cheer Paterno’s team as if a child molesting scandal could be brushed aside for a weekend of fun and games.

And yet Penn State plans to have Mike McQueary coach the team on Saturday, rendering all of this incoherent. McQueary was the one who witnessed the act of sexual assault that triggered the whole scandal. He reported it to Paterno, but 1) didn”t stop it when he had the chance, and 2) did nothing to make certain that Sandusky’s criminal conduct was being properly handled afterwards. His presence as coach on Saturday all but eliminates whatever message Penn State intended to send by firing Paterno. The bottom line will be that the team will still be coached by an individual who didn’t do everything he could  and should have done to protect young boys from a predator. Continue reading