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Unexpected obligations which may arise in the moral life of a humanist

By Paul Ewans

Paul is a member of Humanists UK and Humanists International. In this article he considers the ethical implications of unexpected obligations, drawing on a well-known parable.

‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead’. Anyone who has received even the most basic instruction in the Christian religion will be familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). A lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do if he wanted eternal life. Jesus replied that he should obey what is now known as the Great Commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself’. The lawyer then asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied with the parable in which a Jewish victim is helped by a Samaritan even though Jews and Samaritans generally hated and despised each other. So the answer to the lawyer's question was that we should help those who need our help, no matter who they are. Everyone is my neighbour.

At that time the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was so badly infested with violent robbers that it was known as the ‘Way of Blood’. Even so, the Samaritan was presumably not expecting to come upon a robbery victim who had been so badly beaten that he was unable to stand. The obligation to help was unexpected, but the Samaritan responded with compassion. He bandaged the victim’s wounds, transported him to an inn, and paid for him to stay there until he recovered.

Unexpected obligations are responsibilities or duties which arise without warning and often require immediate attention. How we respond to them is a good test of the extent to which we are leading a morally good life. Of course, we often become aware of people in trouble whom we cannot help. Perhaps they are too far away or we do not have the resources to help them. The Good Samaritan happened to be riding on a donkey and so he was able transport the victim to an inn. It would have been a different matter had the Samaritan been travelling on foot. But in other cases we will be able to help and the only question is whether we are willing to have our life disrupted for someone else’s sake. Much depends on the circumstances. If we are the only one who is able to help, if we are the 'sole saviour', or if it is a life-threatening emergency, then the obligation to make a sacrifice is even greater. Conversely, if the situation is not urgent or life-threatening, then the obligation may not be as strong. As a general rule, we should do what we reasonably can to help others, regardless of whether the obligation to do so in any particular case is expected or unexpected.

The ethical life is largely a matter of balancing our own needs and desires against the needs and desires of others. Sometimes the needs and desires of others confront us unexpectedly, but we should still respond with compassion if we can.

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