We live in a nation of bystanders
If you are choking, you have a better chance of being helped if one person notices than if five do. They call this the “bystander effect.” If you believe you are the only person who can help, then you’re probably going to try to help. But if you are among a crowd of observers, you might wait to see if someone else steps up.
And everyone makes this calculation. In the 1960s social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane—inspired by the infamous public murder of Kitty Genovese, a crime witnessed by 38 of her neighbors—conducted a number of experiments. One of the things they discovered is that a choking victim is likely to be helped 85 percent of the time when there is a single witness to their distress. When five people are present, the victim’s chances of being helped drop to 31 percent.
This reluctance to step forward isn’t necessarily due to apathy. In a group setting, we might assume that there’s someone more qualified than ourselves who can handle the situation better than we might. (Maybe there’s a doctor in the house.) We might be afraid to put ourselves forward. We might look foolish. We might do the wrong thing. We might incur some liability if we try to play the hero.
Mostly though it’s probably because we don’t feel as responsible as we might were we the only one available to act in a crisis. Responsibility is diffused throughout a group. You don’t feel as though you have to act, and you understand that there may be negative consequences to your acting, so you don’t. And maybe someone chokes to death.
It doesn’t have to be a medical emergency. The same phenomenon happens in business meetings, where no one wants to say the obvious thing about a superior’s silly ideal. A few years ago I was in a golf shop where some old fool was telling grotesquely racist jokes that made everyone uncomfortable. No one did anything more censorious than roll their eyes.
If you can make yourself watch C-SPAN, you see the bystander effect at work all the time.
Most people want to do the right thing. They want to think of themselves as ethical, moral folks who cause as little trouble and harm to others as they can while pursuing things they think will bring them a good life. And there are people who (secretly or overtly) reject the whole ideal of altruism. They believe that winning is what matters and that other people are not their concern. They see the universe as a cold and neutral space into which we project our fragile notions of good and evil and right and wrong. For them, whatever brings them the most satisfaction—the most pleasure, power, esteem—is right.
And they’ve erected philosophies to validate this predatory instinct. One of the reasons that Ayn Rand appeals to a lot of people is that she makes the argument that selfishness is moral, and that anyone who pleads for mercy on behalf of the less fortunate is deficient in mental rigor and courage. That all we need to achieve a better world is to remove all rules, regulations and measures of social opprobrium from the pursuit of self-interest without regard to the impact of their actions on others.
As Gordon Gekko said, “greed is good.”
If you don’t want to care about other people, there are plenty of ways you can justify your apathy. It’s not your job to care about them and you can’t make much difference anyway. A lot of people who find themselves in difficulty share some responsibility for their problems; maybe they made poor decisions.
But you can only take responsibility for yourself, right? There’s nothing you can do about the ways other people choose to abuse their freedom. Compassion is for suckers.
But this is still a relatively rare point of view, though we shouldn’t be surprised that what some people call high achievers exhibit this sort of nihilistic ruthlessness. Even a lot of us who are constrained by our consciences might admire the ambition and determination of bold actors able to set aside qualms to pursue their agendas.
Maybe they are right about us. Maybe we are weak.
Maybe we should be ashamed of our relative poverty, our lack of clout and access. After all, what do we have to offer, other than a single vote that has been minimized by gerrymandering and the enfranchisement of corporations? There is no compelling reason for our nominal representatives to prioritize the humble lives of ordinary citizens over the potential profits of their corporate partners. In this transactional world, you have to have something more to offer than a vote.
Your potential vote might get you a tour of a congressional office and a selfie. But in this country, it’s not going to get you the health-care system the rest of world takes for granted. Because to do so would be to limit the profits that better individuals can make. And that wouldn’t be fair to them.
You don’t see anyone doing anything about this because it requires real courage not to be a bystander. There’s no penalty for doing nothing, while the risks of taking a genuine position are real. That’s how democracy will die—in public, with the timid millions looking on, shaking their heads.