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Ethics and Morality

Can You Be a Hero?

Heroes are made, not born.

Key points

  • Rescuing, under the right circumstances, is the moral thing to do.
  • Courage can be learned.
  • Empathy and courage can become habits.

When a 91-year-old man was shoved onto the tracks in the London Underground, Riyad El Hassani leaped to his rescue less than a minute before the train was due to arrive. Hassani managed to stand the old man up while others on the platform helped lift him to safety.

I wonder what I would do under similar circumstances. Would I endanger myself to rescue a stranger? There is no way to know. Although I am a native New Yorker, I’ve never witnessed someone fall onto the subway tracks. I’ve never been challenged in that way.

Few are confronted with risking their lives to rescue a stranger. However, there are other situations where there is still some risk in acting on another’s behalf. For example, what do you do when you see a disheveled person who appears to be in distress sprawled on the sidewalk?

In Germany a few years ago, three people stepped over an unconscious man to use an ATM. Each was found guilty under the law, which required that they seek help, and each received a fine of between $2,900 and $4,300.

In most jurisdictions, people do not have a duty to rescue another. There are some exceptions, however, such as the states of Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont, as long as it is an easy rescue, one that won’t put the “Good Samaritan” in danger. Wisconsin, Hawaii and Washington have laws in which bystanders are required to report a crime or other emergencies.

Helping a stranger whose life is endangered and risking your own requires courage. What if it was a ruse to rob the person who has come to help? Would it matter if the potential rescuer was old or disabled? If no one else were around, if was nighttime? Courage, like many other virtues, depends on doing the right thing at the right time, as Aristotle stressed. Appropriate assessment of the context is crucial. It is foolhardy to attempt to rescue a drowning person if you don’t know how to swim.

While there are good reasons why the law generally doesn’t compel someone to intervene to aid a stranger, morality may make a different judgment. The person who doesn’t at least call for help when another has fallen from a subway platform is scorned as morally deficient, while those who come to the rescue of the person on the tracks are rightly lauded as heroes.

Today, Sophie Scholl’s actions might seem ordinary, but they were far from it when she distributed anti-war pamphlets in 1943 Germany. She knew the risk and willingly undertook it. She was executed for her non-violent protest. Scholl stood apart from most of her compatriots, as she observed, “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves.”

What motivated 21-year-old Scholl to challenge the Nazi regime can’t fully be known. Fortunately, most who read this blog will never have to face what she did. However, there are less-extreme circumstances that call on courage. As Scholl stated, the groundwork of tyranny is laid by “honest men who just wanted to be left in peace.” What would have happened if more had been willing to be little heroes, speaking up when a casual antisemitic remark was passed, who stood against homosexual comments, who didn’t retreat to their cozy pleasures but were willing to take a stand as soon as political oppression began? Would the Nazis never have come to power? Would a world-wide war have been averted? Would the Holocaust never have happened if there had been a thousand small acts of kindness and generosity extended to everyone, including the marginalized?

It is possible to educate for courage, argue political philosophers Ari Kohen and colleagues. They note that those who have acted heroically shared four crucial commonalities: “They imagined situations where help was needed and considered how they would act; they had an expansive sense of empathy, not simply with those who might be considered ‘like them’ but also those who might be thought of as ‘other’ in some decisive respect; they regularly took action to help people, often in small ways; and they had some experience or skill that made them confident about undertaking the heroic action in question.”

The groundwork for heroism begins in the imagination (picturing a situation and thinking through possible actions and consequences), as well as recalling incidents in which people experienced past injustices they themselves encountered. There is a strong link between empathy and the willingness to help someone in need. In addition to imagination and empathy, there is the habit of helping that is developed over time through small actions. Assisting becomes habitual; courage is ready when needed.

Imagination, empathy, and making a habit of helping others in need predisposes people to do the right thing even when there is a price to be paid. Staying with a lost person with dementia until help arrives may cause you to be late for an appointment; assisting an elderly person carry bundles to their car may cause your back to ache a little more; telling a person who makes a racist remark that not everyone considers it funny may anger a stranger; telling your boss that they aren’t treating another employee fairly may cost you a raise—but this is how good societies are built by everyday heroes.

I may never be called upon to help someone who has stumbled onto train tracks, but I can know what to do—and do it—if it happens.

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