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Could a 'Good Samaritan' law help China become more compassionate?

'Good Samaritan' laws around the US and elsewhere shelter those giving aid in emergencies from prosecution and encourage good deeds.

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One explanation for not imposing more collective responsibility on individuals: separation of morals and law.

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"Our common law has always refused to transmute moral duties into legal duties,” Virginia Law Professor Charles O. Gregory noted to Time Magazine in 1965, when the killing of a woman within earshot of dozens of her neighbors prompted a national debate about civic duty. Today, every state has some form of Good Samaritan law protecting people from liability for trying to save a life, according to HeartSafe America.

In Canada, too, each province has its own set of laws concerning Good Samaritan acts. Quebec’s Charter of Rights gives citizens a "duty to rescue:" individuals must assist anyone in jeopardy, unless there is reasonable evidence that it would cause danger to himself or a third party. Abstaining from helping someone is not considered a criminal offense, since it comes from the provincial level. Yet the majority of provinces have adopted a version of the Good Samaritan Law, most of which provide some form of protection for voluntary passers-by from liability for the victim’s damages, unless it can be proven that the damages were caused by the gross negligence of the person.

In France, witnesses to a person in distress can be arrested for not intervening.  A Frenchman who fails to help another when he can do so without risk is liable for up to five years in prison and fined several thousands in Euros. The French logic follows that a witness is a participant in the crime if he/she does nothing to prevent it.

In spite of the outrage bubbling in China over society’s apparent moral decline, the majority of the population is reluctant to follow in France’s footsteps. According to one online poll, 77.7 percent of Chinese respondents disagree with the idea of establishing a "duty to rescue" law. Most claim they don’t want moral acts to be legally enforced. With restrictions on individual freedom already so tightly monitored, the Chinese appear weary to have one more government mandate imposed.

It took the death of a two-year-old girl to bring greater awareness to what it means to do the right thing. Perhaps what is most disturbing about Yueyue’s death is the realization that an underlying current of fear has become inherently attached to what should be a visceral reaction of compassion. Had the Samaritan described by Luke in the New Testament been bound by today’s laws, perhaps he would not have been so good.

This article first appeared on Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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