The Duty to Rescue



The American philosopher Peter Singer designed an interesting thought experiment. He asked people to consider this scenario: Suppose you are alone by a pond and you notice a young child has accidentally fallen into that pond and is crying for help. It is obvious that the child cannot swim and is drowning. Unless you help the child will die. As an innocent bystander you of course are not responsible for the accident. You don’t know the child. He is a stranger. You are a good swimmer and could easily save the child from drowning.  Would you be morally entitled to refuse to rescue the child because you did not want to get your shoes wet? I would think most of us would say no, the bystander has a moral duty to rescue the child. To do nothing would be abhorrent. Such people are not invited out to dinner.

In 1939 before World War II was over but after it was fairly well known that Jews were being persecuted in Germany and the European countries they still occupied, a German ocean liner, the MS St. Louis, was carrying more than 900 Jewish refuges from Germany. They wanted to disembark in Cuban, but were denied permission to land except for a handful of Jews that were allowed in because they had American passports.

The German Captain went to the United States next to try to drop off the refugees there, but they refused to accept the refugees.  After that he went to Canada and Canada refused to allow them in either. It was not our finest hour. He then sailed to various European countries where some but not all of the refugees were allowed in.

Many of those that were left were eventually rounded up by the Nazis and historians have estimated that about ¼ of them died in Nazi death camps. Some later referred to this journey as the “voyage of the damned.” This incident and others like it were instrumental in western countries coming up with a policy after the war of obligating countries to accept asylum seekers who legitimately feared persecution in their home countries. This is now part of part of international law.

Also early in 1939 an unidentified Canadian immigration agent was asked how many Jews should be allowed to immigrate to Canada. His reply is now infamous: “None is too many.” Few of us Canadians are now proud of what we did.

As I have argued elsewhere, the first principle of morality is the golden rule—fellow feeling. It is the basis of all morality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That is fundamental.

As Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue in their book Refuge, referring to the thought experiment of Singer and refugees from Syria, “Like the drowning child, fleeing Syrians appeal to our common humanity…it is the raw compassion that is at the bedrock of the human condition. We might think of it as the first principle of the heart. It is not saintly to experience such a sense of compassion: it sociopathic not to experience it.”

We have some minimal moral obligations even to far away strangers. We have that obligation just because they are humans. I don’t think we have a duty to be saints. We can never sustain sainthood so I don’t believe we have to accept so many refugees that it would eviscerate our own society. But if the costs are low or even trivial, we have a duty to act. For example I am not sure that we have a duty to rescue a drowning child if it would seriously endanger our own lives. But if the cost is trivial, such as wet shoes or dirty clothes, we must act.

We don’t have to bankrupt our country to save refugees, but if it is readily within our means we should rescue them. If we don’t do that we are already bankrupt.

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