House on Fire


In October, two extraordinary incidents of moral—and political—significance occurred. The first received considerable publicity: a Tennessee fire brigade refused to save a burning house when its members learned that the owner had neglected to pay a seventy-five-dollar annual fee for the service. The brigade stood by while the house burned to the ground. Luckily, no one was trapped inside.

The second, less known, occurred at a Garwood, New Jersey, pharmacy. A woman was stricken by a severe asthma attack; she had forgotten her inhaler. Staggering into a local drug store, she tried to buy one. But the pharmacy refused: an inhaler would cost $21.50 but the woman could offer no more than $20. She collapsed, wheezing. A call to a paramedic saved her.

The disregard for traditional ethical norms revealed by these two events is striking. There is a good deal of ritual religion practiced these days, but where is the love of neighbor commanded by Leviticus, the Good Samaritan of Luke, or the Golden Rule? The fire brigade and the pharmacist, it appears, did not get the memo.

To be sure, it cannot be said that two incidents demonstrate general moral decline, but there is reason for concern because the incidents point to a larger issue. In this year’s highly charged political season, we heard much talk about individual responsibility, and the denial of societal responsibility, for misfortune. Opposition to government, especially to federal programs for the support...

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About the Author

Joseph D. Becker, a founding partner of Becker, Glynn, Melamed and Muffly, a Manhattan law firm, is author of The American Law of Nations (Judis).