Civilized society distorted by moral apathy

Updated: 2011-10-18 14:03

By Yvonne Brill (

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One characteristic of a civilized society is that it shows evidence of moral and intellectual advancement, and can be described using adjectives such as humane, ethical, and reasonable. It would stand to reason then, that individuals living within a civilized society would exhibit the same attributes. Surely it is humane, ethical, and reasonable to lend a hand to fellow civilians in their time of need. But history, and many contemporary examples, shows us that, at times, individuals shy away from humane or ethical reactions, and further towards that of self-interest or apathy.

A recent example from China is that of a two-year-old girl in the city of Foshan in Guangdong province who was hit by a two vehicles after wandering onto the road. The girl lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground for six minutes as over a dozen people passed her body, none of whom stopped to check on her or help. The incident was captured by a surveillance camera, and has sparked an outcry from Chinese media and netizens alike, decrying the lack of morals of a society that would pass by an individual in need, a child no less, without attempting to help in some way.

Other examples from China include a woman who was stabbed by her own son at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport where video footage, uploaded to the internet, showed a group of people standing by watching as the woman lay on the ground, and the only person attempting to help her was a laowai (foreigner), who crouched beside her, applying pressure to her stab wounds. Another news report tells of an elderly man in Central China’s Hubei province who collapsed in a marketplace and was left to lie facedown for an hour and half until family members arrived to take him to the hospital. He later died.

But is it a lack of morals that feeds apathy or spurs passersby to keep on walking, or something more? Some may cite the social psychological phenomenon of ‘bystander effect’, which theorizes that the probability of receiving help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. That is, the more people who witness an event, the less likely any one individual will provide help. Others, especially those in China familiar with the case of Peng Yu, may consider the fear of repercussions as a result of offering aid to be a more likely root cause.

The 2006 case of Peng Yu is widely considered to have ‘damaged society’ in China, resulting in citizens becoming increasingly wary of lending a hand to strangers in need. Peng Yu, a young resident of Nanjing, Jiangsu province, came to the aid of an elderly woman who had fallen in a public area. The women later accused him of causing her fall, and took him to court. The court decided in favor of the woman based on the ‘common sense’ reasoning that Peng would not have helped the woman had he not felt guilt from causing the fall in the first place, and ordered him to pay compensation of 40,000 Yuan.

The phenomenon of fearing repercussions from volunteering help is not unique to China though, and other countries have enacted civil laws known as ‘Good Samaritan’ laws for this very reason. America, known for its litigious culture, has laws designed to protect those who voluntarily come to the aid of those in need from repercussions such as being sued or prosecuted for wrongful death or unintentional injury. Canada also has laws that protect those who volunteer aid from liability.

While the laws in North America focus on removing liability from Good Samaritans, some countries in Europe have laws that instead criminalize failure to help, focusing on citizens’ ‘duty to rescue’. Examples from Europe include France’s law that refers to deliberately failing to provide assistance to a person in danger, and Germany’s law that obliges a citizen to provide help in the event of an accident or general danger, and Serbia’s law that requires citizens to provide help to anyone in need as long as it does not place them in danger personally. In my own country, New Zealand, it is a crime to fail to report child abuse – citizens are now legally obliged with a ‘duty to report’, whereby it is an offence to fail to take reasonable steps to protect a child from the risk of death, grievous bodily hard, or sexual assault.

It is sad that some modern societies require laws to spur members of those societies to act in moral way, which, in my opinion, is the basis of our very humanity. I find it hard to believe that each and every person who passed the young hit-and-run victim as she lay injured in the street was fearful of possible repercussions for volunteering help. Rather, it seems a mix of moral apathy, a lack of social trust in the legal system, and an increasingly declining sense of community is at work to produce the kind of society where vulnerable members can be left without help in their time of need.

Acting in a humane, ethical, reasonable and moral way is at the basis of a civilized society where civilians know the difference between right and wrong. What is acceptable and what is not acceptable. In order to maintain this kind society it is imperative that the actions of citizens of any country, not just China, be judged against a scale of right and wrong in relation to humane, ethical, reasonable and moral behavior. In this case, the behavior of citizens who passed an injured child in the street without offering help falls squarely into the category of inhumane, unethical, unreasonable and immoral, and therefore weakens the foundation of civilized society.

Yvonne Brill hails from Auckland, New Zealand. She is currently completing her Masters in Communication Studies from AUT University and will graduate in mid-2012.