“Let’s You And Him Fight” — The Ethics of Gratuitous Risk-Taking

Amanda Eller was indeed irresponsible in taking actions that resulted in other people risking serious injury, death, turning their spouses into widow(er)s, their kids into orphans, etc., in order to rescue her. That said, I do admire her for taking ownership of her actions – which is more than most people do who are similarly reckless. The arrogance of such people is nothing short of breathtaking: they presume upon the moral character of those more mature than they by simply taking for granted that, if and when they place themselves in a life-threatening situation, that others – police, fire fighters, EMTs, etc., and first-responders generally – will place themselves in harm’s way to rescue such amateur stunt people from the consequences of their own poor judgment. That Ms. Eller came to this realization is to her great credit. But the fact that she did so poses a problem for the greater society, in particular that part of the society that puts itself at risk for the sake of rescuing people from the results of such juvenile behavior.

The following is my very simple question: could someone please explain to me why it is admirable and praiseworthy for someone to, e.g., “summit” Mt. Rainier or Everest or ski down a damn glacier or undertake any such challenge that puts their life at risk and puts at risk the lives of innocent third parties who will be called on to rescue the supposedly brave adventurers from the consequences of their (the adventurers’) recklessness? Why should the latter clean up the messes of the former and be expected to take a palette knife and scrape the foolhardy climber’s viscera off the mountainside? What is praiseworthy about requiring a Park Ranger or a helicopter pilot to risk bereaving her family to rescue a hiker, experienced or not, who was hell-bent on “summiting” Rainier?

Is there not a fundamental moral issue here? I very much think so.

No compensating advantage is to be gained as would be the case if the climber were “summiting” a mountain on Mars. Scientific knowledge is almost universally recognized as a legitimate reason for one to risk one’s life, provided that no innocent third party becomes an involuntary victim. Ask Madame Curie, who died of radiation poisoning from exposure to radium. So it would have been entirely appropriate if the Apollo 11 astronauts ended up stranded on the moon, and NASA, per impossibile, had launched a rescue attempt. Nor is it a case of assisting in the preservation of an orderly, coherent society and preserving others’ rights, as when cops and paramedics come to rescue first responders at, e.g., armed robberies and fires. Nor is it inappropriate to admire helicopter pilots who ferry donated organs to hospitals for transplant into recipients. The same is true of epidemiologists, virologists, nurses, and other medical professionals who, e.g., travel to Third World areas to combat Ebola Zaire, Marburg, Rift Valley Fever, etc., etc. But in the case of mountain climbers, stunt skiiers, etc., etc. there is no higher principle at stake. It is purely a hormone-fueled genital-measuring exercise that, in such cases, always and without exception holds the potential of being paid for in the coin of others’ blood and bereavement.

Of course, one can argue that, in some cases, the rescuers are not compelled to do any rescuing:  they can always leave the foolhardy evolutionary dead-ends who end up clamoring for help to suffer the consequences of their own poor judgment. No vacation cruise guest is compelled to dive into the ocean to rescue someone who fell overboard from trying to do a Titanic by attempting to balance one-footed on the outermost point of the cruise ship’s prow. That rebuttal does carry some weight. But I would argue that it is far from decisive.

When Amanda Eller wandered into the Maui wilderness, she knew, consciously or not, that she was leaving behind a group of caring people who were possessed of enough compassion that, however annoyed some of them may have been with her for her lack of common sense, nevertheless would go to immense, even welfare- and life-threatening, lengths to search for her, to find her, and to care for her, should the worst happen. In other words, like all people who undertake unnecessary and altogether gratuitous risks, consciously or not, Amanda Eller leveraged their good will as her life-preserver. She made her risks theirs, and implicated them in her foolhardiness, knowing that their affection for her would impel her friends to take that risk along with her. This is a classic case of “Let’s you and him fight!” Or in Christian terms, it might be called "Presuming upon grace", i.e. flirting with sin because you are convinced that God is too much of a soft touch to ever consign you to Hell.

So what are the practical and policy implications of forbidding people to implicate others in their own recklessness? How far can the government go in insisting that the results of irresponsible decision-making rest only on the shoulders of the reckless person? Answering that question is almost impossible at the level of generality I ask it. But, in general, there should be limits -- and for all I know, there already are limits ... in fact, I hope there are limits -- on how far even first responders are required to go in rescuing people from the consequences of their own stupidity and foolhardiness. To take a specific example, I believe it would be altogether morally defensible to post signs at various points on the hiking trails of, e.g., Mt. Rainier informing climbers that, beyond the location of the sign, hikers / climbers assume the entirety of their own risk, and that whatever assistance Park Service people may render beyond that point is entirely voluntary on the part of Park Service rangers. In fact, I would argue that what is not morally defensible is requiring Park rangers, as part of their professional responsibilities, to rescue and assist people whose plight is altogether the result of the distressed person's own lack of judgment. After all, Park rangers have families, too. Similar signs could be posted on beaches rendered infamous by rip-tides: if you venture into the water beyond a certain point, any assistance from a life-guard is rendered on a purely voluntary basis. Perhaps if such signs had been posted -- as they may well have been -- at strategic points on the fringe of the jungles of Maui, Amanda Eller might have thought twice about the wisdom of implicating people in the consequences of her self-admitted irresponsibility.

Granted, you cannot fix Stupid. But that does not mean you have to aid, abet, and subsidize it.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Maui jungle … Forest & Kim Starr … Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
Helicopter mountain rescue … PixaBay … Public domain
Rescued climber in stretcher … Author's name in Arabic script (cannot translate) … Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
Glacier ski run … PixaBay … Public domain

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