Doing the Right Thing: a Trivial Matter?

  (17 March 08)
  by Greg Spearritt

From a blog post on The Australian’s website:


[Philosopher Peter Singer] cites a recent experiment in which theology students, asked to prepare a lecture on the parable of the good Samaritan, were given a briefing about the lecture in one building before walking to another building where they were to give their talk. On leaving the first building, they passed a stranger groaning by the side of the path, apparently in need of help.


“The key determinant of whether the students stopped to help him or not was whether they’d been told there wasn’t a lot of time and had to hurry to the lecture theatre,” Singer recalls. “Now if something as trivial as being late for a lecture, even when you’ve got the good Samaritan parable in your head, stops you from helping a stranger in distress: that suggests character doesn’t go very deep.”


Singer concludes that “fairly trivial matters seem to determine whether people do the right thing”.


I suspect he’s right.


Surely background experience has an effect here. We as a society have allowed inattention to occur for a long time, we practice a balancing process for our decisions especially when in a hurry. How many times before this occasion did students find an unloved drunk in the street and giving attention had no worthwhile outcome.
Most people will not react as if it is unusual until we make sure it is unusual with fair and funded support systems for the down and out. In most cases people ask for help, when lots of people are passing someone else may look (if they have more time), security will deal with it and many other factors come into peoples choice, as a result it is not appropriate to try and get behavioral principals from such a test. I would possibly stop myself, but I may just move on or call an ambulance depending on what I see.

Posted by Tony

Isn't it true, though, that our 'lived' responses to serious issues (rather than our theoretical, considered responses) are often determined by 'trivial' circumstances? I know I should - for the sake of the planet - be turning off everything at the powerpoint when I'm not using it, but I'm too damned lazy to put this into practice in a consistent way.

Posted by Greg Spearritt

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