Do we have a moral obligation to help others?

By Barbara Gutierrez

Do we have a moral obligation to help others?

By Barbara Gutierrez
University of Miami philosophy and religious studies professors offer their perspectives about ethical duties during this time of the coronavirus pandemic.

The parable of the Good Samaritan can be helpful in this age of the coronavirus and its painful aftermath.

The Bible tells the story of a man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the road. Two passersby ignore his plight while a Samaritan who sees him, helps him and takes him to safety.  

At a time when about 60,000 people have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, millions are unemployed, and many others are in need of basic staples such as food, there is a great deal of need.

“There are a lot of people struggling now. And moving forward, things are going to be difficult for a great many,” said Richard Chappell, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences.

Images of people carrying out good deeds abound on the internet and on television. But there are also troubling images of carefree people gathering at beaches and other public areas without masks and ignoring the physical distancing measures which health officials have said will help keep the virus at bay.      

All this begs the question: Do we have a moral responsibility to help others? Do we all have to become Good Samaritans?

“I think most of us who work in ethics believe there is a moral responsibility to others,” said Michael Slote, UST Professor of Ethics in the Department of Philosophy. “It is really also common to the world’s religions and even to the world’s cultures.”

The Hebrew Bible mentions the ideal of helping “widows and orphans and people who are disadvantaged,” pointed out Dexter Callender, associate professor of religious studies.

“The ideal society in the Torah (the first books of the Hebrew Bible) and Deuteronomy is organized around taking care of other people,” he added.

“You get this idea in ancient Judaism and Christianity that you have to love your neighbor; you have to take care of your neighbor,” said Slote. “You have to be responsible to make sure that your neighbor does not suffer too much.”

The teachings of the Torah prompted Jesus to preach that we should “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Many religious scholars have asked: Who is our neighbor? Are we obliged to help only those close to us, our families, friends, colleagues?

“According to Jesus, our neighbor is anyone we are responsible for,” explained Slote. “It is all of humanity.”

Callender agreed, noting that even in the ancient Hebrew Bible there is a belief that one should help “resident aliens or people who come from other cultures and places, who may not be able to support themselves in the same way as others.”

The Judaic teachings also stress the need to be empathetic of other people and their plight.

“They are constantly told to remember that they were slaves in Egypt,” said Callender. “All the commandments are premised on the memory of being oppressed.”    

According to Chappell, besides the religious, “here is a moral principle that states that if you are in a position to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything comparably significant, then you should do it.”  

This rule can also extend to helping others financially, if one has the means to do so, Chappell added.

Peter Singer, well-known Australian philosopher and professor of bioethics, has made a reputation by teaching the effective ways of altruism. He believes that societies and individuals can do much more to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty.    

But another biblical parable in the Book of Genesis warns us of why it may be imperative to help our fellow humans.

When Cain kills his brother Abel, God asks him, “Where is Abel your brother?”

Cain answers “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

God curses Cain to a life as a fugitive and a wanderer for his crime.

“The narrative teaches us that there are unintended consequences to our selfish actions,” said Callender. “This suggests that it is in our own best interest to be aware of the best interest of others.”