Which moral pit is the world falling into?

I was absolutely horrified the other week to see a news report from India about a fatal scooter accident. Instead of helping, bystanders took selfies in front of the dying victims. Nobody even assisted them for half an hour.

Silver fern in the Ball’s Clearing reserve.

That sort of behaviour is utterly repugnant. In New Zealand, where I am, it is also illegal – motorists are obliged, by law, to help. But, in any case, isn’t that the right, normal and proper thing to do?

I still recall the time – over 20 years ago – when my wife and I were driving south towards Dannevirke, a southern Hawke’s Bay town. A car driving north failed to take a corner, spun out, and side-slammed into a tree about 200 metres in front of us. We were first on the scene, maybe thirty seconds later. This was basically pre-cellphone days – they were about, but nobody really had them. We didn’t. So while my wife immediately provided aid to the sole occupant of the car, I flagged down vehicles. Within one minute there were a dozen willing helpers to hand, including a doctor, all pitching in. And somebody had a cellphone.

Sadly, it turned out an ambulance wasn’t needed; the poor woman in the car never regained consciousness – the doctor declared her dead within five minutes.

As you can imagine we were quite shaken and ended up, about an hour later, in a café in Dannevirke trying to settle down for the rest of our drive to Wellington.

That particular corner was apparently notorious for accidents, although it wasn’t rebuilt to eliminate the trap until just last year.

The point is that, if somebody needs help, you don’t hesitate. And there are ways of making that effective, starting with providing immediate aid (for example, to staunch bleeding, provide CPR or similar); then when they’re out of instant danger, obtaining further assistance; then helping the victims again while help arrives – if you’re on your own, in that order.

It worries me that any human, anywhere, can be so divorced from the concept of helping others – so callous about the well-being of those around them – that they think instead of their own vanity, such as taking selfies in front of dying accident victims. Or maybe they will rob the victims – there was a case of this in New Zealand, not long ago. We cannot blame cultures or societies: it does not seem to matter where in the world this sort of conduct occurs.

There’s another issue, too, which seems to deter people from helping. After that accident that my wife and I witnessed twenty-odd years ago the police, in attendance, were curious to know what my car had been doing. I explained the tragedy had unfolded well ahead of us – we’d simply been first on the scene; and it turned out there was another witness who’d seen it happen from the other direction. The point being that by diving in to help, we came under suspicion of being somehow involved – and I guess it’s reasonable procedure for the police to check everything. But it also highlights the issue that some people are deterred from helping because they don’t want to be falsely criminalised as part of whatever is going on.

I’ve seen reports of similar issues elsewhere: in China, for example, nobody went to help a toddler that had wandered into traffic and been hit by a van. Why? Apparently if somebody did, they might be legally liable, or caught up in it some other way. That is a systemic issue. But it is also a human one. And really – if somebody needs help, they should be given it. We should not hesitate.

I sometimes despair about where the world is going, morally. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

9 thoughts on “Which moral pit is the world falling into?

    1. I’m sure that social media has intensified all of this. As far as I can tell it’s not restricted to any particular culture or group of cultures either – it seems to be something humans do. I speculate that it might be associated in a general sense with the way we are apparently ‘hard wired’ to be loyal only to a small local group (which is where compassion is applied) and to treat all others as being outside any need to be treated as human. That probably worked, to a point, in hunter-gatherer societies through human history, but it fails once we have societies larger than that.


    1. Diana’s death was another awful indictment of the human condition. I’ve actually been through that tunnel beside the Seine where her car crashed (this was a few years later, and there was a kind of flower-sculpture outside it in her honour).


  1. Some years back I found a video of people in Iraq filming the final moments of a bomb-maker who had ignored the axiom that, in making a bomb, one never works with a lesser amount of explosives than that required to blow you to bits. So this poor creature was lying on the ground, somehow alive, but clearly not for long. That wasn’t what I found horrifying. It was the people who circled him with cell phones, taking videos of the man’s last, tormented moments. Maybe they figured (possibly from experience) there was no help possible. Maybe they were hardened to sights of that sort. Maybe a lot of things. I’m left with the question, though: why film it? Why were so many people filming it? Something like becoming so accustomed to such things that “mothers shall but smile to behold their infants quartered by the hand of War”?

    In Florida they have (or did, at one time) a Good Samaritan Law, i.e., that if you stop to render aid you can’t be sued for a bad result. It makes the hardest kind of sense. If you’re dying, you take what help you can, and if you live long enough to file suit, well, you’re alive, eh? The thing here is, why did a law have to be passed to protect those who stop to render aid?

    I have no answers, here. If it happened only here in the States I’d wonder if our extraordinary number of lawyers per capita had anything to do with it, but I doubt they have that problem in India.

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    1. I think people do get inured to horror, particularly after being extensively exposed to combat in war zones: that came out loud and clear in the work I did on my books on the NZ experience in the First World War and on the psychology of heroism. Standards change. The interesting thing was that they changed back to normal, eventually, once back in civilian life, although the issue wasn’t particularly addressed in detail by the rehab programmes after WW1 – the post-WW2 programmes did better.

      It’s a legal requirement here in NZ to render aid in the case of a motor accident – I think it’s to enable prosecution of hit-and-run drivers. It hasn’t stopped the hit-and-run problem. And there was a prosecution here, just recently, of a couple who went to ‘help’ a woman trapped in a car after a crash – and stole her wallet instead. Appalling, and good job the police (and courts) threw the book at the miscreants.

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  2. Your fascinating post raises many questions, e.g.
    Are people any less empathic than they used to be?
    Is this particularly when we see the other person as, in a sense, less than human – race, colour, economic status, enemy, etc.?
    Is our relationship with police and legal authorities not one of trust that the right things will be done?
    Are we so embedded in our own life process that we cannot spare the time to engage with the urgent need of others?
    At least raising it makes us more aware of our own personal responses…

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    1. I suspect what has happened is that current society has acted as an enabler for aspects of humanity which, in other times, were better controlled. It’s all a matter of balances and of shades of grey, and society moves in and around all of it. At the moment, it appears that humanity are descending into little more than selfish and psychotic hate-behaviour towards each other; but the lesson I’d draw from history is that this kind of cycle does tend to correct itself… eventually. The problem is the degree of suffering until it does. And there is always the risk, behind it all, that this kind of behaviour will eventually collapse the whole human edifice anyway.


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