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The Ethicist
January 10, 2011

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Do I Have to Help the Cyclist Who Crashed Into Me?

As I turned a corner, I was struck by a bicyclist riding at high speed on the sidewalk. I wound up sprawled on my back, and the cyclist, also downed, was writhing in pain. Amazingly, I was unhurt, but because of my shock and anger, I got up indignantly and walked away. Later, I questioned my behavior. What if the cyclist had really been hurt? Did his wrongful action warrant mine?

WHEN A QUESTION includes the phrase "writhing in pain," it may well imply an ethical duty or at least call for ordinary compassion. And that's the case here.

Even if the cyclist acted thoughtlessly or broke the law, that doesn't place him beyond moral consideration. First respond to his writhing-in-pain, then sort out who's to blame. In your defense, though, the shock from being knocked to the ground might have prevented you from clearly thinking this through, so don't reproach yourself too sternly.

We shouldn't confuse local traffic regulations with moral precepts. It is legal in many cities to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, including in Kyoto, Japan, where bikers and pedestrians share narrow sidewalks with courtesy and consideration. I'm not suggesting that we casually disregard the laws we actually have, but that people who violate them are still worthy of humane treatment.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 10, 2011)