On the street outside of an architectural office, a woman gets her car stuck in the snow in the middle of the street in the midst of a storm. Several people in the office go to her aid, attempting to move her car out of the road. One person in the office, however, keeps working, saying that he doesn’t have time to help, while another person leaves to go home, saying that she needs to attend to her own family before she helps someone else.
Helping another person in distress remains one of the most common situations in ethics and one of the most basic responsibilities that people have for one another. The reciprocity at the very heart of ethics arises here: I need to help others as I would want them to help me were I in the same circumstances. But reciprocity is rarely symmetrical. More often than not, we help others without ever receiving the same kind of aid in return or assistance from the same people. There exists, in other words, few quid pro quos in ethics; the good we do may never get done for us.
In a commercial society such as ours, in which we constantly exchange one thing of roughly equal value to another – money for a possession, fees for a service – the lack of a direct connection between an action and the payback can make ethics seem like something for suckers. Why help someone, a committed capitalist might ask, if we receive nothing in return?
Ethics, of course, offers several reasons why. Virtue ethics argues that by doing good for others, we cultivate characteristics in ourselves that make us successful in other aspects of our lives. Commerce, for instance, depends upon trust, which in turn relies on virtues such as honesty, fairness, and prudence. Contract ethics argues that helping others remains central to our membership in a community. If we don’t come to the aid of others, we start to lose the mutual assistance that lies at the heart of a properly functioning society.
Likewise, Kantian ethics claims that we have a duty to do what is right regardless of the consequences or the inconvenience. Anything less than that begins to unravel the kind of behavior essential to civilized life. Finally, utilitarian ethics points out that the greatest good often comes from responding to fellow citizens in need. Moving a car stuck in the middle of the street allows the plows and other vehicles to get by, benefiting many more people than the one person stranded in the snow.
The office mates who responded to the woman stuck in the snow may have had these or other reasons in mind: they may have wanted to do good or simply to get out of work and have a good time. But what about the two employees who did not go to the woman’s aid? Were they unethical? The one who kept working felt that his duty to his job came first, while the other who left to go home likewise felt that her family came first.
Such thinking has an ethical basis. We must constantly weigh one duty against another and if it appears that more aid would not fundamentally change an outcome or that others may need our help more than the person right in front of us, then we have legitimate reasons not to come to another’s aid. Ethics, like design, is profoundly contextual, demanding that we see a situation from the broadest possible perspective before deciding what to do. It does no good to do no good.