Do The Right Thing

Recently Pivotal, the company for which I work, held a sales kickoff event.  Pivotal’s three themes and the values by which we work are:  Do The Right Thing, Do What Works, and Be Kind.  In the course of the event, a few hours were spent by employees giving TED talks, most very interesting and some inspiring.  They even inspired me to put together this TED essay, although it is not about Technology, Entertainment, or Design, but a musing about an event in my life and how it plays into the three principles of Pivotal.

Years ago, when I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I was passing the main train station on a weekend morning and stopped in to buy a paper.  30th Street Station is between 30th Street on the west side and the Schuylkill River on the east side.  I was feeling pretty good as I had just left a new girlfriend and things seemed to be going well, so I had a bit of a self assurance that morning.  When I left the station, I noticed that a group of people were standing by the bridge over the river looking down, and being a curious person, I went over to look.  I was shocked to see a woman, dressed in her sunday best, a white dress and hat struggling in the river.  There is no way anyone could be in the position unless they had jumped in the river to commit suicide.

I knew the river fairly well.  In high school I had rowed for the Lower Merion High School crew.  People who know me now will be startled.  I’m not small enough to be a cox nor large and strong enough to ever row for a university team, but crew was a no cut sport and a friend encouraged me to try out.  I was not very good.  The boat, in which I rowed always finished last in every race but one, and in that race we finished next to last only because one other boat in the race hit a submerged log and sank.  To celebrate our good fortune, we threw Dave Brown in the river.   The coach had warned us not to do this as the Schuylkill was horribly polluted.  We were suspended from the team for this prank, ending my rowing career.    Earlier I had spent summers at a farm up the river into which the local shoe polish factory was thought to have disposed of some of its chemical waste into the river.  People still fished in the river, but never ate anything they caught.  That the river was a dangerous place was well known.

Do The Right Thing

It’s easier said than done.  First of all, what is the right thing here?  This is not a case of saving someone caught in a situation they didn’t intend to be in, like getting caught in a undertow in the ocean, or caught in a car after an accident.  Speaking of the latter, I once helped pull someone out of a car that we thought was going to catch fire after an accident.  The man later died.  He was drunk and caused the accident.  But I was still sued by his estate.   That said, I would do it again, risking another lawsuit.  But although culpable, the man was not there by an act of his own volition, but by accident.   The right thing was to pull him out of the car, even taking the small risk of injury to ourselves if the car exploded.  I’m not sure we even thought about the risk at the time; we just did it.

This situation is a little different.  The river was at least 30 feet below the bridge and I had no idea how deep it was there, so there was some element of risk.   My wife, Nancy Sherman,  is a moral philosopher and we discuss topics like this at dinner.  Would it be a supererogatory act, that is, one beyond what is required or expected?  Certainly one is under no legal obligation to save another person.  I was once told, but never verified, that the only two countries where this kind of supererogatory act was a legal obligation were Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, hardly models of an ideal society.

When my wife was seconded to the U.S Naval Academy from her teaching job at Georgetown University after a cheating scandal, she help establish an Ethics Center there.  The goal of the center, among other things, is to have the midshipmen discuss some ethical issues before they had to deal with them in the fog of war, when there is no time for pondering ethical issues.  Her work focuses on moral injury in these situations, where soldiers, sailors, and marines may feel intense guilt and remorse if they killed an innocent civilian or thought they had failed their comrades somehow, even if there was nothing they could have done.    If interested,  you can find her work at her website.

What was the right thing to do here?  I still don’t know, although to this day I have guilt and remorse about what I did not do that day.

Do What Works

It’s easier said than done.  What would work here?  This was before the day of cell phones and someone in the crowd did run over to the railroad station to call the police, who did respond rather quickly.  There was no rope to throw the lady, and it’s not clear that had there been one that she would have taken it and decided to save herself.   In this case, the alternatives to jumping in are still not obvious to me, decades later.

Be Kind

It’s easier said than done.  The kind thing would have been to jump in, but again, it’s not clear that it would work or that putting oneself at risk in this situation would be kind to oneself or one’s family.  A quote I once learned may be helpful.  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”   In acts of supererogation, it’s tough to balance what you should do for yourself and what you should do for others.

On an unrelated note, I used to work for another company in the industry.  At one of their sales meetings, one of the senior vice presidents called us to action by telling us to “Rip their hearts out.”  We thought we was referring to the competition, but given this company’s cut-throat reputation in the market, he may have meant the customers.  I was never so pleased when I left that organization and joined the company that became Pivotal.

How Does the Story End?

As we were standing there, a man ran over, took off his trousers and shoes and handed them to one of us.  He jumped in the water and pulled the woman to the side, just abutting the Schuylkill Expressway, a major artery in Philadelphia.  A short time later a police car arrived and headed off to the hospital.    The crowd at the bridge dispersed.

In the paper next day I learned that the woman had died and the rescuer had a non lethal heart attack and was doing ok.  When asked why he jumped him, he replied that it was the right thing to do.

Both the man and the women were taken to Philadelphia General Hospital, which was closed in 1977 by Frank Rizzo, then the mayor of Philadelphia.  It was the hospital that served the poor, mostly black community of West Philadelphia and was costing the city about $5 million per year to run it, a per bed rate higher than other hospitals in the city, but that may not be a way to measure its value.  Mayor Rizzo did not have the support of the black community of Philadelphia.    Was closing the hospital the right thing?  Did it work?  Was it kind?    That’s the subject of another blog.










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