China’s Good Samaritan Debate

The death yesterday of a toddler after a hit-and-run has fueled widespread debate in China over people’s willingness to jump in and help those in need. Footage from a surveillance camera shows the child being passed by eighteen people and even being ran over by a second vehicle before a woman went to help her. Chinese websites are inundated with comments with, for example, the popular video-sharing website Youku currently at 455 pages.

The tragedy connects to a larger discussion in China regarding disincentives to being a Good Samaritan. In September, the death of an elderly man after no pedestrians stopped to help him resurrected discussion of a 2006 case where a court ordered a man to pay compensation to a woman who falsely accused him of causing her fall. As reported by the China Daily, “The verdict angered the public, who compared the judge to well-known ‘muddle-headed judges’ in ancient China.” In a 2009 article, Yunxiang Yan, an anthropologist at UCLA, analyzed reported cases where people who attempted to help found themselves being accused of wrongdoing. Prof. Yan argues that “despite its rare occurrence, extortion of Good Samaritans constitutes a heavy blow to social trust, compassion, and the principle of moral reciprocity.”

Looking deeper into Chinese history, the debate echoes the words of Mencius who expressed his positive view of human nature through the parable of a man watching a child fall into a well: “Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child” (Mencius 2A:6). However, Mencius cautioned that people often fail to act in a benevolent manner because of external factors that interfere with cultivation of innate virtue.

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6 Responses

  1. Frank Pasquale says:

    Thanks for posting this. I will mention it the next time I teach about good samaritan defenses in medical malpractice cases.

    I believe the WaPo article on this said the driver admitted he “hit and ran,” and explained himself by saying that a dead child would lead to a $1,500 fine, whereas medical bills could be much more than that. That’s a very frightening response!

  2. The rare occurrence of “extortion of Good Samaritans” should prompt us to look beyond or deeper than removing obvious disincentives to benevolent behavior and thus perhaps beyond the law proper. People often have all sorts of rationalizations for failure to help, relying on unconscious or sub-conscious defense mechanisms that allow them to “cope” with powerful emotions that arise in situations in which they are confronted—up close and personal—with the darker aspects or experiences of reality (inexplicable suffering, evil, and so forth). States of denial, self-deception, or wishful thinking prove indispensable in such cases and the moral psychology of “turning a blind eye” or “looking the other way” is still not well understood, although some might reasonably conclude that we can, with some confidence, benefit from explanations derived from cognitive psychology and psychoanalytic theory by way of beginning to understand the mechanisms at work in these cases. Thus, while “external factors” can and do interefere with the cultivation of virtue, the more recalcitrant obstacles appear to be “internal factors” that fall within the province of moral psychology, until late an intellectual field of inquiry comparatively neglected, falling between the cracks, as it were, of philosophy and psychology (there are notable exceptions, going back to Plato and later with Hume). I’m not sure the Chinese philosophical traditions and worldviews: Mohist, Daoist, Confucian, Marxist/Maoist, and Legalist, for instance, have the intellectual resources from which to construct a robust moral psychology on this score, although that is not to rule out their possible contributions to such an endeavor (I’ve long been fond of both ‘Confucianism’ and ‘Daoism’), and I’m open to being persuaded to the contrary.

  3. Frank Pasquale says:

    Very interesting point, Patrick. The extortion story could just spread as a convenient rationalization. (Some have said to me that they think the explanation “I won’t be an organ donor because then the doctors will let me die first to harvest my organs” has been appealing, despite being pretty implausible, for a similar reason.)

    Here’s an intriguing US Good Samaritan story:

  4. Margaret Lewis says:

    I do not know the potential liability for death versus injuries, but the passage of a new Tort Liability Law in late 2009 has added greater clarity to what was a very murky area of the law. As for criminal liability, vehicular homicides have been a big news topic in the past year or so (e.g., the “My dad is Li Gang” case where a 22-year-old killed a pedestrian while driving recklessly and responded to police that he was basically untouchable because his dad was a government official…he is in prison for several years).

    As for cultivation of virtue, a fascinating question is how much the reported reluctance for people to be Good Samaritans in China is based on human nature, deep-rooted cultural influences, the impact of six decades of rule under the Chinese Communist Party, and/or something else. To the extent that there are cultural factors reaching before 1949 or differences resulting from the divergence in history since, Taiwan offers an interesting comparison (see, e.g., David C. Schak, The Development of Civility in Taiwan, Pacific Affairs, Fall 2009 — analyzing the “development of civility” in Taiwan after the end of authoritarian rule).

  5. your mom says:

    omg this is sooo sad i about died crying!!:'(

  6. poop pie says:

    I laughed so hard