Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Civilization Progresses As We Help Each Other

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. - John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist (1806-1873)

This opinion enters the realm of morality. Only in part does it involve legal repercussions if inaction causes injury to others. Morality and law often overlap (by design), though mostly in the area of criminal law.

If you were to stand by watching another person being beaten or killed, you might be charged if you could have done something to prevent it but did not.

At its core, this dual responsibility (guilty by action or inaction) raises the question of to what degree we are each our brother's keeper. That is, what is our responsibility to help someone who may not have helped us if the roles were reversed? Are we both responsible to and for each other and what are the consequences of not acting?

In an urban environment where helping others has become less common than it was in pioneer days or when people were spread across the land more evenly and people helped each other because they knew that one day they were need help themselves, many of us give little thought to the possibility of helping others.

Charities must beg for donations because people do not have a natural inclination to give money to help others. Yet stories of heroism where one person has risked death or made a great commitment to help another reach the news media as well.

Today someone who helps another is considered to have done so out of goodness. In the past, it was more of a social obligation for everyone. Mill considered it duty.

In movies, on television and in newspapers we give unintended social lessons that each of us must look after our own best interests because no one else will help us when we most need help. In general, we have responded to this with me-first selfishness.

Yet the good examples, the role models, are with us every day. With each passing day, especially as the world experiences increasing numbers of natural tragedies, more opportunities to help others present themselves. At the same time, more people than ever before complain about the selfishness, the greed and the thoughtlessness of others.

People will tire of the ethics of reality TV programs and realize that the world should not be that way. It's part of a cycle.

In the past, such cycles were traditionally broken by war, where people need to help each other through catastrophe. Most countries of the world are not at war today, but their people take a greater interest in the welfare of people of others countries than ever before. When people hurt and die, others will care.

Civilization advances only when people help each other. This opportunity presents itself today as more of us take an interest in an earthquake in Iran, a tsunami in Sri Lanka or a flood in Bangladesh. They all kill people. We feel the need to help the survivors. In doing so, we learn about the lives of people we previously knew nothing about.

More of us than ever before no longer stand by and watch tragedy and wrong as spectators.
Mill said it was an obligation. We see it today as more of a necessity to help others in need in the global village that is our home.

The lessons of civilization are learned slowly and painfully, but they happen and we do progress.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to shine a light through the dark smog that some people view as life today.
Learn more at

No comments: