Joseph Richardson

If you were walking down the street, and you saw someone lying on the ground in obvious distress that you did not cause, would you help that person? 

As an attorney, I am often presented with the question of whether something being contemplated is “legal.” The definition of legal is “something that is permitted by law.” One of the more well-known legal concepts is what we call negligence. When someone is negligent, their conduct falls below a certain reasonable person standard. Legal negligence occurs when (1) someone has a duty to another, (2), there is a breach of the duty owed, (3) the person owed the duty suffers damages, and (4) the breach causes the damage suffered.

Legal implications often come into focus with serious campus issues such as hazing and sexual assault.  The legal duties surrounding these issues are certainly important to understand. However, legal standards can have you “just getting by;” i.e., not being technically illegal in one’s actions, but not engaging in the most responsible behavior either. Lawyers are often hammered for not being “ethical,” even when they may be operating legally in a technical sense.

In the above example, you may have no legal duty to help someone in distress if you did not put them in that position, but I submit that you do have an ethical duty to help them, which is even more important. I once had a case where a lady with medical training caused an auto accident, and did not help or even call 911 for the person in the other car, who was seriously hurt. The lady causing the accident had both a legal duty (because she caused the problem) and an ethical duty (because someone was hurt) to help. Instead, she left the scene of the accident. The jury showed their disapproval with a 3.5 million dollar judgment against the negligent lady. In short, we should be expected to operate ethically, and not just legally, in our conduct. With this in mind, I pose the following questions: what is your ethical duty to yourself, the groups you belong to (leadership, greek, sports, etc.), your campus, your community, and your world? Said another way, how can you avoid being “ethically negligent?”

You have a primary ethical duty to be focused students with the goal of graduation. You (and every campus participant for that matter) have an ethical duty to bring a positive element to every campus involvement, be it classes, groups or activities. You also have an ethical duty to keep clear of circumstances that call your integrity into question, or could jeopardize accomplishment of the primary goal of graduation and good career prospects. Related, you have an ethical duty to contribute to moving the lives of those in your sphere of influence forward, and not backward.

So, as you approach different situations on campus, compare your legal and ethical duty. If an individual was hazed, legal duty may have you say “technically I didn’t do anything wrong….it wasn’t me that ‘did it;’ it was my bros or my sorority sisters. In fact, I wasn’t even there so I’m not responsible.” And, you may be right, legally. Ethical duty, however, will have you do all you can to prevent the circumstances that make hazing possible or acceptable in your group and on your campus. That work (which involves, among other things, knowing the rules) can and should begin before the situation arises.

In a sexual assault situation, legal duty may have you claim there was no sexual assault at all because consent was supposedly clear, (even if your head may not have been so clear after a few beers).  However, ethical duty says you will do all you can to approach sexual situations responsibility, including being intimate with someone you truly care about, and confirming consent and avoiding ‘gray area’ situations through eliminating the influence of  alcohol.

Ethical duty also says that you will go above and beyond in your studies, that you will adopt servant leadership as a lifestyle on your campus, and that you will not participate in using the leverage of wanting to belong to take advantage of impressionable students and implore irresponsible behavior.

Incidentally, when you focus on ethical duty, legal duty becomes easier to fulfill. If you drink alcohol responsibly, assault situations (sexual, physical) are far less likely. If your groups resolve not to haze, the groups have an opportunity to thrive long term through drawing like-minded quality people…and staying out of legal trouble. And, a reputation for going above and beyond the call of duty in your scholastic efforts, campus involvement and relationships will be a “gift that keeps on giving” professionally and socially.  In short, following our negligence analysis, you can stay out of legal trouble by not breaching your duty to be ethically guided. And, you do no damage to the life, reputation and career of yourself or of others, and you are not ethically negligent.

If you think about it, you probably already embrace ethical duty in most areas of your life. Your closest friends are those with whom you share core principles, whose integrity you do not question, and who clearly desire for you to be the best you can be. You do not do “just enough to get by” with each other; you gladly go above and beyond. Legal duty is necessary and should be embraced. But, it should not be your ending point. You should make ethical duty a central part of all aspects of your life, college and beyond. Make ethical duty your goal, and not only will you will hit legal duty “out of the park,” you will avoid ethical negligence.

 Learn more about keynote speaker, Joseph Richardson and his story: