Moral Courage, Doggone It

26 Aug

  

All that required for  evil to triumph,  is for good dogs to do nothing.       

 Adapted from Edmund Burke

 

 

 

 

Many of you may remember the classic television show Lassie.  At some point in every episode one of the main characters, usually Timmy, would find himself in terrible trouble. That is when Lassie, either with urging from Timmy or spontaneously, would run to get help. Usually this was often a heroic journey that involved things like crossing waterfalls and fighting off cougars.

Believe it or not, psychologists at theUniversityofWestern Ontariohave decided to see how real dogs respond to emergency situations. Studies, such as this,  are why I love psychology so much. I’m glad, however, this one took place inCanada,  so there’s little chance  they spent U.S  tax dollars on it.

The researchers conducted two experiments. That’s actually 14 experiments  in dog reckoning.  In the first experiment, the dog’s owner feigned having a heart attack and in the second experiment the dog’s owner pretended to have an accident, in which a bookcase fell on them and pinned them to the floor. In both experiments, bystanders were available to which the dog could run for help. The experimenters videotaped the dog’s behavior for six minutes after the phony accidents took place.  The researchers later scored the dog’s behavior for the time spent performing different behaviors.  Their categories included  roaming, approaching the victim or bystander, vocalizing, and pawing the ground. But where was aimless barking in the direction of the neighbors, rolling in something disgusting, biting the top off of irises, and annoying the cat?   I am pretty sure I know what my dog would have been doing.

Would you like to guess the results? The researchers found that “in no  case did a dog solicit help from a bystander” and they concluded that “dogs did not understand the nature  of the emergency or the need to obtain help”.  Amazingly the researchers then went on to spend several pages making excuses for the dogs,  like  maybe they  weren’t   fooled and  had realized  it wasn’t  a real emergency and so on. 

The dogs (there were twelve of various breeds) mostly just roamed around, occasionally approaching the victim or the by-stander. The subtitle of this experiment was “dog bystander apathy”. I  don’t think this experiment should  be  interpreted to disparage the courage of  dogs, but rather it challenges our misguided attempts to try to impose human characteristic on our canine friends..

The real irony of this experiment is that in some situations humans don’t do much better than the dogs. Human bystander apathy has been studied in depth since the infamous Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, when the New York Times  reported  that 38 people  had heard or seen this young woman being attacked, for over half an hour, and  did nothing to help– not even call the police. Although later investigations contradicted some of these claims, it was clear that people were frequently very reluctant to get involved in such situations.

Since then studies have shown that people are less likely to take action if there are other people present, and the responsibility is dispersed.  I personally understand how this can happen. I have been in situations where I knew that speaking out, although terribly unpopular, would be the morally correct thing to do.  In most of these cases I have been fortunate enough that my wife, Diane, was also there.  And I know, regardless of the consequences, she is constitutionally unable to refrain from speaking out to injustice. Since she has much more moral courage than me, I cowardly have  accepted  that I usually don’t  have to say anything, because she most certainly will.

Also the more ambiguous the situation is, the less likely people are to become involved. In the Genovese case, some people said they thought they were witnessing a lovers’ spat or a drunken brawl and were reticent to get involved and possibly be embarrassed by such situations.  I believe this fear of being embarrassed is a key issue in people not standing up for others, especially in incidents of child abuse and domestic violence.  Unfortunately many people would rather risk the lives and futures of their friends and neighbors, than possible embarrassment.

Fears for personal safety, inconvenience, and possible liability inhibit some  people from  being Good Samaritans. The Genovese case led to much public outcry aboutAmerica’s growing callousness and apathy towards others. While not thrusting yourself into a potentially dangerous or inconvenient situation may have survival value, when it involves defending others,  such reticence violates the basic social contract we have with each other as fellow human beings. 

In the final analysis, this is mainly a question of moral courage.  Sins of omission can be just as grievous as sins of commission.  We must at least try to do better than our dogs.

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