Ethics of Bystanders

The role of the bystander is undertheorized in ethics, which has tended to focus on the agents and recipients of moral action, rather than those who stand outside the act in some sense. In Christian ethics, the concept of structural sin suggest that there really are no outsiders or bystanders when it comes to morality and ethics–there may be no innocent bystanders. And yet the story of the Good Samaritan and study of the evolution of altruism suggest that there are powerful motive forces within us that prompt us to pay attention to the plight of others and even come to their aid when the situation warrants. Thus, the position of the bystander presents the possibilities of passive complicity or active witness against injustice. In this work in progress, I am considering various theories from the humanities and social sciences–including social effects, contagion theory, cultural trauma, and others–for what they have to say about the ethics of bystanders. Specific contexts for my inquiry into the ethics of bystanders have included witnesses to divorce and the framing of divorce as a cultural trauma in liberal society and the ethics of bystanders to humanitarian disasters, most notably Hurricane Katrina. Supported by the Institute for American Values. Preliminary work presented at the Society of Christian Ethics.


“‘There but for the Grace’: The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce” (New York: Center for Public Conversation, 2012)

“Between Joy and Lamentation: Theological and Ethical Dimensions of Hurricane Katrina,”Lecture at the Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans, part of the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond series, March 17, 2011.

“ ‘Victims,’ Humanitarians, and Bystanders: Vulnerability, Virtue, and Vantage Point in Hurricane Katrina,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, January 7, 2011.

“There But for the Grace: The Ethics of Bystanders to Divorce,” Presentation to a working group on the Moral Formation of Children of Divorce, Institute for American Values, May 27, 2010.

Other Reading:

“The Mobile Bystander,” Dominic Basulto, The Washington Post, December 7, 2012

“Are We Ready for ‘Morality’ Pill?” Peter Singer, The New York Times, January 30, 2012

“Superiority,” David Brooks, The New York Times, November 15, 2011

“The Lululemon Murder and the Pain of Bystanders’ Inaction,” Jenna Johnson, The Washington Post, November 6, 2011

“What’s Scarier: The Slaying, or the Bystanders Who Stood By and Did Nothing?” Petula Dvorzak, The Washington Post, November 1, 2011

“Toddler in China hit by 2 cars, then ignored, dies,” Keith B. Richberg, The Washington Post, October 21, 2011.

“An injured toddler is ignored, and Chinese ask why,” Keith B. Richberg, The Washington Post, October 19, 2011.

“Where Morality Lives: How Should Neuroscience Change Philosophy?” (interview with Patricia Churchland) Joshua Rothman, The Boston Globe, April 24, 2011.

“The Memory of Holocaust, Fortfied,” Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, April 22, 2011.

“Video of Dying Mental Patient Being Ignored Spurs Changes at Brooklyn Hospital,” Anemona Hartocollis, The New York Times, July 2, 2008.

“The Day the Traffic Did Not Stop in Hartford,” Peter Applebome, The New York Times, June 8, 2008.