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The Red Ball

By Shamus
on Thursday Apr 9, 2009
Filed under:

This is a little unusual. I wrote this years ago, and filed it away because I had no idea what to do with it. I’m putting it up now and soliciting responses because that’s ever so much more interesting than not posting anything at all, which was my original plan.

If nothing else, perhaps this setup could be adapted to serve as a quest hook if you find yourself running a D&D game.

You’re the new kid in the neighborhood. This neighborhood runs alongside a fast-moving stretch of a four-lane highway. On each side of the highway are nice little houses with yards. You meet the other kids. They seem friendly enough. Soon after meeting them you discover that they have a rule: Never, ever go near the road.

No child is permitted within ten paces of the road. The grass in the yards reveals that they obey this rule unfailingly. The grass is green and untrampled for the ten paces closest to the road. There is a visible line in the grass between the yellow grass where they travel freely, and the green grass where they Do Not Go. They seem to even be a bit apprehensive about getting close to this line. They do so only at need, and only for a few seconds before running back to their friends near the center of the yard. Nobody ever told them explicitly that approaching the road would lead to death, but the rules were laid out so firmly and so carefully and with such sternness that the kids have concluded it would. None of them has even had the nerve to test this theory.

While it isn’t nearly as deadly as they think, the highway can be pretty dangerous if you’re careless. You figure that whoever made the rule was probably thinking, better safe than sorry.

To help make friends, you have brought with you a brand-new bright red kickball. The kids admire the ball and welcome you into their group. A game of kickball starts up. Once the game is going strong and everyone is having fun the unthinkable happens: Your ball gets knocked right over the road and lands in the opposite yard. Your new friends are horrified. They act as though the ball had just plunged into a pit of deadly vipers.

As far as they are concerned, the ball is gone forever. It’s unrecoverable. But you know better. You’ve been around roads like this before and you’ve been taught how to cross them. You could, if you wanted, walk right up to the edge of the road, wait for a gap in traffic, and get to the opposite side with little risk. You’ve done it before and you know it’s not that hard. Your parents never made any rules against crossing the road, and none of the other parents has any authority over you, so by doing so you won’t be breaking any rules. However, you also know you will be utterly smashing a taboo for these kids. To them just getting near the road is a suicidal act. To cross is unthinkable.

You could do it. You could get your ball and bring it back, but to do so you would overthrow their thinking in regards to the highway. Once they knew the road could be crossed, they would inevitably want to do it themselves. Sooner or later, they would try it on their own. They might not do it right away. They might not do it when you’re around, but it will happen. You could tell them not to do as you do, but you’re a smart kid and you know that telling them not to do something you are doing is tantamount to a dare. Are you going to let the new kid get away with that? Get over there and show him he’s not so special.

So what do you do? It took you a little while to learn to cross safely. Crossing takes patience and clear thinking. If you choose to break this taboo, are you willing to take on the responsibility of teaching all of them how to do it? If so, you will be aiding them in defying the rules. You are free to cross, but teaching these other kids against the will of their parents is quite another thing. What about the younger hyperactive kid that is watching you? He doesn’t seem to have the patience or the maturity for crossing safely, and you don’t have the authority to forbid him. He wouldn’t listen to you anyway. In fact, he’s most likely going to be the first of the kids to get up the nerve to try.

You are free to cross. No rules forbid you from doing so. It is (for you) reasonably safe. Your new ball is over there. Should you follow the overbearing rules and accept the loss of your ball? Or do you get the ball, knowing that to do so may lead one of these kids to endanger themselves?

We’re talking about kids, but approach the question with your grown-up mind: Would you get the ball?

[poll id=”3″]

Comments (199)

1 2 3 4

  1. JMcNeely says:

    That’s a good moral and ethical problem and I can see some very easy ways to adapt it into various settings for role-playing games. Of course the DM would have to be prepared for alternatives to Yes and No such as, ‘go ask an adult to get it for you’.

    Also, on a side tangent: is it just me or was this article posted twice?

    edit: maybe I should have put this in the first posting instead of the second… ah well.

