Rescuing the Duty to Rescue

Guest post by Tina Rulli and Joseph Millum

It is commonly thought that individuals have a moral duty to rescue others in peril. Bioethicists have leveraged this duty to rescue for a variety of purposes—including to criticize the use of placebo controls in trials in developing countries; to defend duties of researchers to return urgent incidental findings and provide ancillary care; to argue for a duty to become an organ donor; to defend allocating resources to develop drugs for rare diseases and to fund costly end of life care.

Despite their widespread use, there are serious problems with the two most cited duties to rescue: the individual duty of easy rescue and the institutional rule of rescue. The latter—the psychological tendency to support allocation of large amounts of money to rescuing identifiable victims at the opportunity cost of helping anonymous others—is indefensible.  (See Peter Singer’s opinion piece in the Washington Post criticizing donations to Make-a-Wish). The former can be defended, but has its own problems. One concerns its force: does it really apply only to very low-cost rescues? Consideration of physicians’ duties to warn suggests otherwise. Another problem concerns its scope: whom do I have to rescue? If it applies to everyone who needs rescue, even low-cost rescues may place enormous demands on individuals (cf Peter Singer’s famous essay: “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”).

We identify two further conceptions of the duty to rescue that have received less attention. An institutional duty of easy rescue would justify spending institutional dollars on rescue cases that are not too costly, while leaving room for institutions to fulfill lesser, but still important needs of others. A professional duty to rescue recognizes the more demanding duties certain medical professionals have. Both provide traction in answering some outstanding rescue dilemmas. We conclude our paper by proposing research priorities for bioethicists to help researchers and doctors sort through the obligations they have to people in need of medical rescue.

Read the full paper in the JME here.