The jurisprudence and metaphysics of evil

It takes a lot to get me ruffled, but last week, I read a story from the social media that disturbed my peace. It is the tragic story of a young man by the name of Emmanuel Balogun, aged 17. He was a freshman undergraduate of the University of Abuja. The other weekend a party was apparently organised for fresh students at a well-known hotel in Abuja (for legal reasons it shall remain nameless). Emmanuel was a happy-go-lucky 17-year old. He went to the party in company of three friends, all of them between ages 17 and 18. Emmanuel was from a rather well-off family. He graciously offered to pay the N2,000 gate fees for his friends and also paid for the fish and other refreshments.

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After having a swell time, the four young men decided to cap it all with a plunge into the swimming pool. It suddenly transpired that young Emmanuel was having difficulty remaining atop the water. The details of what actually happened were revealed by the CCTV clip that the hotel authorities have made available to the parents of the young man and the police. As the young man was struggling for life, one of the friends suggested they raise an alarm for help. But the others discouraged him. The rationale for their callous inaction was astonishing. They grumbled that Emmanuel was always bragging because his family is well-off. They also complained that all the girls were drooling for him. The little devils cold-bloodedly watched their friend die.

The CCTV footage showed that the young men were in the swimming pool around 3.30 a.m., a rather odd hour. After Emmanuel perished they left at around 4.18 a.m. They had looted whatever they could from his meagre belongings. It was pathetic! One of them took his trousers and emptied all the money in his pockets. The other tried on his shoes and they fitted. He also walked away. Another also made off with his mobile phone. They quietly went back to campus without alerting the hotel management, the police or the university. It was during the subsequent week that one of Emmanuel’s female classmates noticed that he was not attending classes as expected and was nowhere to be seen on campus. She called the family to let them know that their son was missing and that she feared something might grievously be wrong.  She then switched off her phone.

The parents immediately swung into action. The trail led them to the hotel. The hotel authorities confirmed that they indeed did have a weekend tragedy involving a young man drowning in their swimming pool. They were led to a mortuary where the parents identified the remains of their son.  We understand that the three friends and the hotel management are in police custody.

Emmanuel Aigbokhalode Balogun (2002-2019) was clearly a very promising young man. The photo we have of him is that of a strikingly handsome young man with bright eyes, a high forehead and the intelligent looks of Denzel Washington. A young man without guile. What is most disturbing is the fact that three young men could stand by and callously watch their friend die. At the moment when he needed them the most. Showing no remorse whatsoever.

The greatest tragedy of young Emmanuel is the fact that he mistook his enemies for true friends. In offering to pay for the gate fees and entertainment he thought he was just being kind to his friends. On the contrary, they saw it as arrogance. It is a fearful thing to live with people who are smiling with you, but who, in their heart of hearts, wish you dead. It is a fearful thing for those of us who have read philosophy. It is a fearful thing for those of us who believe in virtue ethics. It is a fearful thing for those of us who believe in love and humanity.

The grim reality of our epoch is that we are creating a generation of vipers; a generation that are strangers to both love and friendship. When some of us were growing up our school friendships were deep, innocent and pure. There was literally nothing you would not do for a friend. The idea that you could watch a friend die and do nothing about it was unthinkable. And the thought that you could take some of his belongings at the moment of his passing is a satanic abomination.

If these were agberos from Ajegunle, a slum in Lagos or wretched almajiris from Dutse in Jigawa, perhaps one would have understood. But they were middle-class undergraduates of a respected university. The irony is that no almajiri in the North or an agbero in the slums of Lagos would do that to their friend.  I have discovered that those we despise as unwashed illiterate masses often operate by a higher moral code than some of our so-called “educated elites.” I have discovered, if truth be told, that Muslim youths often show higher level of compassion than so-called “Christians.”

This tragedy has raised serious ethical-moral as well as legal-jurisprudential challenges.

It is a law of universal ethics that if you find your neighbour in mortal difficulty you have a morally-bounden duty to help if you are in a position to do so.  I know that the case of a drowning man is a rather tricky one. The best swimmers would urge you to try rescuing a drowning man only if you are sure of yourself. This is because a drowning man would grab anything and anyone he could out of desperation. But then even if these young men were in no position to rescue their friend, surely they could have raised an alarm. Most hotels with swimming pools have facilities for such emergencies. By deliberately refusing to help and discouraging one of their colleagues who suggested they help, they showed how grossly immoral they are. They also showed a deep level of spiritual wickedness by gloating as their friend was perishing and descending on his belongings like a pack of jackals. Even if they manage to escape the long arms of the law, such people have no place in a university. A university is not only a citadel of learning; it is a moral sanctum for moulding character and virtue.

Secondly, there is the legal-jurisprudential issue. Emmanuel “frenemies” not only allowed him to die; they stole his belongings.  They have committed the crime of theft. There is also the jurisprudential problem of watching a fellow-citizen die while you callously stand by and gloat over it. The law varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some countries standing by and watching fellow citizen die without offering any kind of help is a crime.

The common law system that operates in Britain and the Commonwealth nations does not criminalise failure to rescue. The duty to rescue falls under the framework of tort law, where, for example, you have a legal duty to rescue people in danger especially if there is a contractual or morally binding relationship involved. In the United States, several states, prominent among them California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Washington, Minnesota and Vermont, have instituted legislation to make the duty of rescue even more legally binding.

Continental jurisprudence is apparently stricter on these matters. In France, the Napoleonic Code criminalises deliberate failure to rescue when one is in a position to do so. The Province of Quebec in Canada has recently reemphasised the duty of rescue as part of its Charter of Rights: “Every human being whose life is in peril has a right to assistance…Every person must come to the aid of anyone whose life is in peril, either personally or calling for aid, by giving him the necessary and immediate physical assistance, unless it involves danger to himself or a third person, or he has another valid reason.” Similar codes are in existence in Germany, Spain, Greece, Russia and Israel.

The duty to rescue derives from three juridical principles: first, the universal Golden Rule that obliges us to do unto others as we would have wanted them to do unto us; second, the logic of utilitarianism, which argues that those actions are right which advance the happiness of society while reducing suffering; and third, the rules of humanity, which demand that preserving human life and demonstrating compassion and sympathy are part of the essence of our common humanity.

I strongly propose that the Nigerian Law Commission re-examines our extant laws with a view to making duty of rescue a legally binding norm.

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