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Do Unto Others? Sure—If They're in Our Social Circle

New research reports the moral imperative to help those in need is much weaker if the needy person in question is a stranger.

The health-care legislation currently being considered by Congress would leave millions of people without coverage, and likely lead to many premature deaths. Yet the debate has largely shied away from the morality of such a law, and its proponents seem indifferent to the harm it would do.

Why is that? New psychological research suggests a likely answer.

According to a team of Israeli researchers, we instinctively distinguish between two types of harm: active, in which you actively injure someone in some way; and passive, in which you fail to provide needed help.

While we feel morally obligated to avoid actively hurting another human being, the ethical imperative to help someone is more qualified if we didn't directly cause their suffering. In such cases, our impulse to help—or, conversely, to look the other way—largely depends on how close we feel to the person in need.

"Judgments concerning the omission of care are dependent on social distance," write the researchers, led by psychologist Michael Gilead of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. They argue that, while this truism applies to both liberals and conservatives, it is "at the foundation of right-wing political thought."

In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers describe five experiments that back up their assertion. In one of them, 80 Americans recruited online were presented with one of two vignettes and asked to make an ethical decision.

Some of them read a story about a man who accidentally hit his neighbor's new car, destroying its side mirror. Realizing no one saw him, he drives away without leaving a note. Others read that same scenario, except that the car belonged to a stranger.

Another group of participants were told a man, while driving to work one day, noticed his neighbor was "stranded by the side of the road," in need of a charge for his car battery. Feeling too tired to help, he just kept on driving. In the alternate version, the man in need of help was a stranger.

Participants overwhelmingly viewed the actions of the first man as morally wrong, no matter who the car belonged to. But they judged the man in the second scenario far more harshly if he passed up his neighbor, rather than a stranger.

In other experiments, the ethical imperative to provide care was judged to be stronger when the person in need was one's brother (compared to a friend), or one's good friend (compared to a fellow university student). Intuitively, closeness implies an obligation to help, while distance weakens it.

This pattern was found consistently, both in the experiments conducted using Americans, and one that featured Israelis. That suggests this way of moral thinking is common to both members of more individualistic and more communal cultures. It also did not vary significantly with political orientation.

That said, the researchers point out that this impulse seems to provide the seeds of Ayn Rand's "objectivist" moral ideology. That way of thinking, embraced by such top Republicans as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, argues that, while directly harming others is bad, "whether or not an individual chooses to care for others has no bearing on his or her moral character."

As Gilead and his colleagues note, few people go to that extreme. Most of us believe providing care for those in our immediate social circle is a moral imperative.

The rest of humanity, not so much.