  2. MintSkittle says:

    Yeah, Shamus posted twice.

    We should probably go hang out in the other thread.

  3. JMcNeely says:

    *Sigh* I suppose so…

  4. Jericho says:

    No, probably not. I am very “Prime Directive”.

  5. Henebry says:

    I’m posting in THIS thread for the same reason that I’d get the ball. Because I’m different.

    cue little internal voice: No, you’re not.

  6. Yar Kramer says:

    I’d go with “no,” since that doesn’t actually exclude options like “ask an adult to get the ball for you,” and I’m an obey-the-rules nut in hypothetical situations like this …

  7. Kizer says:

    Single post now, thanks Shamus!

  8. Shamus says:

    Gah. Don’t post while uncaffeinated. Sorry for the double post. That was a comedy of errors in the background. I thought I’d deleted the original at one point and ended up double-posting.

    I’ve fixed it, but the comments attached to the second post were lost to the bit bucket.

    Geeze. Sorry.

  9. Jon Tooth says:

    I think he’s just deleted the other thread.

    Well I can’t be bothered to retype what I posted there, so…


  10. Ludo says:

    I vote No, because if I want my ball, I can always go and get it later, when no kid will know what I did. Or I could try to talk someone on the other side of the road to kick the ball back. Or I could ask an adult to please bring it back.

    And I definitely don’t want the responsibility of bringing the Crossing Doom to this peaceful corner of the woods.
    Admittedly I’m no kid anymore (or at least reasonably not), so I must ponder the real oddity here : how did the parents manage to enforce such a strong rule, without supervision ?

  11. Shamus says:

    Also: In the “other” thread, someone asked me to explain the metaphor. This isn’t really a metaphor for anything. It’s just a hypothetical that came to mind and I was curious how people would respond.

  12. Jon Tooth says:

    I vote No, because if I want my ball, I can always go and get it later, when no kid will know what I did. Or I could try to talk someone on the other side of the road to kick the ball back. Or I could ask an adult to please bring it back.

    And I definitely don't want the responsibility of bringing the Crossing Doom to this peaceful corner of the woods.
    Admittedly I'm no kid anymore (or at least reasonably not), so I must ponder the real oddity here : how did the parents manage to enforce such a strong rule, without supervision ?

    ^^^^ That was pretty much what I said anyway. :D

  13. Segev says:

    Yeah, I’m with those who said they’d do it “later” when nobody’s watching, or get my Mom to get it for me (whether by going across herself, driving, or calling the neighbor to ask for its return).

    But curse you, Shamus; now I want to slip this into an Innocents game. Which, sadly, I lack time to run.

  14. mark says:

    Yes, its my goddamn ball!

  15. Strangeite says:

    Obviously the best solution is the grey area between the two options; but, when faced with the black and white nature of your question, I would have to answer No.

    The loss of the ball is not as great as the seemingly high potential loss of life of a child. Obviously by making such a choice you are 100% guaranteed to lose your ball, but how the story is worded it appears that probability that a child (i.e. the hyper-active, immature child) will get hurt is very high. Not 100% but high enough that the loss of the ball is a small price to pay.

  16. Marmot says:

    Shamus, that…. that’s excellent! Classic, but in a very interesting form. I’m thinking that swtiching the highway part for something else could lead to a nice base for a horror story. (note: it would still turn out pulp if the otherwise great idea was spoiled with flat characters and cliched storytelling, like it happens in most horror stories — but I digress)

    I voted “no”. My reasoning is based on this:
    a) it’s a highway that I can see and hear, not some obscure taboo that can’t be proved. One reason not to cross, because the rule makes sense so I don’t have motivation to defy it. If it were something utterly stupid, then I would have.
    b) Though good intentioned, I’d probably forget about the fact that crossing might encourage others (and less capable) to cross and be exposed to danger. A bit selfish of me, I admit, but since I wouldn’t cross it would never arise until I’d actually think of it later.
    c) even if I’m skilled and know that I can get across, it still carries a small amount of risk. Except at very very young age, I’m sure I’d be capable of concluding that even a small risk of getting instagibbed is not worth trading for a ball.
    d) if others were not afraid and thought crossing was a good idea, taunting could make me cross in a classic example of a confidence trap, assuming that I was good at it. However, they aren’t – good for them.

  17. Well, it’s kids.
    If it was adults with some kind of weird taboo I’d approach it a bit differently, *particularly* if the taboo was kept going by some kind of vested authority. And if we take it that we can be pretty sure that if you just break that taboo wham! like that, kids will get themselves killed, that’s a pretty heavy consequence just so you can get a ball.
    So while my absolute first instinct is go get the ball, second thought annoyingly prompts me to not get it.

    But . . . the taboo itself would weird me out. The effectiveness of it, the sheer thought-control-ish-ness. I’d start watching the relationship between those kids and their parents, and if I thought those parents were a bunch of controlling jerks, I’d start challenging the taboo in a more gradual way. Going a bit closer to the road into the grass. Telling about how my parents taught me ways of how if you’re real careful you can cross roads like that at need. Eventually taking selected sensible friends who won’t blab to their parents across the road with me, ideally when nobody else is around. Try not to let the dimwits in on the whole thing until I’ve got everyone else clued in about how to do it right, so they can smack ’em down if they take it too lightly.

  18. Allen says:

    Even it wasn’t “my goddamn ball”, I’d still go get it. Why should it be lost?

    Case in point: When I was growing up, I went to a Catholic elementary school. We had two yards: a front, with grass and swings and everything, and a back, which was mostly a parking lot, with a few swings and a lot of walls. Over one of the walls was a mental aid facility, but we all assumed it was an insane asylum. We were kids, give us a break.

    We’d often play a game that had us throwing the ball at the wall and trying to catch it. If you missed, you had to run to the wall and touch it before someone else threw the ball against the wall and caught it themselves, or you were out.

    Every now and then, one of our balls would sail over the wall into the mental aid facility, which was called EMI(Eric Martin Intstitute). It was strictly forbidden to go around the wall to fetch the ball. The ball was gone, in the eyes of many of us. It was forbidden by teachers, but they were hardly able to watch all of us. There were a few hundred students out for lunch at the same time, and only a few monitors in each yard.

    But I wasn’t afraid. I’d crossed through the EMI numerous times when the school’s yards were gated and closed, and I had to walk from my mom’s work at the hospital to my own home, which conveniently crossed the EMI. So I simply slipped over to the other side, grabbed whatever ball or frisbee we’d just lost, and dash back up to the road and back around the wall. I never told anyone else to do it, or that there was nothing to fear. I just did it. The taboo and the fear of the potentially mentally damaged still held firm for the other children, for the most part. And I only ever came into contact with a patient once while I was fetching a ball, and he was very kind to me.

    So, yes, I’d cross that road, and get the damned ball, and bring it back. And then I’d simply offer to go get the ball myself again if it went back over the road.

    The same goes for me being older.

  19. Sphore says:

    I would wait until they were gone to get the ball, so I voted ‘no’ for the moment.

  20. Mad Flavius says:

    I would not get the ball for several reasons.

    1) Just because my parents did not strictly prohibit me to cross said highway doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if they knew I was considering it. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t necessarily prohibit or allow every last action, because they couldn’t possibly legislate every last permutation; they instilled a basic code that they then trusted me to apply as needed in situations. They never told me “don’t play with fire,” I learned this myself. Therefore, the very idea of crossing a four-lane highway would be a foreign concept, as the possible cost of failure (injury or death) far outweighs the possible benefit (getting back my red ball, awesome though it may be).

    2) Additionally, as an intelligent child in this situation, I would have a strong understanding of the effects of my actions on others. While I understand that the Bible is not considered highly by many on this site, I will keep this brief. If it is frustrating that I quote, just look at it as a strong ethical teaching. 1 Corinthians 8:9 states “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” The author exhorts his followers that though they may not be bound by the same strictures as others, if they relish their freedom in view of the others, it may cause them to break the rules established to their detriment, either physically or psychologically. I think this is particularly applicable to this situation. While you are not forcing someone to break the rules by committing an action when you yourself are not bound by the same code, I believe it is still your responsibility to consider the results of your actions.

