Archive for September, 2007

Cop Out

It is a fact of studying ethics that you are always dealing with hypothetical baby torturers, genocide, or drowning children. These examples are of course used because they jar so strongly with our intuitions. The original “drowning child” example was used by Peter Singer as a prelude to arguing for our duty to the poor of the world, but it is very rare that these situations actually occur. This is why I was struck by this article, and the response of the agents involved. The situation can be reduced to a few basic points:

  • Young boy attempts to save younger sister from drowning (not necessarily morally relevant, but indicative of what we would consider good moral conduct).
  • Two anglers jump into the water and manage to save her, but the boy has become submerged.
  • Two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) arrive on the scene quickly but do not attempt to rescue the boy, instead they call for trained officers to help.
  • The boy dies as a result of the time he spends submerged.

Now, the reason the drowning child example is used in ethics is that it is generally assumed that there is a prima facie duty to help those in need if it is possible to do so. The example emphasizes this point as a child is generally considered less capable of helping themselves and there is very little weighing against the action. In other words, nothing of significance is going to be lost by saving the child. In such a situation there is a strong moral obligation on us to attempt a rescue.

As such the only reason why such a duty would change in nature – with the exception of an overriding obligation to attend to something on land – is that attempting such a rescue would put the attempter in danger themselves. Given the cost of the death of a child, we can assume that this risk of danger must be high in order to alter the duty; either that the rescuer is unable to swim, or perhaps that there is a strong and dangerous current in the water. In the case referred to in the article the water was still, it was a standing body, and there is no reason to believe that both the PCSOs were non-swimmers. Furthermore, given the fact that the anglers attempted and succeeded in rescuing the young girl, it seems unlikely that the water was overly treacherous. Thus it seems that the PCSOs have committed a serious moral wrong by not attempting the rescue.

The response of the police was:

PCSOs are not trained to deal with major incidents such as this. Both ourselves and the fire brigade regularly warn the public of the dangers of going into unknown stretches of water so it would have been inappropriate for PCSOs, who are not trained in water rescue, to enter the pond.

The reply gives two justifications for the action. Firstly, that PCSOs are not trained to deal with this situation, and secondly that it would, in some way, contradict their general advice if the PCSOs had acted.

As training is not a necessary condition of the action needed, as we can see from the anglers, this justification is clearly invalid. The second reason is ludicrous. The rule that the police and fire brigade advise surely does not apply here. If it did, it would imply either that those working for the police have lesser moral duties than the public as a whole, or that nobody has a duty to rescue a drowning child if the “stretch of water” is unknown.

This seems to be a very unfortunate example of how rule-following can undermine virtuous moral agency.