On 26 May 2017, three men tried to defend a pair of teenage girls, one wearing a head scarf, when a self-described white nationalist shouted anti-Muslim and racial slurs at them on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon.  The aggressor reacted by pulling out a knife and slashing all three men in the neck, killing two and seriously wounding the third.  Given the risk of standing up to hate, is there an ethical obligation to do so?

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    Too many of us have witnessed expressions of racial or ethnic hatred, some subtle, and others overt like this one. We may be so shocked at the cruelty of it that we are speechless and unable to decide what to do. It makes sense to prepare ourselves by thinking it through in advance. We can perhaps deal with casual remarks by dissenting, but what if the situation is potentially threatening?

    Ethics can provide some guidance, beginning with the generalization principle. The essence of this principle – and all of ethics for that matter – is that we are all in this together. We should adopt a policy only if we can consistently adopt it for everyone in the same circumstances. In this case, the implication is clear. A policy of always keeping quiet, to avoid the risk of escalating the confrontation and causing harm, is not generalizable. History teaches that when people pretend to ignore hatred or oppression, it soon becomes the norm, and many who only wanted to ignore it eventually become perpetrators. There are too many examples to cite, but Timothy Snyder’s little book On Tyranny makes a good start. A policy of noninvolvement defeats its own purpose of avoiding harm. It cannot be consistently adopted and is therefore unethical.

    This, however, only tells us that we shouldn’t always avoid involvement. It doesn’t tell us when and how to intervene, and when to avoid the risk of doing so. This is where the utilitarian principle steps in. It says that we should take an action that we can rationally believe results in the greatest net expected benefit, and if there is much at stake, we should research the issue as needed to form a rational belief. The Portland tragedy indicates how much can be at stake. Three men paid a high price for their moral courage, two the ultimate price. Two young women suffered a vicious attack on their humanity and must live with the knowledge of what happened to their defenders.

    I have begun to research the issue. This British website describes some smart ways to intervene while minimizing the risk, and it includes links to other sources. This website makes the interesting point that it may be better to engage the victim rather than the aggressor. Perhaps readers can suggest other resources.


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