    3) Sneaky answer: I would just break the metaphor and log into the family computer, look up the phone number of the house across the street with Google’s Phonebook, and politely request the inhabitants return the ball by way of their vehicle at the earliest convenience. But that would preclude all this fun ethical discussion. ;)

    Disclaimer: It is most assuredly not my intent to ruffle any feathers by quoting the Bible. I would be more than happy to consider any other moral or ethical work that would have a quotation to this effect. I do not intend to imply anything about religious views–though if anyone were interested in this discussion, I would be more than happy to converse with you.

  21. lebkin says:

    I voted yes. It is not my responsible for how the other kids respond to me, especially true as a kid myself. If I was an adult in this situation, I might take more care with what image I am presenting. But I would still get the ball. Its my ball; I possess the ability to go get it, and within my own actions, I endanger only myself.

    Mad Flavius posted as I was writing my response, and I wanted to respond to his 2nd reason: that I am responsible for the actions of others that may emulate mine. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. This can be extended to crazy proportions: I shouldn’t drive my car around kids, since they might think they can drive a car and hurt themselves. I should use the stove, because a child might hurt themselves trying to cook. Its the classic lesson of just because everyone is jumping off a bridge, that doesn’t make it a good idea. If my actions hurt others, that is my fault. But if someone decides to do something that hurts them simply because they saw me do a similar action, that is THEIR problem, not mine.

  22. Viktor says:

    I’d get it back some other way if possible. Showing up with the ball the next day and no explanation would be cooler in my mind than just walking across the road. But if that wasn’t an option, if I really liked the ball, or if I thought the kids needed to learn to cross the road, I’d go across in a heartbeat.

  23. Factoid says:

    I would do it. It’s unrealistic to expect that these kids haven’t seen anyone cross the road ever. Their parents must do it.

    I would just tell them that the road isn’t lethal, the ball can be recovered safely with little risk but crossing isn’t a cinch, and they should ask their parents to teach them.

    They’re kids, so they probably won’t listen, but there was never anything stopping these kids from doing this anyway. And if their parents are that overprotective they shouldn’t be letting their kids play with other kids who won’t obey the local taboos.

    Any kid willing to accept the road as forbidden should probably also have a good degree of stranger-danger.

  24. addicted says:

    I voted yes. Besides now knowing that it would be better to do it when they are not around or asking for help, when I was a kid I would have done it.

  25. Binks says:

    I voted yes. There’s no legitimate reason for me to give up something of mine on the off chance that something bad might happen to someone else if I go get it. However I would take some measures to help ensure nothing bad would happen. Firstly I’d tell the other kids that it’s a bad idea to cross the road without getting your parents to teach you how. Secondly I’d do my best to make sure that the kids parents were aware that their taboo was broken.

    However this ignore a simple fact, the taboo against crossing the road is a horrible way to ensure that your kids are safe near roads. Eventually someone is going to cross a road in front of them, and they’re going to see that it’s not the pit of vipers they thought it was. The idea that irrational fear of something can protect you from it is the exact same problem which leads to security through obscurity, the horribly ineffective anti-drug programs (drugs will make your eyeballs explode!) and other problems with our modern society. These hypothetical parents aren’t helping their kids by making them irrationally afraid of roads, they’re hurting them in the long term.

  26. Macil says:

    I voted yes.

    This is an argument of the beard. At what point is the line drawn where we become unable to act because of a fear of what it may cause others to do?

    I think if I should inhibit my actions because of fear of what it may cause others to do, then I should be terrified to step outside the confines of my house.

    Responsibility must always remain with the entity concerned, otherwise we fall into some kind of infinite regress of discovering the true source of responsibility.

    Children or not, we all have self-limiting beliefs and perceptions that inevitably result in mistakes. We are not omniscient and cannot have the all the information about every decision we make. We must always act from some degree of ignorance. Does it make more sense to blame others (the kid who wanted his ball back) or ourselves? Which is more functional in society? Which makes more sense morally/ethically?

