Thursday, January 21, 2010

Do we have a legal obligation to help others? How about a moral one?

Last week at The 36-Hour Day, I wrote about my own connection to Haiti and wondered how much more difficult this tragedy would have been before we were so tightly linked to one another online.

Unlike me, my cousins have two Haitian parents, and some of them even grew up on the tiny island nation, coming to the US and Canada in their teens. The impact of the earthquake hit them even here. The broken buildings that make me cringe cut them more deeply; they searched the dust and soot-covered faces on the news, hoping to recognize someone, hoping not to recognize someone. Days later, my cousin is still posting updates about people who are texting from pockets deep in the rubble. People in another nation read and respond, making their way to addresses she posts, trying to dig people out.

How much worse would this have been 10, 15 years ago for those of us who are far away, waiting for word from our families? At least with Twitter we were getting updates, some from the scene of the devestation. At least with Facebook, I could reach out and comfort my cousin, who was grieving the potential loss of family and friends who she remembered from her childhood in Haiti. Word trickles in via text message, via photos taken with cell phones, via a tenuous satellite connection that cuts off too quickly.

The post got picked up at Yahoo!'s Shine, and the discussion really took off. I was surprised, though, to find so many readers felt that they weren't obligated to help others at all, even in the face of such devestation. The very first comment, in fact, was this: "Sorry, but I disagree. I'm not "obligated" to help anyone."

HP02 wrote: "Feel sorry for them, but I aint throwing my few dollars to a country that don't do anything for me and isn't living 5 feet from me. My dollar is going to my kids or my neices or even my elderly mom before it goes to me or even a foreign country."

Other readers explained why. "I think the bigger question would be who ever comes to help us in times of need?" Ozmena f wrote. "And by the by, what countries ever repay the loans we give them? Our country might be in better shape if we took care of our own first."

I was surprised because I thought that was the greater point of my post: That even though we feel pinched by the economy right now, we have so much more than so many others. Doesn't that make us obligated in some way -- not legally, but perhaps morally -- to help those in need?

"I don't think I am obligated to do anything... I am more worried about our ecomony and our homeless people here in the USA... I am more worried about paying my bills on time..." Tonia commented.

Which made me wonder if she, or any of the others who wrote that we need to consider "people here in the USA" first, actually gave to charities that help people within the US. Do they donate goods to food pantries? Volunteer at homeless shelters? Give money to support medical research or improve education in needy areas?

I wasn't the only one who was taken aback by the outpouring of "let them help themselves" comments. Oceanblue1118 wrote: "I am seriously appalled, about some of these posts, how SELFISH they all sound!! Yes, some people cant afford to donate, but you need to remember that it’s not about who helps us out when we are in need, that doesn’t really matter…what matters is if you as a individual or as a country are able to help out a fellow human being in their time of need YOU SHOULD FEEL OBLIGATED to do so. Its comments like that which are aiding to the demise of civilization and compassion."

Siri, who writes that she is currently unemployed, commented: "I've already between last night and early this morning managed to get two boxes filled with things to send to those suffering right now." Parveneh points out that helping the victims is not the same as helping a corrupt government: "I don't give a damn what the Haitian government did, that 2 year old boy dying didn't do a thing to deserve being crushed under a building and then not being able to receive medical attention when dug out. Have some human compassion people. Don't punish all for the actions of a corrupt few. You cannot justify helping tens of thousands of people in need of basic human necessities, food, water, shelter, life saving medical attention just because you disagree with their government."

I understand that people are worried about scam artists; they do come out of the woodwork at times like these, and it's right to watch out for them. In that case, donate to an established organization -- I have my go-to list of them here -- that already has first responders on the ground. Send a donation by check, if you like, in order to stop credit card companies from shaving off "transaction fees" that can be as high as 3 percent. If you're unemployed, contact the Red Cross to see if you can volunteer your time. Have none of the above? If you believe in the power of prayer, send that.

It was an earthquake, it could have happened in plenty of other places. Yes, I do believe we're obligated to help others in need. Today it's Haiti. Tomorrow, it could be in our own backyard.


Heather said...


As for me and mine, we *do* feel a moral obligation and are helping as much as we can, and will continue to do so.

It goes beyond "moral" in my book to "human" obligation. Obligation to our fellow human beings. Just because we're all the same but for our circumstances.

LMAlphonse said...

I agree, Heather! It's just an accident of birth that we're all not in their shoes instead of our own.

Thanks for the link in your post!

Anonymous said...

Well, in some jurisdictions at least, there is a legal obligation to help others. The Quebec Charter of Humn Rights reads:

2. Every human being whose life is in peril has a right to assistance.
Every person must come to the aid of anyone whose life is in peril, either personally or calling for aid, by giving him the necessary and immediate physical assistance, unless it involves danger to himself or a third person, or he has another valid reason.