What Would You Do?
In 1997, Bowen McCoy wrote an article in HBR titled "The Parable of the Sadhu."
Here is the abstract:
A group of executives (among them the author) from different countries is on a Himalayan trek. As they prepare to reach their destination, an 18,000 foot pass over a crest, some memories about the problems that one faces at high altitudes swirl through their minds. Having reached 15,500 feet, they don't want to give up.
They wake up at 3.30 AM and start climbing. Barely a few minutes into the climb, they spot an almost naked sadhu (Indian ascetic) struggling on the way down. No one knows what to do. One team member is so excited about the crest that is only a few hours away that he walks ahead. The others manage to cover the sadhu with some clothes. The sadhu is alive. The team spots another team coming up and leaves.
On reaching the crest and congratulating each other on their "success", the author remembers the sadhu. An argument follows. Did they do enough for the sadhu? Which was more important - accomplishing their mission or saving a fellow human who was clearly in need of food and shelter?
One member feels that what happened with the sadhu is a good example of the breakdown between the individual ethic and the corporate ethic. No one person was willing to assume ultimate responsibility for the sadhu. Each one was willing to do a bit as long as it was not too inconvenient. It transpires that the team that followed provided the sadhu with some food. Another team carried him to the nearest village and left him in a home. Nobody knows whether the sadhu lived or died.
One member calmly says: "What we did is the typical affluent Westerner's response to a problem. Throw money - in this case, food and sweaters - at it, but not solving the fundamentals."
Counter-argument: "We are at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?"
The first member responds: "What would you have done if the "pilgrim" was a well-dressed Western woman in distress? Would you have done exactly the same?"
To quote the author:
"Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous, and many of us hike right through them, unaware that they exist. When, after the fact, someone makes an issue of one, we tend to resist her or his bringing it up. When the full import of what we have done (or not done) hits us, we dig into a defensive position from which it is very difficult to emerge."
What are the practical limits of moral imagination or vision?
And why do I bring this up in 2017?
I respectfully submit that nothing has changed between 1997 and today. If anything, as a species, we are at a lower point than we were twenty years back.
Specifically, let me pose you a question that is thrown at us every day, practically on every channel.
A commercial by a not-for-profit hospital that treats children who are very ill without any cost to the parents: "For just $19 a month (that is 63 cents a day), you can make a change in the life of a child. Call now!"
A commercial by a UN agency: "For just $19 a month (that is 63 cents a day), you can change the life of a child in need (a refugee). Call now!"
A commercial by ASPCA: "For just $19 a month (that is 63 cents a day), you can change the life of an animal (dog or cat). Call now!"
Hypothetically, let us assume that you can support any one of these.
Which one would you choose? And why?