    However you justify it, I cannot see how getting the ball back would be somehow wrong: if anything, it would be right, since not only does it further the goals of the concerned entity (the kid who wants the ball back), it could reveal flaws in the characters/beliefs/mindsets of the children/their parents/teachers — a flaw that should not be tolerated in a society (a dangerous belief don’t you think?) but rooted out and replaced with something a tad more sensible.

    For some reason I am reminded of Assimov’s robots: “Logical, but not reasonable.”

  27. OEP says:

    Get the ball when no one is looking, and say it was magic.

  28. I’m of the thinking that “we must push against the rules and continually challenge authority”, so I voted yes. Obeying the rules for the sake of the rules is superstition and counterproductive. Same goes for taboos.

    Instead, we should understand the purpose of the rules: in this case, it’s so we don’t get hit by cars. With the proper knowledge of street crossing, the rule no longer has purpose.

    However, these are children, not adults, so it’s a bit different and my arguments may not apply. Their minds are still developing.

  29. Duffy says:

    Yes. Based on the theory of it’s not my responsibility that they adhere to a strange stretch of logic/rules. It’s their fault or their parent’s fault for not preparing them for a possible task that they will almost definitely encounter in their young lives.

    Why do we treat children (and sometimes adults) as “stupid”? Most people aren’t necessarily stupid, just ignorant. Those that stay ignorant after being informed are the “stupid” ones. This of course is a many layered idea, it’s easier to cross a road for a kid then learn calculus.

  30. Mari says:

    I voted no but for a fairly unique reason based on what I’m reading here. Quite simply I desire to fit in. Doing something outside the norm like crossing the street defeats my desire to be like the other kids and risks being ostracized or rejected by them. Better to lose the ball and gain the acceptance of peers than to regain my shiny red ball but (possibly) be forced to play with it alone in my own yard while all the other kids stand around talking about what a horrible person I am for crossing the street.

    Why are you all looking at me like that? I know not everybody is this way but there are enough of us that I’m not THAT weird. I just admitted it is all.

  31. Xpovos says:

    It’s closer now, with yes still ahead. I voted yes, and here’s my two-fold reasoning.

    1) There’s rarely anything gained by hiding truth. Truth tends to come out eventually. Maybe not for this generation of kids, but somewhere down the line an even more unfortunate bounce of a ball will result in a situation where a child ends up in the forbidden zone completely unwillingly and comes to no harm. Then the cat is out of the bag with absolutely no backstop. Here, at least we have a potential for rational explanation from a knowledgeable source.
    2) There is no reason to believe that children who obey this rule so unfailingly will not also believe additional myths that we can provide to them. ‘I will retrieve the ball with my magic powers, but you may not watch, or else they will fail, and I may die.’ Then while they’re not looking you can safely retrieve the ball without compromising their situation anymore than by adding to the mystique of the road.

  32. RCTrucker7 says:

    I voted yes. To me the key factor is this; “If you choose to break this taboo, are you willing to take on the responsibility of teaching all of them how to do it?” No, I’m not. Now if it had not been forbidden for them to cross, then I wouldn’t have a problem teaching them how to. I think that the fact it’s been forbidden brings on the aspect of responsibility. There’s no “danger” in teaching someone something that is allowed to be done. You’re not taking on the responsibilty of teaching them how to break the rules then, you’re simply teaching them how to do something. So if I teach them, and one of them gets killed by a car, I don’t feel I bear any responsibilty for that, as they were allowed to do it in the first place.

    But if they’re not allowed, and I teach them, and one of them gets killed by a car, then I do bear responsibility for it, as I am the one that taught them how to break the rule. So I refuse take that responsibilty to begin with, by not teaching them how.

    That doesn’t mean I’m not going to go get my damn red ball back. After all, I mowed a shit load of lawns to earn the money I used to buy it. ;-)

  33. Trianglehead says:

    Hell, I’d get the ball and play it up like I was a super-hero. When I was a kid that is definitely what I would have done.

