The ethics of Good Samaritans

Shortly before defeating a ban on texting while driving, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday also killed another piece of legislation that had passed the Senate — the so-called "Good Samaritan" bill.

That bill gave a limited immunity to underage drinking-related offenses for underage drinkers who provide or receive “emergency medical assistance.”

The 7-6 defeat of the Good Samaritan bill will have impacts in South Dakota’s college towns, but despite being only a few years removed from college (where I basically teetotaled until I was legally able to drink — which happened to be about three months before my 21st birthday, since I studied abroad that semester in Europe, where the drinking age was lower) I find the failed bill chiefly interesting as an example of a question in philosophical ethics.

Two of the three major schools of ethics are “deontology” and “consequentialism.” (The third, “virtue ethics,” I have never studied and frankly never really intuitively grasped.)

Deontology holds that the ethical nature of an action is determined by the action itself. An action is either good or bad. The most famous example is Kant’s “Categorical Imperative.” For a pure deontologist, the ends absolutely do not justify the means — an evil action is still even even if it brings about great good.

Consequentialism is the reverse — it holds that the ethics of an action are determined by the action’s consequences. The Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill is one famous example. If an action brings about more good than evil, then it’s a good action under consequentialism. (Different sub-schools disagree about what “good” consequences are.) The ends DO justify the means, for a consequentialist.

How does this relate to the Good Samaritan bill?

Well, supporters of this proposal make a fundamentally consequentialist argument. Yes, underage drinking is wrong, they say. But society should forgive this sin because by so doing it can cause a greater good — by encouraging people to seek or provide emergency medical assistance, thus preventing deaths, which are an undisputed bad thing. Underage drinking may be wrong, but it’s a small wrong, they argue — one with minor negative consequences. (Binge drinking has much more serious negative consequences, but that holds true whether one is 20 or 21.) When you weigh the tiny negative consequences of binge drinking against the huge negative consequences of people dying because their friends were afraid to call 911, under consequentialism, the answer is a no-brainer — you give people liability for the minor offense if they’re providing the greater good.

But for someone coming from a deontological perspective, that logic doesn’t make sense. The idea that underage drinking is “less wrong” than other things is besides the point — underage drinking is WRONG, period. If society decides it’s not wrong, then it should legalize it. Until then, society shouldn’t be in the business of making exceptions. It doesn’t matter how much good someone says can come out of this exception — for a deontologist, the consequences just aren’t very important. Moreover, lawmakers should be worrying about how to provide the right incentives for underage drinkers to call 911 for medical emergencies. If a friend is in dire medical straits, deontologists argue, then the right thing to do is call 911 — even if that call is going to have negative consequences for you, seeking medical assistance for someone potentially dying is always going to be the right thing to do.

Of course, most people aren’t purely in one school or the other, and consider both the intrinsic nature of an action and its consequences when determining ethics. But frequently people are principally adherents of one ethical approach. (Not forgetting virtue ethics, either.)

So you can see the cognitive dissonance here — the two sides are in many ways talking past each other, because they are starting from fundamentally different assumptions.

Now, of course, you can consider what it says about legislator ethics that the Senate has historically passed Good Samaritan bills while the House has historically defeated them…

(UPDATE: It occurs to me now that this same dichotomy also applies to part of the debate over mixed martial arts. Supporters of regulating MMA in South Dakota pointed out that other sports, such as rodeo or football or cheerleader, are statistically just as dangerous as MMA. Yes, responded opponents, but in those sports the injuries are more-or-less incidental, whereas in MMA fighters are TRYING to hurt each other. A consequentialist points to MMA’s results and doesn’t see what the issue is; a deontologist doesn’t care what the effects are and sees only the intent, the will, behind the action.)

Tags: ethics alcohol