Why We Must Sometimes Refuse to Help

A while back a reader-let’s call her Sharon-contacted me for help. Her story was confusing and hard to follow, so she directed me a website she had set up to publicise her cause. She also sent me some documents, which I committed to read with the view, if I could possibly make it work, of writing a column on her case. I wanted to help.

But this was not enough for Sharon. She wanted me to do more. Eventually, after a hail of text messages, emails and phone calls, I severed contact. Not only was I ill-equipped to manage her mental state, I could not provide the “rescue” from said situation she seemed to expect. Her response to my non-replies was blunt, with my name joining her website list of those whom she has asked for help but not received it. The list includes writers, domestic violence workers, academics and anyone who had made public comment condemning violence and advocating for women’s rights.

Not long after I got another email, this time from a bloke I’ll call Baz. Baz’s complaint was much like Sharon’s. It was not good enough for me to write about moral issues without backing up my views with action. What was I planning to do about the corrupt use of taxpayer funds by Peter Costello, the lack of separation between church and state in the constitution and the refusal of our politicians to take climate change seriously? I had the potential to make a difference and to fail to do so made me a fancy dancer, to use Bryce Courtenay’s phrase. A hypocrite, and distraction to righteous men.

What do we owe to others? What is reasonable for others to ask of us?

I have been a columnist for over a decade and in that time have received hundreds of emails from readers. Some in furious agreement with my views, some respectfully despairing over my wrong-headness, others doing so in more colourful ways. But until Sharon and Baz, I failed to appreciate the common-sense wisdom of nearly all of them-their implicit understanding of limits. Limits on what is reasonable to expect from someone you’ve never met. Limits on the moral contribution any one person can make to the greater good, given their obligations to the particular others in their lives.

Such clarity is an achievement. Philosophers have long disagreed about whether obligations to family mitigate our moral requirement to serve the greater good.

Traditionalists say, “no.” The best-known articulation of this view was by William Godwin (Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s father). Godwin said that if two people were trapped by fire in a house, we would be obligated to save the Archbishop before going after the chambermaid. This was true even if the maid was one’s mother or wife, because the Archbishop’s life was of greater value to the world.

I disagree. Indeed, to follow the dictates of Godwin and philosophers like him would result in a world without meaningful relationships. If I refuse to go to my child’s school play because the starving children in Africa need me more, the very nature of the parent-child bond stops making sense.\ We are not obligated to dedicate our moral efforts to the most worthy. Our primary obligations are to the people to whom we are bound by promise, affection or blood.

Publication history

Why We Must Sometimes Refuse to Help  Sun-Herald (Sydney)