Toyota’s Past Ethical Challenges: Signs of an Ethical Collapse
Should Ohio State be in the BCS Championship Game?

The NYC Subway Death: Bystander Effect or Moral Blindness?

What was the Ethical Obligation of the Passengers on the Subway Platform?

Do we have an ethical responsibility to help others in need when a life may be at stake? If someone is being attacked in the streets should we intervene to help? What if it isn’t a violent attack so we need not fear for our lives?

Unless you have been living subterranean for a while, you know of the incident where Ki-Suck Han was pushed off a subway platform in  NYC by Naeem Davis. Mr. Han was hit by the train and died while observers did nothing other than snap a shot on their cellphones all the while Mr. Han sought a way off the tracks before the oncoming train did him in. Davis was arraigned on a second-degree murder charge and held without bail in the death of Mr. Han.

I attribute Mr. Han's death not to the “bystander effect,” as some have claimed; instead, it reflects a moral blindness that has become ingrained in our society. Moral blindness in this sense is the inability to see the moral dimensions of a problem. It’s not a right versus wrong issue; it’s an issue whereby our judgment is clouded by failing to see we have responsibilities to others. The universal ethical principle is: How would I want others to act [toward me] in similar situations. We would want on-lookers to help us off the tracks especially when it would have been easy to do so. Mr. Han already had his hands on the platform. The train was still a bit from the station. There appeared to be no danger to others. The attacker had already fled.

All kids of excuses have been offered for Mr., Davis’ actions including he attacked me first and he was drunk. Even if these defenses were true, and a doubt the former, that doesn’t give one human being the right to push another to his death. Is this what a civilized society looks like?

The bystander effect creates apathy -- the greater the number of people present, the less likely a person is to help a person in distress. In an emergency situation, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.

A classic example of the bystander effect took place in New York on March 13, 1964 when a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was stabbed to death near her home. While some facts are disputed, neighbors apparently did nothing to help the woman or call the police. Reportedly, one neighbor did scream out “Let that girl alone,” and the attacker ran away.

I do not think these two situations are the same. In the Genovese case, there was a violent attack and a person who might have intervened could have put his or her own life in danger. That doesn’t explain why no one called the police. In Mr. Han’s case, there was no apparent danger to a bystander who might have intervened.

One of the most controversial aspects of this story is that of a freelance photographer for the New York Post who was waiting for a train when he said he saw a man approach Han at the Times Square station, get into an altercation with him and push him into the train's path.

The Post photo in Tuesday's showed Han with his head turned toward the train, his arms reaching up but unable to climb off the tracks in time.

The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, told NBC's "Today" show that he was trying to alert the motorman to what was going on by flashing his camera. He said he was shocked that people nearer to the victim didn't try to help in the 22 seconds before the train struck.

"It took me a second to figure out what was happening ... I saw the lights in the distance. My mind was to alert the train," Abbasi said.

"The people who were standing close to him ... they could have moved and grabbed him and pulled him up. No one made an effort," he added.

In a written account Abbasi gave the Post, he said a crowd took videos and snapped photos on their cellphones after Han was pulled, limp, onto the platform. He said he shoved them back as a doctor and another man tried to resuscitate the victim, but Han died in front of them.

Abbasi is providing a rationalization for failing to act himself – blame others for not doing what he should have done. In the time it took to snap the shot, Abbasi probably could have ran to Han and pulled him up. Most likely if he needed help puling Han up, someone would have come to his aid because there were “people nearer to the victim.” The explanation that he snapped shots so the flash would alert the conductor makes no sense in the cellphone-camera crazy society we live in. It was more likely the photographer was looking for a story for the Post or a YouTube photo-op than trying to warn the conductor. Anyway, I believe the conductor would have thought it was just another person addicted to using his cell phone.

To be fair none of us know how we would react if we were in a similar situation. It occurs in a split second. What I try to do is discuss it with myself (I do that a lot these days) in advance of any such event and think through what I should do in similar situations. In Mr. Han’s case I would have enlisted the help of those “people nearer the victim” so it counter-acted any bystander effect that existed.

The moral of the story for me is that we live in a society where people react to situations like the subway death as if it’s a reality-TV-type of situation. Are they filming a new show? Is this a stunt to snap a shot and get it on YouTube? The last thing that crosses our mind is that another human being is in danger and we have an ethical and personal responsibility to intervene because, supposedly, we live in a civilized society.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 10, 2012