A law to make us Good Samaritans*?


Last week, completely by chance, I stumbled across a radio programme called Unreliable Evidence. It was a discussion programme about what the participants dubbed a “Good Samaritan law”: a law that would make it compulsory to come to someone else’s aid in certain situations and a criminal offence to, well, walk by on the other side.

My first thought, to be honest, was, “How ridiculous!” Must everything these days be micromanaged to death? How can you make it illegal not to help someone? What a crackpot idea!

However, that just goes to show how much I know, because it turns out laws of this kind do exist. And not in countries where the rule of law is weak, but in France, Germany and 10 US states, apparently – so it’s not even a matter of the difference between countries with common-law and civil-law traditions. Basically, a Good Samaritan law means you’re obliged to help someone whose life is in danger if doing so poses no risk to yourself or others.

So I was wrong: there’s nothing far-fetched about a Good Samaritan law. But would it be a good idea in, say, the UK? Would it be workable there? Would it be feasible to gather good enough evidence to convict someone? Are there enough police to enforce it? Does it conflict with existing UK laws?

Now, there is of course a long and noble tradition of bloggers and online commenters sounding off at length on subjects they know next to nothing about. So maybe you’re expecting me to try to answer these questions even though I have no legal expertise whatsoever. However, I’m never afraid to buck a trend, so I’ve decided not to discuss things I’m hopelessly unqualified to discuss. Here’s another question, though: assuming a Good Samaritan law could be enforced properly, would it be a good idea? I can already hear people objecting that this is a purely theoretical question. However, I’ll let you into a little secret: whatever question I asked about this would be theoretical, because, to my lasting chagrin, I’m not actually empowered to pass laws.

Let’s run with this thought, then. As I said, my first reaction was pretty scornful. ‘Legal’ and ‘moral’ are not synonyms: not everything that’s immoral is illegal, nor should it be. You can’t legislate for every possibility. And there already is a legal duty of care for doctors and nurses towards their patients, parents towards their children and so on. The radio programme was a bit thin on evidence of the effects of existing Good Samaritan laws – is anyone ever actually convicted under them? And why on earth would creating a new criminal offence improve anything?

When I thought about it a bit more, though, I began to change my mind. Perhaps a law like this would – or does – actually do some good. Perhaps the very fact that it’s illegal to ignore someone in need when you could easily help them might lead people to take a negative view of not helping.

I should confess at this point that I’m deeply pessimistic about human nature. I know plenty of people who dodge bus fares if they know they won’t be caught; looting seems to follow natural disasters pretty predictably; I’ve lived in places where tax evasion is commonplace and condoned. I include myself in this pessimism: I’d like to think that my lack of homophobia springs from rational argument, but actually I suspect it’s because when I was a teenager a popular soap ran a storyline about a lesbian. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thought about it rationally since then, but surely it was easier for me to conclude that homophobia was wrong because the influences I’d been exposed to weren’t homophobic in the first place.) Much more disturbingly, yesterday’s anniversary reminds us that when a society mistreats a particular group of people, others – normal, ordinary people – join in. Let’s face it: we are massively influenced by the opinions of the people around us.

And where public opinion’s concerned, there may not be much evidence on Good Samaritan laws but there’s certainly plenty on other laws. The participants of Unreliable Evidence mention the UK law on car seatbelts. Almost no one’s ever convicted under this law, they say, but its very existence has changed the norm in society: practically nobody travels by car without wearing a seatbelt any more. Another example is the law on drink-driving: this Christmas just gone several of my relatives remembered driving under the influence 30 or so years ago: as far as I can tell it wasn’t all that unusual back then. These days very few people think it’s acceptable to drink and drive. So a law certainly can change people’s views.

That, ultimately, is what swings it for me. There are plenty of provisos, of course – there’d need to be safeguards to make sure a Good Samaritan law was enforceable and wouldn’t lead to miscarriages of justice. But that’s true of any new law, so in itself it’s not a reason to dismiss the idea. (And I’m sure the necessary safeguards exist in France, Germany and those 10 US states.) I think that a well-designed law that made it a criminal offence not to come to someone’s assistance when you could do so easily and safely would be a positive thing. What do you think?

*Here’s something interesting about the origin of this expression – after all, I’m still a linguist. Most people know, or suspect, that it’s from the Bible, but we tend to think that a Samaritan is by definition a good, kind person. That’s certainly what I thought until recently. In fact, the Samaritans – people from Samaria – were followers of a different form of Judaism from the people Jesus was preaching to, and relations between the two groups were unfriendly. The parable of the Good Samaritan was intended to show that anyone, even a Samaritan, could be kind-hearted.

4 thoughts on “A law to make us Good Samaritans*?

  1. Hello Caroline, I find interesting that towards the end you write: “we tend to think that a Samaritan is by definition a good, kind person. That’s certainly what I thought until recently. In fact, the Samaritans – people from Samaria – were followers of a different form of Judaism from the people Jesus was preaching to, and relations between the two groups were unfriendly. The parable of the Good Samaritan was intended to show that anyone, even a Samaritan, could be kind-hearted.”

    I cannot help thinking how easily the branches have forgotten the trunk that sustained them and gave them life in the first place. Western culture has relied on translation for hundreds of years and translation in the West (and particularly in the English-speaking world) cannot be understood without acknowledging the importance of the Bible. It is impossible to understand the Protestant Reformation without the translating labours of Erasmus of Rotterdam during his days at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and those of Martin Luther during his confinement at Wartburg Castle.

    As far the English language is concerned, people in everyday life use biblical expressions like “sour grapes”, “biting the dust”, “an eye for an eye”, “turn the other cheek”, “reap what you sow”, “how are the mighty fallen”. All of these are examples of the amazing output of translating the Old Testament Hebrew text and the New Testament Greek text into English by a committee of translators from Oxford, Cambridge and London to produce what has been known as The King James’ Bible.

    I recommend “The Good Samaritan Bites the Dust: The Amazing Way the Bible Influences Our Everyday Language” http://preview.tinyurl.com/ot7vlgm for anyone who loves words in the English language. It is on my reading list. Perhaps in other translators’ reading lists?

    • Hi Manuel! It’s great to see a comment from you here, and such an interesting one, too! I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to it sooner: I’ve just bought a new computer and it took me three weeks to get my work email up and running on it. I didn’t get a notification of your comment, and have just seen it now because, by pure chance, I happened to log on to the blog’s admin page.

      Anyway, as for the comment itself: yes, I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about Western culture, the Bible and its translations and biblical expressions. Also mistranslations, of course, like the one that led to Michelangelo portraying Moses with horns when he came down from Mount Sinai: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_(Michelangelo) . It’s worth remembering that there was an intermediate translation into Latin, too — in fact, according to Wikipedia it was in the Latin translation that the horns mistake arose, although I haven’t double-checked that. As I understand it there was a project to produce an English translation straight from the Hebrew and Greek in the twentieth century, although this isn’t my area of expertise, of course.

      I’d never heard of that book, thanks so much for the recommendation. I’m definitely going to buy it the next time I go to the UK!

      Un abrazo.

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