A moral dilemma: Helping others while protecting yourself

By Laurel Stone

As children, many of us were taught to treat others the way we want to be treated and to help those in need. As we grew, we were taught to be wary — wary of the unknown, containing innumerable dangers, wary of things that seemed too good to be true, for likely they were. This conundrum poses the question: How can we help others without possibly endangering ourselves in the process?

Children are taught to never take candy from strangers, to never get into a car with a strange adult even if they claim to be a friend. But they are also taught to help — to help parents in the kitchen, stray animals or an elderly person cross the street. These contrasting lessons are now at war inside the minds of adults as we are sometimes forced to make the choice between helping others and protecting ourselves.  

This moral dilemma came to mind one night as I was driving home from Youngstown State University, through a rather unsafe part of town, and saw a couple slowly, limpingly, making their way across the road in front of me. I was concerned if they would even be able to make their way across, dreading what would happen if they were to fall.

Would I, a 22-year-old woman, alone in the dark of night, pull off to the side of the road in a dangerous part of town to help a couple, only to see they were faking the limp as an attempt to rob an unsuspecting samaritan? 

Would I — could I — keep driving past someone that appeared to be hurt? My heart would insist I help, but my head would scream that it was a trap, to listen to logic and run from potential danger, concern for others be damned.

I hate that a scenario like this is even a question. I abhor the idea that I would walk away from people that needed my help. But mostly, I resent the people that put me in the position to even consider not stopping — leaving someone helpless, stranded — when I could have helped them. The people who take advantage of the generosity of others’ goodwill. 

Youngstown, dubbed “Crimetown,” or “Bombtown,” USA, as a result of mob activity in the mid-20th century, has since evolved from mob activity to sex trafficking. According to the 2020 Human Trafficking report from the Office of the Attorney General, Ohio ranks among the 10 worst states for human trafficking. It is not wrong to be cautious — pausing to balance potential risks does not make you a coward — the simple fact is, we live in a dangerous world. 

It is not paranoia when you hear the sound of footsteps behind you on campus at night to glance over your shoulder once or twice. It is not irrational to drive past your own home, adding an additional trip around the neighborhood, to ensure the car that has followed you the last three turns is merely on its way home as well, not tailing you to find out where you live. Nothing that could possibly keep you safe should be written off as paranoia, and you mustn’t allow yourself to write off what you feel in your gut, right or wrong.  

I long for the time my grandparents spoke about when they left their homes unlocked without fear of being robbed. I wish there were no need for safety seminars offering tips on how to stay safe on campus at night. And I wish, so deeply, that if someone appeared to be in need of help, any passerby could immediately offer it without fear. 

We have to remind ourselves that genuine human compassion does still exist in this world of dark manipulation, because how could we step a foot out the door otherwise? Help where you can, protect those who cannot protect themselves and show compassion to those who need it, but listen to your gut and be wary of possible danger.