Disability Appeals in North Carolina  -   33 Years Experience
David R. Paletta
Disability Attorney

Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Boone
North Carolina

(919) 491-5643

Is there a Duty to help those who are suffering when the suffering is the result of their own irresponsible behavior? A Personal Point of View.

Published by David Paletta

In a prior article I explained my belief that there is a Duty to help those who are suffering. Lawrence Sheraton wrote a followup article from a philosophical perspective. Mr. Sheraton addressed numerous considerations and concluded the correct answer is - it depends on the circumstances. One common circumstance is there are times when an individual behaves irresponsibly, and as a direct result of such behavior experiences negative consequences which cause suffering.

I am a disability attorney. Clients contact me when they have been denied Social Security disability benefits. They want me to file an appeal to get the denial reversed. In many cases, the individual has lost the ability to work due to decades of self-harmful behavior. Examples of common harmful behaviors include smoking, eating unhealthy foods, abusing alcohol, or using illegal drugs.

It is easy to be judgmental in these situations. The individual engaged in self-harmful behavior, and is now experiencing the consequences. Many will argue that if we help such individuals, if we minimize the negative consequences of their self-harmful behavior, that we in effect "enable" these behaviors, that we do more harm than good.

I see the logic of this point of view. The problem with this judgmental perspective is what it inevitably leads to. If we do not help those who have harmed themselves, then there will be people dying on the streets in the United States. I am confident that the vast majority of Americans would find people dying in the streets unacceptable.

Further, there is a fundamental flaw in the logic of this judgmental perspective. This flaw is revealed by a passage found in the Gospel of John. The Pharisees brought an adulterous woman before Jesus and asked if she should be stoned according to the Law of Moses. John writes that Jesus looked at those wishing to pass judgment upon this woman and said

"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

Biblical scholars point out that this particular passage was absent from the earliest manuscripts and contains words and phrases alien to John's writing. See UNC Professor Bart D. Ehrman in "Misquoting Jesus", at p. 65. Nonetheless, I believe this parable conveys a universal truth. 

I call this truth the Ethic of Humility. We are all human. We all have flaws. At times we all make mistakes and need forgiveness.

In my youth I was more than a little judgmental. But today I am 58. And in my 58 years I have made many mistakes that I cannot blame on anyone but myself. Some of my mistakes were huge, and caused me deep pain. I am forever grateful for the kind human beings who in my time of need did not judge me harshly for my flaws, but instead gave me a loving, helpful hand.

My life experience has taught me the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Rule is often referred to as the Ethic of Reciprocity. I find it very interesting that this lesson I learned from experience can be found in religions throughout the world.

Christianity. All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them.  Matthew 7:1.

Judaism. What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. Talmud, Shabbat 3id.

Islam. No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. Sunnah.

Buddhism. Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. Udana-Varga 5,1.

Hinduism. Do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you. Mahabharata 5,1517.

Confucianism. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Analects 12:2.

Taoism. Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien.

Bahá'í. Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself. Baha'u'llah.

Christianity. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 22.36.

Jainism. In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self. Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara.

Judaism. If I am only for myself, what am I? Rabbi Hillel.

Should we apply the Golden Rule to individuals who are suffering due to self-harmful behavior? Of course, for this is the essence of the Rule. If we would like a helping hand when we are down and out, then we should give a helping hand when others are down and out. Due to the Ethic of Humility and the Ethic of Reciprocity, I believe there is a Duty to try to help someone who is suffering due to self-harmful behavior. 

However, let me end by saying this Duty is not absolute. It is important that individuals be held accountable in some manner for the negative consequences of their behaviors. Also, there are some people who are so mentally injured that they cannot be helped, no matter what is done.  Moreover, there are some people who are physically or emotionally harmful to others, and each of us has the right to defend ourselves from such harm.
Posted January 07, 2013 09:27 by Lawrence Sheraton
Clarification. In my post regarding one's obligation to help another, I would hope our default position is yes; help where you can. I was trying to address the grey issue of how much harm should you endure, to help someone out of harms way? It is often hard to provide help without endangering oneself in some way. The risk may be worth the reward. For small matters or help with little harm the answer usually seems easy; help should be provided. In more complicated matters, the answers are not so easy. Extreme examples such as closing off the bulkhead of a ship ensuring one persons death to save the lives of all on the ship take on a ethical Utilitarian view (better to serve the majority than the minority - especially when dealing with equivalents; one life = one life); which most people accept correct for this scenario; even though they may rightly reject a Utilitarian argument given a different scenario (typically when things of different values are made equivalent).At what point is it OK for a person or society to cut a person lose? No rules can be made for that question... it's a judgement call and likely there is no right answer, just better or worse scenarios for both parties involved. It is conditional, because I could dream up a number of scenarios where it is better to do something, and not to do something (for one or both parties); discretion would favor the innocent's welfare to the guilty's. That said, the guilty's pain would factor in. If a little bit of pain from the innocent could help the guilty's pain reduce greatly, then favor may fall to the guilty; even though they don't "deserve it" from a black & white perspective. Mercy is a good virtue that should be supported (and not abused). It's the abuse of mercy that conservatives hate (as it seems unfair). It's the abuse of the downtrodden that liberals hate (as it is harmful to those being abused). Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity are ethical values. Your perspective will filter th