"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Arrested For Sins Of Omission?

I was taught by the Good Fathers that ‘Sins of Omission’ were just as bad as sins of commission – that if you stood by and did nothing to prevent the sins of others, you were complicit in their fall:

In Catholic teaching an omission is a failure to do something one can and ought to do. If this happens advertently and freely, it is considered a sin.

The degree of guilt incurred by an omission is measured like that attaching to sins of commission, by the dignity of the virtue and the magnitude of the precept to which the omission is opposed as well as the amount of deliberation.

A person may be guilty of a sin of omission by failing to do something which he is able to do and which he ought to do, by reason of a cause for which he is entirely responsible, as when a person knows that drinking to drunkenness will incapacitate him, and yet drinks (Wikipedia)

From a moral perspective, I always thought that this was a good teaching.  Certainly we should be judged derelict if we do nothing to stop the commission of an immoral or criminal act.  However, complying with this religious and moral precept is not so easy.  The Honor Code, a feature at my prep school, encouraged anyone who witnessed cheating to turn the offender in.  While I am sure some students did the right thing, most of the rest of us simply turned a blind eye.  Despite the moral injunction, it really was not our problem, we reasoned.  People did bad things all the time, and were we expected to intervene in all cases?  What about individual responsibility?  We had all been taught that precept as well.

Perhaps more important to our reasoning was the new social calculus of the Sixties, that aberrant behavior should be excused, at least until  the social, psychological, or economic problems of the accused were examined.

There were other reasons which trumped snitching.  Friendship and family came first. Rather than turn in a sibling, child, or parent, we should more appropriately help them to see the error of their ways and to help them reform.  We were just beginning to hear of the horrors of the gulag Soviet state where children were indoctrinated to inform on their parents and where neighbors were threated with the death of their families if they did not cooperate and inform.  Surely a system based on informing and informants could not be moral and right.

The matter of degree of the observed sin was important.  Much has been written recently about the complicity of the German people in the deportation and extermination of the Jews.  They had to know, goes the compelling argument.  The Final Solution was so universal, so complete, and so radical that it is inconceivable that ordinary Germans had no idea about it.  Were they as guilty as the Nazis who actually turned on the gas?  Can one really expect what would have amounted to acts of heroism from a shopkeeper?

Of course there were many recorded examples of extreme heroism.  A close friend of mine, the author Peter Hellman, wrote a book called The Avenue of the Righteous about Christians who helped Jews in World War II.  The courage of the Danes in particular stands out.  Many Christian families secreted Jewish families during the Nazi occupation and great risk to their own lives.

The French have never really come to grips with their complicity in the atrocities of the War.  French citizens regularly and publically helped the Nazis identify and round up Jews for deportation to the camps.  Many more stood quietly by, preferring to save their skin and preserve their lives and culture, hoping for eventual liberation.

Perhaps standing by in the face of such atrocities was a true Sin of Omission; but snitching on a classmate?

In short, although the idea of Sins of Omission is a good one, it is probably the moral precept most ignored.  Many have argued that whatever commitment there might have been to the principle in the past has been eroded by modern life.  Seventy-five years ago the social fabric was tightly woven in many communities in America.  People knew and helped each other; and it was not uncommon for a neighbor to run after a thief or yell at a disruptive teenager.  Today, most subway riders dig their noses deeper into their newspapers when a group of rowdy young people get on the train.  There is in fact an even greater stillness than before the intrusion. People are frightened.  These intruders could and probably do have guns and are bigger, stronger, and are from dysfunctional families and communities far from majority norms of rectitude. Any individual who might confront the perpetrators would act alone, for even in a packed subway car, he is anonymous, unsupported, and unprotected.

Our society has become too negatively diverse – i.e. a majority of principled citizens, respecting law and social norms; and a minority of unprincipled, immoral, and decidedly antisocial outcastes – to rely on the principle of Sins of Omission. 

The capper on all these arguments is the most obvious – fear of litigation. Even the most right-minded citizen will balk at any kind of intervention for fear that ‘getting involved’ will lead to a lawsuit; and in most cases, he is probably right.  A recent article described a commercial flight during which a passenger had an apparent heart attack, and despite the fact that there were a number of doctors aboard, no one wanted to help.  Their malpractice insurance was already too high.

Nevertheless, Jay Sterling Silver, writing in an article in the New York Times (11.7.12) argues not that churches, community groups, and parents should amp up the volume on moral values and the importance of acting civilly and responsibly; but that there should be laws convicting idle bystanders. He cites some of the most horrific examples of people who stood by while observing rape.

The issue came to the fore in 1983, when Cheryl Araujo, a 21-year-old woman, was gang-raped on a pool table in a New Bedford, Mass., tavern while patrons stood by. Minnesota and Wisconsin later adopted laws like Vermont’s establishing a general rescue duty; some states have reporting requirements.

But with the exception of a few jurisdictions, the “no duty” rule remains largely the same as it was famously described by William L. Prosser, the dean of American tort law: “The expert swimmer, with a boat and a rope at hand, who sees another drowning before his eyes, is not required to do anything at all about it, but may sit on the dock, smoke his cigarette, and watch the man drown.”

The “no duty” rule can be traced to the spirit of rugged capitalist individualism, the Darwinist idea that the common good is advanced through the struggles of selfish individuals

Silver points out that laws can positively influence moral behavior; and cites evidence to show that laws that discourage antisocial behavior give additional weight to the moral argument. While this may be true, the evidence refers to the commission of a crime, not ‘omitting’ to prevent it.  He concludes:

A sensible statute might read like this: “Any person who knows that another is in imminent danger, or has sustained serious physical harm, and who fails to render reasonable assistance shall be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to three months, or both.” Civil liability could also be established, as in other countries.

This is another misguided attempt to try to engineer social behavior through public legislation – or put another way, to remedy deep-seated, chronic social ills which exist because of multitude of underlying problems, with a mechanistic, implausible, and unworkable solution.  It is more important to address and resolve these problems rather than slap on a feel-good law.

Lastly, so-called Sins of Omission are so complex in nature, so vaguely defined, and justified by so many mitigating factors, that any law – no matter how nobly conceived – can ever work.

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