The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bystander as one standing by, one who is present without taking part in what is occurring. One may immediately think of the phrase innocent bystander. In this association what is occurring is a crime. In a crime a bystander is neither perpetrator nor victim and thus innocent of all active involvement. The bystander is present only as passive observer or witness.
Although all bystanders to crime initially find themselves passively observing, some abandon passivity to intervene. They actively seek to help the victim and, in so doing, move from bystander to rescuer. In contrast, other bystanders, remaining passive throughout, have come to be called nonresponsive bystanders.
Although there is a range of possible bystander behavior between all-out rescue and complete nonresponsiveness, many bystanders to crime do remain entirely nonresponsive. Why do so many people so frequently do nothing when others are in peril? Are not bystanders morally obliged to help somehow? These are important questions, especially when what is underway is genocide or some other crime against humanity. For crimes of this magnitude, it is unclear whether one can ever consider bystanders innocent.
Bystander is a complex category in crimes such as genocide. In a double sense genocide and crimes against humanity are collective crimes. In these crimes both the perpetrators and victims are collectives. Genocide, for example, is a crime an entire society commits. And genocide is committed not against an individual but against multiple individuals who themselves comprise a group or social category and thus also a collective.
Two distinctions need to be made about bystanders to collective crimes that do not generally need to be made when the perpetrator and victim are both individuals. Because collective crimes are crimes an entire society commits, a distinction must be made between internal and external bystanders. Whereas internal bystanders are individuals and organizations internal to a society committing a collective crime, external bystanders are individuals and organizations external to the society. Citizens of Nazi Germany, for example, who observed the Holocaust without contributing to it were internal bystanders to genocide. In contrast observers outside Nazi Germany were external bystanders.
In the case of collective crimes, it is also necessary to distinguish between individual and organizational bystanders. This distinction is ordinarily unnecessary in crimes involving only individuals. Crimes exclusively involving individuals are mostly episodic. In other words, they occur in one place at one moment, and the bystanders are those who were physically present at that place at that moment. Generally, the physically present bystanders also will all be individuals.
Some collective crimes are also episodic—massacres, for example. A massacre occurs suddenly in one place and is quickly over. The bystanders, if any, are those who are physically present at the time and place of the massacre, and these will generally all be individuals.
In contrast genocide and crimes against humanity exceed the limits of space and time that apply to crimes involving only individuals. First, because genocide and crimes against humanity are enormous social undertakings not confined to a single place and time, physical proximity is not necessary to observe them. Instead, genocidal efforts can be observed from afar. Thus, as noted, even people in other countries can be counted as bystanders.
Second, because genocide and crimes against humanity take place not in a moment but over an extended length of time, there is opportunity for reaction not just from observing individuals but also from observing organizations. Thus, in the case of collective crimes, bystanders include other collectives. These range from religious organizations and nongovenmental organizations such as the Red Cross to entire nations. Indeed, insofar as the signatories to the international Genocide Convention are actually nations, entire nations have now pledged themselves not to remain passive bystanders to genocide.
When people are endangered, bystanders presumably have an ethical obligation to help somehow. Yet from what does this ethical obligation derive and how much does it oblige bystanders to do? These questions have not been adequately addressed by professional philosophy. Most people would agree, however, that the greater the magnitude of the crime witnessed, the greater the obligation on bystanders to intervene somehow. Since genocide and crimes against humanity are the most enormous of crimes, bystanders to these crimes seemingly bear the greatest obligation to intercede.
However, it is not only the magnitude of the crimes witnessed that weighs on the shoulders of bystanders to genocide and other crimes against humanity. The collective nature of these crimes also morally complicates the position of bystander. Just as there is a positive range of bystander behavior between total nonresponsiveness and all-out rescue, a negative range of behavior also exists between total nonresponsiveness and active complicity in a crime.
Generally, in crimes involving only individuals, the distinction between bystander and accomplice is clear. The accomplice is one who serves the perpetrator in some way such as lookout or driver of the getaway car. If one were only present at the time the crime was committed without having helped in any way the perpetrator, then one is not an accomplice but only an innocent bystander.
The moral complication in the case of collective crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity is that even doing nothing abets the perpetrator; thus, arguably, even the totally passive bystander becomes something of an accomplice. If so, no bystanders to collective crimes ever remain totally innocent.
For bystanders to do nothing helps the perpetrator of a collective crime in two ways. First, arguably, while a society is committing a collective crime, anything that promotes normal social functioning also enables the society to continue the crime. Thus, as Henry David Thoreau famously argued, if the citizens of a society continue to conduct business as usual while their society is committing a collective crime, the citizens share complicity in that crime.
