Feat first isn't the ideal attitude for climbers

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Life and death on Everest",
The Ottawa Citizen, May 30, 2006, A15.
Republished in The [Montreal] Gazette, May 31, 2006, A21
"Feat first isn't the ideal attitude for climbers",
The Australian, June 1st, 2006
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

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.

That bonding also explains, in part, why physicians tell us they have much more difficulty withdrawing treatment than withholding it, even though both are justified and the ethics of each situation is the same. In withdrawing treatment, they must breach that bond; in withholding it, the bond is not established.

You will notice that I haven't asked yet: Could Sharp's life have been saved? That's because the affronts to ethics and values are present regardless of the answer to that question.

It brings to mind that we now teach medical students that it's wrong to tell patients: "There's nothing we can do for you." Although that may well be true in terms of curing the patient, it is never true in relation to caring for them. Even if Sharp couldn't be saved, he could have been cared for as well as was possible in the circumstances.

Now, Sharp's predicament may have been been largely his own fault; he seems to have taken clearly unwarranted risks in not being properly prepared. But that does not excuse or justify failure to respond to his plight as best one could. That would be like saying that people who develop illness as a result of what are seen as lifestyle choices should not have access to publicly funded health care. That would be unethical.

The ethics of what we and others do or don't do must be put in context or it is just moralising, and most of us will never know, from first-hand experience, the context of "the roof of the world". But if we are to be ethical in our discussion, we must keep in mind the truism that good facts are essential to good ethics, especially to our subsequent ethical judgments.

We admire people such as climbers for their courage, fortitude and willingness to struggle and suffer. Never to give up, no matter what the odds. These are all manifestations of the best of the human spirit and they give us hope that we can nurture the same traits in ourselves to bring out the best in ourselves and others.

The problem in this case is that we sense there may have been a loss of humanity, a loss of soul. It seems that courage, fortitude and willingness to struggle and suffer would have been most powerfully manifested by turning away from the summit rather than moving towards it.