Moral ambiguity explains why we won’t intervene on another’s behalf

The Penn State investigation has led most to question not only how someone could commit such acts, but also how other people could fail to stop them from happening.  If asked, most Americans would say they would’ve intervened if they had seen what assistant coach Mike McQueary says he saw happening in a shower between an older man and a ten year old boy who were both naked.

Yes, we’d all like to believe we’d do the right thing if confronted with such an awful situation.  And maybe we would.  But this circumstance and other incidents of the news where bystanders watch bad things happen without intervening puts that certainty out of focus.

Perhaps you’ve heard the advice to yell “fire” when you need help. Though experts disagree on the need for that method, it’s based on research that is generally well accepted: the bystander effect.

Those who have studied the bystander effect say statistics show that the more bystanders are present at an incident, the less likely any one of them is to intervene.  The reasons behind those numbers, apparently, are two fold.  One reason is that each bystander expects someone else will take care of intervening, leaving them to feel less responsible.  Another reason for this effect states that when others don’t immediately react, the bystanders take it as a cue that it is not necessary to react or that it is not appropriate to intervene.

There are other reasons people don’t intervene when it would seem appropriate.  For example, these days many people ask themselves, “How will this affect me?” before intervening.  This is at least partially due to reports of those with good intentions getting sued by victims and their families for wrongful death or for injuring a victim further.

Others say that after decades of violent imagery and crude behavior and language in games, movies and television, we are desensitized when we see something that might require us to intervene.

These are just some of the reasons that point to, but do not justify, why someone could see what Mike McQueary says he saw without stopping it right then and there, let alone without calling the police.

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But these reasons are all explained by a moral ambiguity that our society has fallen into.  When confronted with a challenging moral situation like needing to intervene on someone else’s behalf due to a crime or some other emergency, people do not have a strong conviction of what they would absolutely, no questions asked, do in that moral situation.  People look to others to intervene.  Or they look to laws to take care of the situation.  Worse yet, they don’t even recognize the issue as something that requires intervening or they wonder how it will affect them before they consider taking action.

Being aware of these issues that stand in the way of doing the right thing and really thinking on specific examples of incidents in which we might react and intervene on someone else’s behalf will prepare us in the event we are ever called to do so.