What would you do to save a life?
Would you leap into a burning building to rescue a child? Jump into the river to grab a man who can’t swim? Dive on a grenade to save your squad? Wade into a group of rioters to pull an elderly woman to safety?
We like to think that we would perform these heroic acts — at the least, in service to family or friends. Many say they’d even do them for strangers. And a survey of the newspapers suggests that such things happen with heart-warming regularity.
In the language of duty ethics, philosophers call these types of actions supererogatory acts. That is, they are things done which are morally praiseworthy but not morally required. We have no duty to expose our own lives to real danger just to attempt the rescue of another; we all applaud the bystander who dives in front of a bus to knock the foreign tourist to safety, but no one seriously suggests that the bystander had an obligation to do so.
But what if you could save a life by doing something trivial? Would you do it? Or, more pointedly, would you refuse to do it?
Hospital errors are believed to be the fifth most frequent cause of death in the United States. We are aware, no doubt, of the horror stories of people having the wrong limb amputated, or the wrong surgery performed. These things happen, but relatively rarely. More frequent are medication errors. It’s been suggested by healthcare quality experts that patients have a 10 percent chance of having prescribed medications fail to be transcribed and administered, and there is upwards of a 25 percent chance that at some point during an inpatient stay, there will be a medication error of some sort for any given patient in any given hospital — most frequently, because the bedside nurse failed to double-check the dosage or to verify the patient’s identity.
Not only that, but people can die from nosocomial infections (infections acquired in a hospital, unrelated to the reason for the patient’s admission). The single most effective method of preventing nosocomial infections is diligent hand-washing, yet time and again, clinical staff fail to follow the basic universal precautions. In fact, a physician of my acquaintance counted the number of times he observed hand-washing one day while sitting with his dying father: Of more than 25 individual encounters, not once did clinical staff wash their hands.
The irony is that many healthcare workers actually would engage in heroic acts to save the life of a stranger, even though most don’t do the routine things that, statistically speaking, would be more effective at saving more lives in the long run.
Of course, the phenomenon is not limited to healthcare; negligence seems to be a universal human trait. Yet for all the obsessing we do about the value of human life, the cavalier attitude so many of us take to minimizing unnecessary occasions of potential harm is truly distressing.
We may or may not have the fortitude to pull an infant from an auto wreck, but surely we can all wash our hands and fasten our seat belts. It may not be heroic, but it reduces the need for heroism, which isn’t a bad place to be.