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On Moral Obligation

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On Moral Obligation

What happened at Penn State was a great travesty. None of us doubt that. I hope that each of the boys and families involved, some of whom were probably black, have gotten or soon get the care they need to recover from this abuse. (Granted, race is not necessarily central to this situation. But since I tend to have an image of white boy scout troops when I hear news like this, I thought the race of at least some of the victims was worth noting.) Each person involved in covering up these horrendous crimes failed to meet his moral obligation to those young boys.

But let’s stop acting like not meeting a moral obligation is surprising.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said that Mike McQueary, the graduate student who witnessed Jerry Sandusky abusing a boy in the shower, failed to meet his moral obligation. Instead of intervening, as Corbett said he should have, McQueary left the scene and called his father. The next day, McQueary and his dad notified Joe Paterno. They did not call the police. McQueary did not quit his job. Although now on leave, McQueary continues to be employed by Penn State. Indeed, that is a failure to meet a moral obligation. But if I were a betting person–and occasionally I am, with my father’s money–I’d put money on most people not meeting that moral obligation.

This may seem odd, but whenever I hear stories like this–and sometimes even when I don’t–I wonder about whether or not I’d do the right thing if I were confronted with a situation where I had to make a moral decision. And most of the time I conclude that I’d probably do the wrong thing. This is no indictment of my parents. I am not questioning my moral code. I know what I should do. I know what I would want to say I did. Most days, though, I just don’t think I’m very brave. And frankly, I don’t think most people are very brave, either.

The slew of tweets and Facebook statuses and news rants about what McQueary should have done, about what folks would have done had they been in his shoes make me very uncomfortable. Moreover, they seem really dishonest. We are all superheroes when we must theorize our action via keyboard, when we are not directly involved in terrible situations. I don’t think many of us can accurately conjecture how we’d respond to witnessing a trauma or if we were charged with filling such a moral obligation. I think we publicly posture while secretly hoping that we’re never faced with that kind of scenario.

History is full of examples of folks not fulfilling their moral obligations. Hell, Youtube is full of examples of bystanders choosing to witness (and record) rather than intervene. The courageousness needed to interrupt terrible events, it seems to me, is less common than we’d like to believe. So perhaps our righteously indignant commentary about what McQueary failed to do is less about him and more about us. More about us projecting all the fear we have onto someone who suddenly reminded us of ourselves. Someone who reminded us that we are much more cowardly than we want to believe and how much we hope that when our day to make a decision comes we don’t ruin too many lives and no one is there to witness.