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Feat first isn't the ideal attitude for climbers

By Margaret Somerville - posted Friday, 2 June 2006

In ethics we sometimes speak of "the ethical yuk factor". We hear about a situation that raises ethical issues and our instantaneous reaction is to say "Yuk!" That is our moral intuition speaking. Usually it takes us some time to work out, through using our reason, why we said "Yuk!"

Many of us had such an intuitive reaction to last week's story of the climbers who did little to help David Sharp, a dying fellow climber on Mt Everest. My reaction to a reporter who called me was: "There's something wrong there. There is something deeply disturbing." But it has taken me some time to try to work out exactly what that is.

So, what is wrong and disturbing?


Edmund Hillary gives us some clues. He called the "climbing on by" despicable. His team "would regard it as [their] duty" to help.

That would apply whether or not the stricken climber was a member of their team. "Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain," Hillary said.

Sharp reportedly did receive some minimal assistance, but Hillary was nonetheless right to assert our most fundamental and important human values: respect for human life; the obligation to help others in dire need; respect for intrinsic human dignity, especially in those who are most vulnerable and weakest; not to abandon a dying fellow human.

One of our deepest human fears is dying alone. Dying in the company of others is bad enough, but being abandoned as though one didn't exist is the extreme example of pre-mortem loneliness. The fact Sharp moved his eyes is haunting.

It's also important to understand that in some situations the ethics of an individual story become far more important when they are writ large on the big societal screen than when viewed as an individual case. That's because our important collective values, such as respect for life or caring for each other, are then threatened overtly and directly.

Much of the focus has been on Mark Inglis who, on this climb, became the first person to reach the summit of Mt Everest on two artificial legs. The other 40 climbers who also passed by got just a mention. By achieving this feat, Inglis would usually be regarded as a hero. We expect more of our heroes than other people, unfair as that may be. Moreover, Inglis was a disabled hero and, as such, one for the disabled.


Yet he failed to help a disabled fellow climber.

We also demand more of those we can identify than of the faceless masses. That's because we can strongly identify with them as someone we admire and equally strongly reject identifying with them when they transgress values we hold dear. Unless we do that, their transgression also becomes ours.

As well, paradoxically, we probably blame Inglis more because he stopped, whereas the other climbers didn't, to see what was wrong. He is like the good Samaritan doctor who stops at an accident but then fails to help, as compared with those doctors who just drive past. The former is seen as much more blameworthy than the latter. One reason may be that we bond to those we try to help but not to those we don't. To breach that bond, which is one of trust, rightly feels wrong.

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First published in The Australian on June 1, 2006.

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About the Author

Margaret Somerville, an Australian, is founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal, Canada.

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