The “better angels of our nature” are not always present during times of disaster.
Among the hero stories throughout Hurricane Sandy, one account stands in stark contrast. During the height of the storm, with water rushing into her home on New York’s Staten Island, Glenda Moore gathered her two sons, 4-year-old Connor and 2-year-old Brendan, strapped them into the backseat of her Ford Explorer and attempted to drive to the safety of her sister’s home in Brooklyn. However, at some point during her drive, they all became trapped inside the car by rising waters. In exiting the car, Moore lost her hold on both boys and they were swept away.
Distraught, the 39-year-old mother and nurse went for help from neighbors. According to an online report in Jewish Times, another neighbor said, “The first [door] she knocked on, she begged them and said: ‘Please call 911.’ They told her: ‘I don’t know you’ and closed the door. She tried another door but they turned the lights off… She sat down for 12 hours and was just screaming. She was out of it. When it got to morning she went and found a police car and told him what happened.”
Several days later, Police found the bodies of Connor and Brandan Moore.
In a New York Times editorial (Nov. 6), Jay Sterling Silver, a law professor at St. Thomas University, asks Can the Law Make Us Be Decent?
“In many states, Silver writes, “Good Samaritans are protected from liability if their well-intentioned efforts inadvertently result in harm. But the Bad Samaritan, if you will — the callous bystander who refuses to render even minimal help in a dire emergency — goes unpunished. No matter how grave the danger or how minor the effort needed to prevent harm, citizens are not required to provide help.”
Silver offers two examples where individuals were in life-threatening situations and bystanders ignored pleas for help.
“Perhaps the most famous example of hardhearted indifference to brutality also comes from New York City,” Silver writes, “the murder of Kitty Genovese, a 29-year-old woman, in Queens in 1964. Initial news accounts… reported that some 38 neighbors looked down from their apartments but did nothing to call the police or intervene, even while the assailant stalked and stabbed Miss Genovese over the course of a half-hour before fleeing.
“…in 1983, Cheryl Araujo, a 21-year-old woman, was gang-raped on a pool table in a New Bedford, Mass., tavern while patrons stood by.”
However, “In 1967,” Silver points out, “Vermont adopted a law requiring people to render reasonable assistance to someone who is in grave danger, but the penalty for noncompliance is only a token civil fine… Minnesota and Wisconsin later adoptedlaws like Vermont’s establishing a general rescue duty…”
“But with the exception of a few jurisdictions,” Silver says, “the ‘no duty’ rule remains largely the same as it was famously described by William L. Prosser, the dean of American tort law: ‘The expert swimmer, with a boat and a rope at hand, who sees another drowning before his eyes, is not required to do anything at all about it, but may sit on the dock, smoke his cigarette, and watch the man drown.’ ”
Silver puts forth a possible legal way to fill the ethical gap: “A sensible statute might read like this: ‘Any person who knows that another is in imminent danger, or has sustained serious physical harm, and who fails to render reasonable assistance shall be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to three months, or both.’ ”
While this may sound reasonable on the surface, I’m a little wary of creating such a law.
In a paper entitled, The Peculiar Concept of Ethics Laws, ethicist and teacher, Michael Josephson writes, “While ethics is about should, laws are about must. They prohibit or mandate specific conduct. Obeying the law is a matter of compliance, and illegal conduct results in sanctions including fines and imprisonment. Living ethically is a matter of conscience. Unethical conduct results in shame and perhaps criticism, scandal or disgrace.”
Josephson says that you can’t legislate morality. “But we can require moral conduct.”
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote: “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
Whether it is law or conscience, there will always be those who lack the motivation and moral courage to do the right thing.
Instead, let’s try to focus more on education and role-models. When faced with difficult decisions, let’s remember that Lincoln’s “better angels” are in fact, our own good conscience.