  34. MintSkittle says:

    I would go get the ball, because it’s my ball, I’m responsible enough to watch for traffic, and wait for an opening to cross. I could tell the other kids the basics of pedestrian road safety, but whether they choose to exercise road safety is their choice. As for the younger, hyper-active kid who is likely to be struck down by his own foolishness:


  35. Chris says:

    Given the stark black and white nature of the poll, I voted “yes”, simply because it’s my ball that I paid my money for (or received as a gift from family or friends). If this situation happened to me in reality, I’d likely either get a grown-up to do it, or wait until none of the other kids were around. But in no circumstances would I purposely leave my ball over there and chalk it up as a loss, when getting it back required something as simple as crossing the road.

  36. Terrible says:

    My kid mind voted while my adult is still thinking it over.

    But he says that getting the ball would make him look brave and cool in front of the other kids. Plus it would be a waste of a perfectly good ball to just leave it there.

    My adult mind reminds me that I wasn’t all that brave or cool as a kid and probably would have been convinced by the other kids that the highway really was dangerous, even if I didn’t think so before.

  37. Mythin says:

    A couple of people mentioned this, and I feel the same way. I think Binks put it better than I can, but basically having a rule out of fear, rather than intelligent caution out of understanding, is ridiculous. The child who owns the ball, in this example, is cautious around the road because s/he truly understands the danger. Therefore, s/he only crosses the road at need and carefully. The children who are afraid of the road through taboo are, as the example said, going to cross the road dangerously through some type of dare.

    Telling a child not to do something with no reason and no explanation is a sure way to make that child do something. Having a child be informed of the consequences and being told that they shouldn’t is a much better way to ensure they won’t do something. It would not be my responsibility in this situation to enforce the irrational fear of the unknown instilled in these children by their parents.

    In short, I voted yes.

  38. Macil says:

    @Macil: *Asimov. :P

  39. JohnW says:

    I would beat up the hyperactive kid until he crossed over and got the ball for me.

  40. Lazlo says:

    Yeah, I’d get the ball. Would have when I was a kid, probably still would.

    Part of it is this: Death is an intangible… It’s obviously never happened to me, or any of these other kids, and young kids especially have a hard time grasping things they don’t have experience with. Chances are, they don’t fear death. They fear getting into trouble with their parents. Me showing them that death isn’t certain doesn’t change that fear. They may start to wonder why their parents have this rule and mine don’t. Perhaps their parents just don’t trust them as much as mine do me, or maybe it’s something deeper. Maybe their parents do trust them, and aren’t afraid so much of death, but are terrified that the local DCF will see kids in the road and take them away from their parents for their own safety. As a young kid I think it would have taken a fair amount of deep explanation to impart that sort of understanding on me. And some kids, on getting that sort of understanding, might have tried to actively subvert their parents.

    Of course, the amusing epilogue would be “…and as I lay there watching my blood seep into the grass, I thought to myself, I guess not every neighborhood has the armed robotic death sentries to guard their roads…”

  41. Strangeite says:

    I am surprised by how many people don’t feel that “They are their brother’s keeper” at all.

    I just can not subscribe to the thought that “There's no legitimate reason for me to give up something of mine on the off chance that something bad might happen to someone else if I go get it.” Of course where to draw the line is up to the indivdual but to state unequivically that I have no responsibility for the actions of others strikes me as wrong.

    If the chance that someone is going to be hurt is 0.0001%, then by all means get the ball. If the chances that someone will get hurt is 95% but you still would get the ball….

    Well, let me just say that I am glad I have the neighbors I do.

  42. Jimmie says:

    I voted yes. It is not my responsible for how the other kids respond to me, especially true as a kid myself. If I was an adult in this situation, I might take more care with what image I am presenting. But I would still get the ball. Its my ball; I possess the ability to go get it, and within my own actions, I endanger only myself.

    You are, in fact, not an island, nor is anyone else. It is convenient to think of ourselves as islands because it absolves us from responsibility or even from thinking very hard. It makes our lives a lot easier, but does a lot of harm to the people around us who we’ve decided aren’t particularly important anymore.

