Syria and the Bystander Effect
About a week ago, as people were writing about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I read a blog post in which the author argued against American intervention and in favor, more broadly, of a moral responsibility not to intervene when others are suffering:
Let us suppose that I see a person being physically assaulted on the sidewalk. The aggressor appears to be using their fists, but no weapons are visible. If I see that person being assaulted, and I fail to intervene, am I morally at fault?
This was a question faced early on by common law judges, and the answer they gave was almost universally no. At common law, there was no duty to rescue, and there are good reasons for this. First consider that in most cases, I will be ignorant as to the motivation for the assault I’m witnessing. The person being assaulted may actually be the more “culpable” of the two based on some prior bad act, and I’m simply witnessing some sort of aggression in-kind. But I have no way of knowing in the moment of initial apprehension. Second, Intervening may require me to place myself or someone I love in harm’s way, as the aggressor may see fit to visit retribution upon me or my loved ones at a later date for becoming involved in his or her dispute. It is selfish and reckless of me to place an uninvolved third party potentially at risk based on my desire to rescue the person in front of me from the apparent violent predations of another. While we can agree that I may place myself at risk to rescue another, I have no moral claim on placing others at risk through my actions. these considerations mitigate any moral responsibility to intervene I might otherwise have.
But let us suppose that I do intervene to try to save the person being assaulted, but in the process, I only make matters worse. Perhaps the aggressor, realizing he or she is outnumbered, draws a weapon that he was not using before. Now, what began as a fistfight has been escalated into a more lethal situation for both the victim and myself. An aggressor who may have merely seen fit to “beat up” the victim is now rearing to kill them. Am I morally responsible for that escalation? Absolutely.
It is certainly possible that my intervention will only be helpful to the victim. But the difference between our example and official state military intervention is that, as you add more human beings and political interests to the example, the potential for unintended consequences increases. Furthermore, imagine that the last four or five times I intervened in a sidewalk assault, I ended up doing as much and more harm as I prevented. That would certainly make non-intervention seem to be a more morally responsible action, even if there’s still a chance that I’m watching a genuinely innocent person get assaulted without just cause.
In other words, because it’s possible that intervention won’t help and might even cause harm, we ought to feel either a) unconcerned or b) good about not attempting to assist those who are suffering.
This is an elaborate defense of being a bystander.
It’s the sort of argument one constructs in order to excuse the sort of non-action that, in other circumstances, most people wouldn’t want to admit. You see someone being assaulted but you don’t want to get involved … so you tell yourself that, if you did get involved, things would probably just end up worse than if you’d left well enough alone. “If I try to stop a simple assault, the victim — who would just be badly beaten — will probably end up being shot. And, hey, maybe the victim in this situation isn’t really even a victim; maybe she’s done something to deserve the assault. I shouldn’t get involved.”
Of course, the author of the blog post wants to suggest that it’s a very different equation because we’re dealing with the American military and we have knowledge that previous interventions were carried out badly. This should, apparently, change the moral calculus … just as it did for the U.S. when extremist Hutus were massacring Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. We’d intervened badly in Somalia, of course, so we decided that we ought not to intervene in Rwanda. If we’re being honest with ourselves, I’m not so sure the Rwandans are grateful that President Clinton recognized the possibility of unintended consequences and decided we weren’t morally required to provide any assistance.
Now I’m equating Rwanda with Syria in this post and I’m not writing some sort of full-throated call for intervention either. I’m just trying to make clear two things:
1. Past actions don’t actually give us any indication of what will happen in the future. It’s quite possible to do something badly nine times and then to do it perfectly the tenth time;
2. We need to stop giving ourselves so many excuses for our desire to turn our backs on people in need. We have a hard enough time pushing ourselves to act on behalf of others as it is.
And, indeed, the blogger knows this. Here’s how he attempts to mitigate what he’s said:
Note that this is not an argument for never intervening to stop a perceived injustice. This is an argument for not intervening in a perceived injustice when you have prior knowledge and experience which suggests that your intervention will cause at least as much damage as it alleviates. This is why, say,Oskar Schindler’s interventions on behalf of Jewish victims of the Third Reich, for example, are different than U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The moral calculus of humanitarian intervention changes when you have prior knowledge which suggests that your intervention will cause affirmative injuries elsewhere or in the future, even if it appears to alleviate the suffering that is in front of one’s face.
On what basis should Schindler have believed that he would succeed in saving the lives of Jews during the Holocaust? Indeed, on what basis should any of the Righteous Among the Nations have taken action? They didn’t really have any reason to believe that they would succeed in their efforts to rescue Jews and they had every reason to believe that they would be killed if they were discovered. I suppose the blogger’s argument would be that they couldn’t possibly make things worse for the Jews by attempting to rescue them, since they were almost certainly going to be killed by the Nazis one way or the other. This puts the threshold for intervention at cases where things couldn’t possibly get any worse for the victim … which means, happily for us, that we will almost never have to take any risk or exert ourselves in any way for others since we can almost always say to ourselves, “I could conceivably make things worse so, for everyone’s sake (and especially for my own sake), I’d better just stay put.”
Plain and simple, this is nothing more than an excuse to remain a safe, secure, happy, and healthy bystander while others are suffering. It’s not some sort of moral high ground.