The Samaritan does not even have to think about it: he knows what the right thing is to do. It is not a rational analysis of religious rules or moral principles; it is pre-conceptual. I am reminded of Shakespeare's 'pity, like a naked new-born babe' (suggesting an instinctive sense of right and wrong) and 'the quality of mercy...which is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
The principal message of the story is the need to 'put ourselves in the shoes of the other' and act on our compassion, like the good Samaritan, rather than find reasons for not doing so, like the priest or the Levite. To act requires us to extend ourselves, to make an effort.
The most revolutionary idea contained in this story, however, is that we should be compassionate to strangers. Here we have a radically extended definition of who we should regard as our neighbour and to whom we should be neighbourly-someone who is anonymous, not part of our family or clan or nation, who does not necessarily share our religious or moral beliefs, whose only qualification for our sympathy and aid is that he/she is a suffering fellow human being, of equal dignity and worth, with whom we share a common humanity.
Clearly Jesus was millenia ahead of his time! However, the parable makes it clear that individuals were already acting this way: Christianity did not invent compassion or moral action. They are universal values. And yet, while these qualities clearly still endure today, there is also cause for concern.
At the beginning of his wonderful short TEDx talk on effective altruism, Peter Singer shows a very disturbing video clip of a modern playing out of the Good Samaritan story. A two year old girl is run over by a van and left bleeding in the street by the driver. Several people pass by without offering any assistance. Eventually a street cleaner raises the alarm but the girl dies on her way to hospital.
Most viewers of this video clip are horrified by the indifference of the passers-by. And yet, as Singer points out, we know that some nineteen thousand individual children die each day from preventable diseases associated with poverty. We could save many of these if we didn't treat them with a similar indifference. The same could be said of many of the millions of individuals forced to flee their homes for their own safety and who are now stuck in refugee camps.
In an earlier article, 'Pippa's Dilemma: the moral demands of affluence', I quoted Singer's modern parable of the child in the pond: if one is walking past a shallow pond and sees a child drowning, one ought to wade in and pull the child out. This might mean ruining an expensive pair of fashionable shoes but most of us would accept that this is insignificant compared to the death of a child. (And, equally clearly, it makes no moral difference whether it is a pair of shoes or a portion of our money that we are called on to sacrifice.)
Singer derived the following moral principle from such a simple act of compassion: if it is within our power to act to prevent something bad from happening to another human being, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then we have a moral obligation do so.The corollary is that it is morally wrong for us not to do so.
According to this argument, it makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Syrian, Rohingya or African refugee whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. They are fellow suffering human beings of equal worth and must call forth similar compassion and moral concern, irrespective of proximity.
Of course the modern context is different. Instead of being confronted by a single man in the ditch, we are now being confronted by millions of people in refugee camps. But these are all individual men, women and children in no less desperate need of assistance. We may not be able to come to the aid of all of them but we can certainly help some.
While proximity will always make an encounter more immediate, more personally confronting and more difficult to avoid, as well as potentially more satisfying, I like to think (hope) that it is mostly a failure of moral consciousness-rather than lack of compassion, wilful blindness or indifference-that prevents us experiencing a similar sense of moral obligation when confronted by the more distant but equally disturbing realities witnessed on our television screens.
Whether we respond individually to these modern day people in the ditch will depend on our ability to respond personally to the story about the good Samaritan or the child in the pond. Arguments about the responsibility for and scale of the problem, or any political views we may have about our national policies on refugees and asylum-seekers, are secondary to the personal ethical and moral issues: Do we care and are we willing to act on that care?
The good Samaritan shows us very practical ways to act as individuals: he gives the person in need immediate first aid, then takes him to a place of safety and then gives some money to a third party to help maintain him until he gets back on his feet.
We may not be in a position to do all that he does but we can certainly give some of our money to third parties who are in a position to offer such assistance on our behalf. And one of the most exciting recent initiatives to help such people has just been launched by one of the world's most effective charities GiveDirectly.