From April 16, 2004, “Who is you?”
The previous post tells the story of three ordinary people who acted as citizens and neighbors when confronted with a drowning man.
Their actions were heroic, yet this is very much a textbook case. This was an ethics professor’s hypothetical in real life. (Ethics profs love hypthetical drowning victims almost as much as they love hypothetical Nazis. They even like to confront their students with hypothetical drowning Nazis.)
The problem with many of the hypothetical predicaments posed by ethics profs is that they also involve a hypothetical, abstract and undifferentiated “you.”
Consider the following all-too-real hypothetical: You see an old man sleeping in the doorway of a church. His blanket is thin and the night is cold. What do you do?
The answer depends on who “you” are. You may be a local beat cop. You may be the pastor or a parishioner of that church. You may be a professional social worker. You may be a volunteer at the local homeless shelter. You may be a member of the city council. You may be the old man’s daughter or niece or his long-ago college roommate or Army buddy. You may be a stranger who lives across the street from the church. You may be a despised Samaritan just passing through. You may be an airman first class who made a wrong turn on his way to the county clerk.
Regardless of who “you” are, you are responsible. But the nature of your responsibility — particularly in the longer term — differs according to the differentiated responsibilities of the various examples above. These differing responsibilities are complementary. They are not — despite the popular American confusion — exclusive.