The recent tsunami disaster in Asia has produced a worldwide outpouring of generosity and compassion. How compassionate are Americans when disasters or accidents are closer to home? A study of 1,027 physicians and 1,435 laypersons, conducted in February 2005, found a high willingness among both groups to offer assistance to accident victims. The survey was conducted by the Louis Finkelstein Institute and HCD Research as part of their continuing exploration of the moral and religious beliefs of American physicians. Doctors and a consumer panel drawn from the general public were given an accident scenario—a driver swerving to avoid a wild animal and then crashing into a tree—and asked whether they would stop to help. Ninety-eight percent of both groups answered that they would stop to help the victim of such an accident.
The survey probed whether religious or political identity had any effect on the willingness of people to act as “good Samaritans.” Neither marker of identity made any significant difference. Among those describing themselves as politically conservative or politically liberal, for example, 97% and 98%, respectively, agreed to help. Similarly, both those who attend worship services weekly and those who never attend services were willing to help to nearly the same degree (99% and 98%). Nor did religious affiliation matter: Almost identical percentages (in the mid-to-high 90% range) of all religious groups, as well as self-described secularists and the “spiritual but not religious,” stated that they would be willing to help. Data from other surveys, such as the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, do suggest that religious persons are more likely to volunteer and engage in acts of compassion than nonreligious persons. This study, however, found no such correlation.
A plurality of physicians (30%) said that they would act out of “moral values independent of religion,” while 16% would be motivated by “moral values based on religion.” Motivation based on a physician's professional code of ethics explained the motivation of 24% of doctors; 29% of other doctors listed an “instinctive sympathetic response” as their motivation. (Corresponding figures for the general public are 19%, 15%, 5%, and 56%.) Physicians in the majority did think, however, that religious upbringing was either very important (29%) or important (40%) to one's willingness to act as a good Samaritan (19% thought it unimportant, and less than 12% thought it irrelevant).
Laws protecting physicians and, in some states, the general public from liability if they offer aid met with general approval (75% of doctors), but legal attempts to compel aid to accident victims were rejected by the majority of both physicians (74%) and the public (53%). Both groups, furthermore, believe that individual compassion is sufficient to ensure altruistic behavior and that state intervention was not necessary (73% each). These results accord with the tradition of American voluntarism, as well as with Americans' historic suspicion of legislating morality.
Indeed, a significant majority of physicians (67%) agreed with the common-law principle that there is no legal duty to help another in distress. (The public was more divided, with 52% in agreement with the common-law principle of no “affirmative duty to provide aid” and 48% in disagreement.) Somewhat paradoxically, however, both physicians and the public (respectively 86% and 85%) agreed with the religious and specifically biblical value of “not standing by your brother's blood” (Leviticus 19:16), that is, with the imperative to provide aid to someone in distress. Physicians overwhelmingly affirm a morality of compassion but do not want compassion to be legislated. The general public is less certain of this. While only 27% of physicians agreed that a law requiring people to be good Samaritans was a good idea, 47% of the public thought so. (Majorities of both thought such laws a poor idea: 73% of physicians and 53% of the public.)