Is There a Right to be Rescued

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					Is There a Right to be Rescued?
Many European countries such as France, Italy, Holland and Germany (there are 15 altogether) have what is known as
“Good Samaritan” laws. These are laws which require citizens to render assistance to people whose lives are in danger
i.e. laws requiring people to perform “easy rescues”. In France, for example, anyone who fails to perform an easy
rescue may be jailed for up to five years. The legal systems in Anglo-Saxon countries such as Australia, UK and the
USA typically do not have Good Samaritan laws, although five states of the USA have in recent times instituted them.
To illustrate, the 1973 Vermont act reads:

“A person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall, to the extent that the same can be
rendered without danger or peril to himself or without interference with important duties owed to others, give
reasonable assistance to the exposed person unless that assistance is being provided by others.”

The case of Kitty Genovese
In New York in 1964 Kitty Genovese was returning home after work in the early hours of the morning when she was
attacked and stabbed. Over a 35-minute period she was stabbed on three separate occasions, the attacker being
interrupted briefly by someone calling out from a block of flats overlooking the scene. Despite her screams for help not
one of the 38 residents of the flats called the police until almost one hour after the first attack. By that time Genovese
was dead. After being called, the police arrived in two minutes and as they noted at the time, had they been called
earlier Genovese would not have been killed.

Question: Are there good moral reasons for having “Good Samaritan” laws? Should there be laws requiring people to
render assistance?

Some arguments against Good Samaritan laws
The American legal philosopher Joel Feinberg considers four arguments against Good Samaritan (GS) laws. I will give
a brief summary of these arguments and his replies.

    1.   Enforced benevolence: GS laws make charity and benevolence compulsory, thus erasing the distinction
         between what ought to be done as a matter of duty or obligation, and what is beyond the call of duty. GS
         laws seem to force people to act in a way that benefits others, but this should be a matter of personal choice
         rather than law.

         Reply: There are two relevant senses of “benefit” which can be explained in terms of the notion of a
         baseline. Your baseline is your normal level of functioning – health, wealth, happiness, etc. One sense of
         “benefit” is that where you are given more than your baseline, for example by winning Lotto. Another sense
         of “benefit” involves the situation where you are below your baseline, for example if you are drowning. In
         this sense of “benefit”, if someone rescues you then you are being brought up to your baseline (but not
         beyond it), and it is this sense which is relevant to GS laws. GS laws do enforce benevolence but only in the
         second sense. GS laws do not force people to benefit others in the sense of taking them above their baseline.
         Thus GS laws do not impose on people an obligation to go round making others better off.

    2.   Line drawing: There is no clear way of drawing the line between easy and difficult rescues. Thus a GS law
         which enforced easy rescues will also enforce difficult rescues involving great inconvenience and perhaps
         danger. Reply: It is possible to clearly identify a set of cases where there is no reasonable risk, danger or
         inconvenience. For example, shouting a warning, making a phone call or throwing a rope. Failure to render
         assistance would only be punished in these and similar clear-cut cases. Beyond that it would be left to juries
         to decide and they would normally acquit in doubtful cases.
    3.   Serious interference with liberty: GS laws are serious infringements of our freedom because they require
         us to actually do something rather than refrain from doing something as do laws against murder, robbery,
         rape, extortion and so on. No effort is required to refrain from stealing, for example, but considerable effort
         may be required to rescue someone.

         Reply: Shouting a warning or making a telephone call requires very little effort, and your liberty is hardly
         infringed at all by a law which enforces the rendering of that sort of assistance. Moreover, traffic laws which
         require stopping at red lights or driving no faster than 60 km/h may be even greater infringements of our
         liberty and may even require more effort.

2008 Hale School Philosothon- Wednesday 29th October
    4.   Causing and allowing harm: There is a clear moral distinction between intentionally causing harm and
         allowing harm to occur. Thus there is a sound moral basis for laws that make the intentional causing of harm
         criminally liable. However, there is no sound moral basis for laws which make criminally liable a failure to
         prevent harm.

         Reply: This objection to GS laws rests on the doctrine of “Acts and Omissions”. This doctrine states that
         doing something morally bad is worse than allowing something morally bad to occur. This is a controversial
         view and does not seem to be true in general. For example, there does not appear to much moral difference
         between the following cases: Bill wants to be the CEO of the company so he kills the CEO by putting poison
         in his coffee. Jane wants to be CEO of the company. When in his office the CEO has a heart attack and Jane
         fails to pass him an out of reach bottle of pills which will save him.


J. Feinberg, Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law.

R. Neurath Sydney Grammar School

2008 Hale School Philosothon- Wednesday 29th October

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