Impulse 72: Board notes

Thoughts on the Hero Fund’s obligation exclusion


Every Carnegie hero has earned the Carnegie Medal by making a choice that would define their life. Not an abstract decision, like “I like jazz music better than rock,” but a gritty choice expressed in immediate physical action that could have ended the Hero’s life then and there. What confirms that decision as an act of moral heroism is that no Carnegie hero was obligated to act. Each had the option to cling to life and safety but each turned away from that comfortable choice and instead plunged into the danger engulfing another human being.

Many people take these kinds of risks as part of their job. We have all admired rescues by professionals such as police officers, fire fighters, and lifeguards. By the nature of the hero medal, we don’t award it for what these individuals do in the line of their duties. They weren’t volunteers, but rather people who excelled at their jobs to an extraordinary degree. Thus, their services almost always have programs to recognize exceptional professional acts. Other people might have a duty to rescue that doesn’t involve a job, but which has fallen on them in another way. Think about someone who has, by accident or foolishness, put someone else’s life in danger. We consider such a person obligated to save the person they’ve endangered, if they can. Sort of a karmic “mess up, clean up,” if you will. We do not award the Medal in these cases either. Here, you can see that we are coming up with a sensible answer, adapting to degrees of obligation.

I’m trying to make this sound logical. Out in the real world, things are messy, not at all orderly. To deal with that we leaven the logic of our decision rules with experience and common sense.

As I have read through hundreds of cases over several decades, I’ve seen there are other sources of obligation that are harder to categorize, but which would certainly influence a potential rescuer. A memorable example of this was the 2005 rescue of two fisherman off Lower Lance Cove, Newfoundland. It was December and the winds in Smith Sound were 30 miles per hour. John Eli Marsh and his son John Morris Marsh had been fishing and were heading back to harbor in their 19-foot fiberglass boat equipped with a 50-horsepower outboard motor when they spotted two distressed fishermen in the water beside their swamped boat. The James’s faced a choice: go to the rescue in their small boat in bad conditions or continue to the safety of the harbor. Did I mention that it was December, with 30 mile-per-hour winds at latitude 48° north? They chose to steer for the men in distress. When the Marshes reached them, one had made it to shore but the other was floating just below the surface of the Sound. His heavy fisherman’s clothes were soaked, but they managed to heave him into their boat. Then they maneuvered in among rocks to rescue the other fisherman from the bank. It was a long 2-mile ride back to harbor with their boat riding dangerously low under the load. They made it back safely. The fishermen were hospitalized but survived.

Did the Marshes have any duty to rescue the fishermen? Not formally, no, but consider that they and the men they rescued shared a seafaring life from an isolated town with a population of less than 100. Would you be surprised if the Marshes felt an obligation to rescue? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. As a thought experiment, imagine they skipped the rescue. Imagine, instead, that they headed back to the harbor and, while warming up in that pub, mentioned that they had passed a fisherman submerged in the water and left him there, along with another stranded on the shore. Imagine the rest of their evening in the pub, and the rest of their life in that small town. The real-life Marshes did no such thing. They risked their own lives and brought their fellow fishermen back alive to their families.

The Hero Fund Commission awarded the Marshes, father and son, the Carnegie Medal their bravery had earned them. I voted to do so, even after concluding that there would have been hell to pay in Lower Lance Cove if they had passed up the rescue. Why? Because one of the goals of the Carnegie hero award is to strengthen exactly these cultural and social norms that encourage us to take care of one another. We want to add our own push to the forces in society that make life today gentler, more caring and more civil than it was a thousand or two thousand years ago. And, for the record, I don’t think for a minute that John Eli and John Morris Marsh needed any outside encouragement to risk their lives as they did. After all, they were Carnegie heroes.