Even people who are typically considered moral struggle in serious situations. People see suffering, then either ignore it or freeze up. No one is wholly immune to what is called the “bystander effect.” When we give in to it, horrendous things that could have been prevented are allowed to freely occur.
I remember the first time I allowed myself to be a bystander. I was 16 or 17 years old visiting Los Angeles and I had little experience with large cities. While in an LA train station, I noticed something that set off red flags in my head. Near me was a group of around eight men who all collectively rose from their train seats and followed a woman off of the train. After also exiting the train, I witnessed the same woman turn a corner, with the eight men not far behind. It was dark outside, and there were no police around. When the group of men turned that same corner, I began to freak out.
I knew what my gut was telling me: something horrible was about to transpire. My mind quickly raced, and different possible explanations and outcomes clashed. Were they following her to hurt her? Did they know the woman? If I follow, will I be hurt as well? I knew that there was nothing that someone like me — not even an adult yet — could do to help her. I grabbed my phone and thought that maybe I should call the police. Then I again freaked out. Could they get there in time? If my name was attached as an informant, would those men someday come after me? What if I was imagining things, and I was wasting the police’s time? After all of that, I froze up. My eyes were widened and stuck in place.
As I stood there holding my phone, unable to even type three simple numbers and make a call, my taxi finally approached. I entered the taxi, sat down and couldn’t even speak beyond providing the address of my destination. That night I lied awake. I couldn’t turn on the television that night, nor could I bring myself to read the news for an entire week. I was horrified at the thought of what might have happened. I realized that even if nothing did happen, I was still culpable. I am responsible for my inaction. I stood by and did nothing. It was after that day that I vowed to never be a bystander again.
Sometimes you have to be a bystander — to watch as something horrible happens — in order to dedicate yourself to acting on behalf of those around you. I still have nightmares over what might have happened to that mystery woman. But it drives me to act. It isn’t enough to just be a moral person by not doing wrong towards others. As the philosopher Peter Singer teaches, we have to actively perform ethical actions. This means going out of your way to help others, and to never stand idly by as others suffer around you.