There is a second way in which doing nothing contributes to a collective crime. In contrast to the actions of an individual, when a society acts—especially in the absence of opposition—it establishes what is normal or legitimate for that society. Such is the case when a society engages in genocide or some other crime against humanity. To fail to challenge these acts is to condone them and thereby to make their continuation more possible. In her 1984 comparative study of Nazi-occupied Europe, Helen Fein found that when subjugated populations resisted the Nazis, more Jews escaped death. How bystanders behave is thus very important.
What explains bystander nonresponsiveness to genocide and other crimes against humanity? No one factor explains all cases. There are differences between individual and organizational bystanders and between bystanders who are inside and bystanders who are outside a society committing a collective crime. How important different factors are to each case requires specific historical study of that case.
Although they are intertwined, the general factors contributing to bystander nonresponsiveness can broadly be classified as rational, psychological, cultural, and social structural. First, for both individual and organizational bystanders, inaction may be a rational—although not necessarily morally legitimate—response. Individual bystanders, for example, must rationally weigh the benefits of action to protect victims against the costs of action to themselves and their families. These weights will vary depending on whether bystanders are inside or outside the criminal regime.
Organizations must rationally calculate, too. During the Holocaust, for example, the Red Cross kept silent about the atrocities it knew were occurring in Nazi concentration camps. Why? The Red Cross decided after rational consideration that the benefits of speaking out were outweighed by the possible costs to the people it could help if the Nazis were to consequently forbid Red Cross operations. Whether or not this decision was morally right, it was nonetheless rational.
The Red Cross ostensibly was at least evaluating moral weights. In contrast, if bystanders are morally indifferent to the victims, morality will not even enter their rational calculations. Consistently, for example, throughout the twentieth century the U.S. government did little to respond to the cases of genocide it knew about. Instead, successive U.S. administrations tended to weigh only the political costs of action against the political costs of inaction. As there seldom was much pressure to act from the American public, the costs of inaction were consistently small. Thus, with morality out of the equation, inaction generally became the government's rational response.
Why does the American public not put more pressure on its government to intervene in cases of genocide and crimes against humanity? A whole range of factors combine to produce in bystanders what can be called the social creation of moral indifference.
The crux of the matter is what Helen Fein terms the universe of obligation, the universe of people one feels obligated to help. How large is this universe? One's sense of obligation generally declines with physical and social distance. Physically, one feels most obliged to help people in need when their needs are observed firsthand. Social distance matters, too. In declining order one feels most obligated to help family, friends, community members, and compatriots. For many bystanders the universe of obligation ends abruptly with nationality.
Cultural factors can further constrict the universe of obligation, making bystanders indifferent to certain victims. Most examined in this regard is anti-Semitism during the Holocaust, which clearly contributed something to bystander nonresponsiveness. It also matters whether or not bystanders have been reared in a culture stressing care for others. Likewise important is whether the culture is what is called authoritarian, that is, one that instills uncritical respect for and obedience to authority. Bystanders in an authoritarian culture will be apt not to question their government should it stand silently by as genocide unfolds or even be committing genocide itself.
Bystander nonresponsiveness is also produced by group effects deriving from the social structure of an emergency situation. It turns out that bystanders to an emergency are less likely to respond helpfully when other bystanders are present. When multiple bystanders are present, conditions arise that social psychologists call pluralistic ignorance and the diffusion of responsibility.
Pluralistic ignorance is a situation in which two or more heads are worse than one. When multiple bystanders witness an ambiguous event that may or may not be a crime or emergency, each bystander looks to the others for guidance. If all bystanders wait for others to respond, none reacts. Because no one seems to be reacting, all bystanders may mistakenly conclude that nothing urgent is occurring. This condition is pluralistic ignorance.
The diffusion of responsibility is similar. When a single bystander witnesses an emergency, he or she may feel the full responsibility to react. When multiple bystanders are present, the responsibility is diffused among all witnesses. Each bystander assumes someone else will take responsibility for action. If all bystanders make this assumption, once again, no one acts.
Pluralistic ignorance and the diffusion of responsibility are even more pronounced at a national level (Porpora, 1990), where they are also likely to be combined with authoritarianism and governmental efforts to obfuscate the situation. If, in addition, a citizenry feels it is politically disempowered, it may not pay enough attention even to notice that genocide is taking place.
Despite all barriers to action some bystanders do respond—even at great personal risk. What makes responders different? Psychological study of the so-called altruistic personality has not turned up anything remarkable: Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust possessed good, moral role models and a strong sense of right and wrong. It is unclear whether non-responsive bystanders are without these qualities. Most individuals probably possess what is psychologically necessary to respond appropriately when others are endangered. Mainly required is that one muster what has been called the courage to care.
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Latane, Bibb, and John W. Darley (1970). The UnresponsiveBystander: Why He Doesn't Help. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Oliner, Samuel P., Pearl M. Oliner, and Harold Schulweiss (1992). The Altruistic Personality. New York: The Free Press.
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Douglas V. Porpora