Take two situations:
- If you see an injured person near you, most people would help them. At the very least by calling an ambulance.
- If you know someone is dying far from you, maany people would not help.
In situation 1, seeing someone for example bleeding on the road would usually make people want to help them. If you choose not to help, the person might die. Admittedly, some people would not even try to help the person if they’re right in front of them. This might be because they’re in a hurry, and are confronted with a choice between someone else’s problems and your own. If you help them, you might get in trouble with your boss for being late. Your boss might not care what your reason was for being late, especially if you have no evidence. It is easy to then hastily decide that you need to look out for yourself first, and assume that the person will be fine. Worse, you might just ignore this problem because you don’t want to deal with it. You can avoid the guilt by being in denial. Most of the time though, it’s hard to justify not helping someone who you can clearly help right now.
In situation 2, imagine someone far away from you. Many people are independently saying that this person is hurt, and needs help or else they will die. In this case, it is far easier to think that this is not your problem, and that someone else will help them. Or worse, you might think that because it’s not your problem that you don’t need to care. In this case, we are not the sole person to come across a bleeding person, we are not the only hope they have. Instead, we become part of the crowd; any one of us can be the one to help, so we as individuals no longer feel the obligation to help. This also happens when a large group just stares at someone near them who needs help, because they’re not sure if they should be the one to help or if someone else will do it. When the person isn’t right in front of us, we feel even less impulse to help. We are confused, and usually decide not to help because it will result in a lot of effort and sometimes sacrifices on our part. We’re not sure if we can help, if we should help, if we specifically need to help or if someone else will, if they even really need help, or if we have something better to do.
Why we don’t help others
If we cannot see the person but they are also not in any specific danger, it becomes so distant that even fewer people will decide to help. Say someone in front of you is attempting to commit suicide, and you can stop it. In this case it would be fairly obvious you should help. But what if this person is on the phone with you, and tells you they are about to commit suicide; would you stay on the phone with them for hours, making sure they don’t do it? This might keep you up all night and get you to work late, and they might not even be serious about committing suicide. What if it was someone you were texting with, or talking to through the internet? It’s even harder to empathise and understand the gravity of the situation when you can’t see or hear the person, but instead only see them through letters and words. For all you know this might be a joke, or it might not even be the person you think it is, or a real person at all.
What if the person is someone we don’t even know? What if we’re not sure they’re really in trouble, or if their trouble isn’t imminent? At what point do we know about someone else’s trouble and decide it’s not our problem?
Why we should help others
It is -always- our problem. If we can help, then we must, except when doing so will result in something worse happening. Saving someone’s life is always worth it, except if doing so will sacrifice others’ lives, and even this is subject to the situation. No matter if we can afford to help or not, if we can help and we choose not to, then we are also to blame. The moment we are capable of helping, we become morally responsible. When a situation arises in which we can help, there are a finite number of outcomes. Only one of those outcomes will happen, and we are able to influence which one it is. Of these finite choices, there is usually no option to abstain because to take the previous example, in any one of the outcomes, the person either lives or dies, there is no neutral outcome. So while you may take a neutral stance and do nothing, this ultimately decides whether or not the person lives.
There are many situations where there is no neutral result, and so taking a neutral position unintentionally means you are still picking a side. Such situations where you cannot be neutral are fairly common now because we know about poverty, war, and disease around the world. While we may do something small such as donate to charity, we don’t usually travel there and spend as much money as we must to save those people. This is because there are too many people for us alone to help and it would cost us too much to do so. Also, doing so would not be sustainable and so it is somewhat justified to not do everything we can. However, this does not absolve us of responsibility. We are not innocent and we are responsible, but we need to know what to do. We need to change society so that helping others becomes easier and more acceptable.
How we can help others
How is it that we can live our lives and not feel responsibility for the people who are dying elsewhere in the world? If we can help, then choosing not to is choosing their pain over our own. Sometimes this is choosing their suffering over our inconveniences, sometimes it’s letting other people die so we can have stable, reliable lives, but no matter what the trade-off is it’s always a matter that should be considered. Ideally we would take leave from our jobs and fly to Africa and build wells and schools and houses for the empoverished and buy them food and teach them how to fish and trade and make money to sustain themselves. We would realise that there are people who are desperate for the most basics human rights, and that our first world problems aren’t more important than their life threatening ones. We can try to to go them and do everything we can to help them, but then we would leave our jobs and would end up with nothing and we would also have similar problems.
Instead, we as a society have accepted that we are happy and tell ourselves that we cannot help those who are, or worse, we choose our own happiness at the expense of others. Or we tell ourselves that it is not our problem or our responsibility. It is our moral responsibility to do so, but we often cannot because the rest of society does not think this way and does not allow you to do so. We should change society to help those who need it. Einstein had a similar view, he quoted Thorstein Veblen who talked about “the predatory phase” of human development. We have built giant cities and powerful vehicles, we live safely in houses wee we do no fear attacks on a regular basis. We have in a way gone past the “survival of the fittest” fallacy that is somewhat applicable to animals. We don’t have to worry constantly about survival, especially not as much as animals do. Even if we need to ensure we make money to live, this is nowhere near as rough as having to make sure we are not killed by a lion. We can at least sleep without having to worry about being attacked.
The world must change
That is, in the West we don’t have to worry about these things. We have gained stability and safety but have left a lot of the rest of the world to fend for themselves, often a their expense. Some people in the West still believe in the Survival of the Fittest fallacy, and employ it to justify their selfish behaviour, especially in business and politics. The predatory phase is a backwards one that only exist out of necessity. It is not good, and is certainly not justified when we are able to move past it and work together instead of against each other. It’s easy for someone who never needed help or didn’t realise they were receiving help to claim that those who defeat others deserve their rewards and those who fail were not worthy. This fallacy comes from not understanding the situation of those who are less fortunate and need help, and shows a basic lack of empathy. If we all fight to be the best then most people will end up getting hurt. If we do the basics to help each other, as most people do, then no one is left behind. We all help a bit and that add up to a lot. This is how taxes and donation work. This is how protests, charities, and (sometimes) wars are able to achieve great things that individuals would not have been able to do. We already look out for each other and it works. We just need to realise that we need to do this more and change our society to allow us to do that.
We need to improve the world to realise others need our help and to make helping them easier to make sure that no one is hurt.