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Friday, June 02, 2006

Strangers in Need

Should you be required to help people in need?

The kindness of strangers, by Ronald P. Sokol, Commentary, International Herald Tribune: France Doug Coombs, 48, an expert skier, shoots down a narrow path high in the French Alps. A friend preceding him misses a turn and slips over a precipice. Coombs follows to the edge of the cliff, peers down hoping to help. Then the snow gives way, and he, too, falls to his death.

Lincoln Hall, 50, an Australian climbing Mount Everest, is abandoned by his team, who think he has no chance of survival. Other climbers come along, find him alive and take him down the mountain. Hall survives.

David Sharp, 34, an Englishman, gets to the top of Everest, then begins his descent through the low-oxygen "death zone." As he sits cross-legged and incoherent in a snow cave, 40 climbers pass by - and leave him to die. One climber stops briefly and gives him some oxygen. No one tries to save Sharp or stay with him until the end.

Did the climbers who saw Sharp have a legal duty to try to help him? It is a truism that a lawyer's first answer is almost always another question. ... To what law must we look?

If we ask whether Coombs had a legal duty to go to the edge of a precipice in the French Alps, we must look to French law. The French criminal code makes it a crime not to help a person in need of assistance when help can be provided at no risk to oneself.

As Coombs was American, we might want to know what American law says. It is based on Common Law, which says that the law does not compel active benevolence. The traditional English view is that one has no duty to be a good Samaritan. ...

What is strange is that different Western cultures should reach opposite conclusions on such a fundamental question. Underlying the legal issue, of course, lies a moral one. ... Should we conclude that the English rule reflects a less morally developed stance than the French rule? It is not apparent why people should differ over whether there is an affirmative duty to help others. That they should differ over when the duty arises - that is, under what circumstances the duty comes into play - strikes me as normal. Clearly there is no legal duty to help my neighbor prepare for his trip to Honolulu. But if I find him alone on a beach with a broken leg and I am there with my cell phone, can I legally walk away and leave him without even phoning for help? The Common Law rule is that I have no duty to phone for help. ...

Did the Everest climbers owe a duty of care to David Sharp? Under French law, clearly yes, and his heirs could sue for damages... They could be found criminally liable as well. Under traditional English and American rules, there was no such duty...

Of course people should help, but I am not in favor of a law compelling people to do so. There is always an opportunity cost to helping -- if I stop and help you fix a flat tire, I may be late for an important meeting. How do we compare the costs to the person helping to the benefits received by the person in need of help in assessing whether someone should be required to help? Perhaps it's just the economist in me and there is another approach to this problem, but in general this seems like a hard problem to overcome. Do we require help whenever there is a net benefit? Net benefit to whom, and who calculates the interpersonal costs and benefits, you, me, or someone else?

    Posted by on Friday, June 2, 2006 at 01:23 PM in Economics, Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (20)


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