Posted on 20 November, 2012

Decency, as required by law

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, stories are emerging that some New York City residents did not act in the most ethical of ways. Consider this example:

On Staten Island, according to several news accounts, a woman named Glenda Moore tried to flee the storm on Monday by driving herself and her sons to safety in their blue Ford Explorer. But the vehicle got trapped in the swirling waters, so Ms. Moore unbuckled the two boys — Connor, 4, and Brandon, 2 — to head for dry land. They got separated from her, and were swept away. Battling water and wind, Ms. Moore frantically knocked on neighbors’ doors asking for help, but her pleas were ignored. On Thursday, the boys’ lifeless bodies were found nearby.        

Which has spurred St. Thomas University law professor Jay Sterling Silver to propose that a new law might make some bad samaritans act decently:

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.” Civil liability could also be established, as in other countries.

A duty to help would not require bystanders to endanger themselves or provide help beyond their abilities; it could simply require warning someone of imminent danger or calling 911. It wouldn’t bring back the two boys, but it would require us to accept our fundamental moral duty to help those in grave peril.        

But Jess Coleman isn’t buying it:

Whether it was in response to Prohibition or the recent war on drugs, Americans have long rejected government efforts to alter their moral code. Indeed, as the author C. S. Lewis once said, “You cannot make men good by law.”

Mandating that bystanders take action in cases of emergency would in effect diminish the “moral duty” Mr. Silver believes that it will create, and instead replace it with a legal duty.

If we are to extend Mr. Silver’s view that the law is a powerful moral tool, why not make it law that high school students read a certain number of books a year, or criminalize certain curse words?

We would all benefit from a better, stronger display of moral duty. But true morality can come only from within, and that requires experiencing the bad as well as the good.

Coleman is correct that laws requiring citizens to pursue certain actions do not necessarily cultivate their senses of moral duty. Legislating morality does not always work perfectly. But that doesn’t mean legislating morality is a waste of time. 

In this case, a law punishing people for not helping others whatsoever in emergency circumstances could still be just given that any sensible person in the same situation would help, and society has good reason to make examples of those who don’t. Such a law might not cultivate a person’s sense of moral duty in any immediate way, but it would, at the least, push not just the person who didn’t act, but in fact all members of society to contemplate their moral duties — in which case, similar situations might occur less often going forward.