According to the Samaritan principle, we have a duty to rescue others from perils when we can do so at no unreasonable cost to ourself or others. Candice Delmas has argued that this principle generates a duty to engage in civil disobedience, when laws and practices expose people to ‘persistent Samaritan perils’: by engaging in this form of protest, she claims, citizens can contribute to the rescue of the victims of serious injustice. In this article, I contend that her argument confuses duties of rescue with duties of justice. Furthermore, I point out that two central features of civil disobedience, namely, communicativeness and conscientiousness, make it unsuitable as a strategy for ‘rescue operations’. On the one hand, communicative constraints make civil disobedience time-consuming, and dependent on others’ willingness to engage in the communicative exchange. On the other, conscientiousness often requires agents to accept costs well beyond the threshold warranted by the Samaritan principle. Treating civil disobedients akin to ‘good Samaritans’ trivialises the selflessness of their sacrifices.
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In this discussion, I adopt Christopher Wellman’s account of Samaritan duties (discussed immediately below), which focuses on political obligation and features in Delmas’s own discussion.
Delmas (2018, p. 164) quotes Cecile Fabre’s claim according to which the duty to rescue is a duty of justice: however, we should not read Fabre as claiming ‘Samaritan duties = duties of justice’, for this would make one of the two accounts redundant. Rather, Fabre aims at ‘Anglo-American liberals’ who ‘tend not to think […] that [a failure to be a Good Samaritan] constitutes a violation of a duty of justice, [but rather consider it] a failure to perform a duty of charity’ (2002, p. 129). She sees duties of rescue as stringent duties that we ought to perform—i.e. that are based on the imperilled person’s rights (Fabre even argues for the legal enforceability of Samaritan duties). While there are some overlaps, we should be wary of adopting too expansive a conception of these accounts lest we lose any meaningful distinction between them.
Wellman uses this example to argue, by analogy, for the state’s right to coerce citizens into obedience.
While Delmas seems to agree with this objection, she insists that her ‘persistent Samaritan perils […] are appropriately and non-metaphorically described as emergencies’ (2018, p. 163).
Assume for argument’s sake that both Amy and Carolyn are white, hence are allowed to drive in that unjust society.
In Wellman’s original case, Amy is at liberty to take Carolyn’s car, i.e. she has no countervailing duty not to take Carolyn’s car under the circumstances.
A person’s status may play an important role here. A celebrity’s participation may be more ‘effective’ in supporting the protest’s cause, compared to that of an unknown (though committed) individual (see Delmas, 2018, p. 153).
An anonymous referee has pointed out that if several able swimmers were standing near a drowning child we would not say that, since any one of them can perform the rescue, none of them has a duty to rescue the child; the same may then apply to the case under discussion, i.e. civil disobedience. Yet, if someone has already dived in to save the child, my failure to join may not affect the rescue; similarly, if enough people have already joined the protest, I would have no Samaritan duty to join myself. Admittedly, it may sometimes be easier to assess whether I am ‘needed’ in a rescue operation than in an act of civil disobedience.
Admittedly, the goals of these campaigns were extremely ambitious. Civil disobedience aiming for more modest results may certainly take less time to succeed; however, it would still be more time-consuming than what a ‘rescue operation’ may allow. That said, 'rescue operations' are not always ‘quick’, as they may sometimes require days or even weeks.
Once again, the discussion appears to shift from Samaritan duties to duties of justice, as Delmas further explains that the reason to disobey laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act is that they are ‘inherently unjust’ (2018, p. 142).
I have discussed this aspect of civil disobedience in more detail in Moraro (2018).
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Moraro, P. The Costs of Disobedience: A Reply to Delmas. Res Publica 26, 143–148 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-019-09422-7
- Civil disobedience