China’s Good Samaritan Debate
The death yesterday of a toddler after a hit-and-run has fueled widespread debate in China over people’s willingness to jump in and help those in need. Footage from a surveillance camera shows the child being passed by eighteen people and even being ran over by a second vehicle before a woman went to help her. Chinese websites are inundated with comments with, for example, the popular video-sharing website Youku currently at 455 pages.
The tragedy connects to a larger discussion in China regarding disincentives to being a Good Samaritan. In September, the death of an elderly man after no pedestrians stopped to help him resurrected discussion of a 2006 case where a court ordered a man to pay compensation to a woman who falsely accused him of causing her fall. As reported by the China Daily, “The verdict angered the public, who compared the judge to well-known ‘muddle-headed judges’ in ancient China.” In a 2009 article, Yunxiang Yan, an anthropologist at UCLA, analyzed reported cases where people who attempted to help found themselves being accused of wrongdoing. Prof. Yan argues that “despite its rare occurrence, extortion of Good Samaritans constitutes a heavy blow to social trust, compassion, and the principle of moral reciprocity.”
Looking deeper into Chinese history, the debate echoes the words of Mencius who expressed his positive view of human nature through the parable of a man watching a child fall into a well: “Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child” (Mencius 2A:6). However, Mencius cautioned that people often fail to act in a benevolent manner because of external factors that interfere with cultivation of innate virtue.