    I can’t help but wonder why the kids don’t cross the road. Shamus mentioned the rules being laid down but it’s not certain who laid them down or if they’ve ever had to be enforced. Kids are notorious rules-breakers and I’ve yet to see a rule introduced so sternly that it wasn’t disobeyed fairly quickly.

    There are things here I don’t know which would cause me to hesitate before I broke a rule that every kid in the neighborhood takes as seriously as death. Could The Road be more dangerous than I believe it is? Could there be some sort of harm that I cannot see in that ten-pace buffer between Safe Ground and The Road? What if I’m wrong about the other parents not having authority over me?

    A good GM could fill in those holes with all sorts of goodies, I’d imagine.

    It’s also interesting to me how many folks here assume that they are the most intelligent actor in this scenario.

  43. Flying Dutchman says:

    I voted yes in theory. But as a kid, I would likely assume that everyone is afraid of the road for a reason other than traffic. I am very gullible and I would probably think there would be some child molester hiding in the bushes near the highway or that the lawn belongs to some angry man who doesn’t like people walking on it, which is why local kids stay away.

  44. Stark says:

    Many of the yes comments seem to be along the lines of “What other people do, based on what I’ve done, is not my responsibility.” This is, while partly true, also stunningly self serving and naive.

    In an adult situation this typically holds true for everyday actions – if you as an adult decide to cross a 6 lane superhighway on foot and some other dumb ass adult decides to do it as well, then no, it’s not your fault if that person ends up like a bug on a windshield. However, if you as an adult do said action and a child then emulates you – well, our society says that’s a bit of a different story.

    We assume that an adult is capable of making a weighed and balanced decision based not only on the outcome of your little cross freeway jaunt but also based on prior experience and the learned ability to predict results from actions taken. We’d hope that the second adult could see that the initial crosser waited until there was almost no traffic an also happened to be an Olympic class wind sprinter and then accurately asses their chances as compared to that other person. If a child is watching it’s a whole different animal though. Younger kids do not have the experience yet to make an accurate assessment of the danger of a particular act. They learn by trying things. So, if a kid watches Mr. Speedy cross the super highway, he might come to the conclusion it’s a bad idea… but he’ll probably just assume that since that guy did it it must be easy. The adult here does indeed have an obligation to consider the effects of his actions on a child observing him – we do this all the time in our society. We, as a society, have decided that certain activities are generally not appropriate in front of children. This is why we come up with things like ratings for movies and video games – some things are just not suitable for a young mind which has yet to develop a firm grasp of reality vs fantasy and safe vs unsafe actions.

    Of course, Shamus’s example is simplified and is about a child and other children… but it has a flaw. Namely that no child is likely to wrestle with the issue in the way it has been presented. One child knows how to safely cross the road (having presumably been taught by an adult to do so) and has not been instructed that the road is off limits. This child would, 9 times out of 10, probably just go get the ball without even considering the effect his actions may have on his peers. This is because the faculties needed to wrestle with an external moral dilemma do not exist in small children the way they do in adults. We don’t typically develop those skills until out teenage years (and many seem to never develop them at all) – and even then they must be taught. It would be the very rare child who would even see the ethical dilemma here let alone be bothered enough by it to give it more than a moments fleeting thought.

    There is a reason we call adults role models for children after all.

    It should also be noted that even as adults we routinely concern ourselves with others emulating actions of ours which may not be safe/fair/good for the world/etc. We do it all the time in fact – when we push society to become more energy conscious or recycle or try to stem the proliferation of nuclear arms we are in effect saying that even though we may know how to cross the road to get the ball we shouldn’t do it because we don’t want others to get hurt doing it themselves. Clearly it’s vastly more complicated than that but the underlying principle – recognizing that responsibility for ones actions extends beyond yourself – is the same.

    And for those who still say that they bear no responsibility for what other people do based off of their actions… well, you are the people who scare me in life.

    OH, and sorry for the wall o’ text. Clearly I need to setup my own blog.

  45. Aergoth says:

    I’ve never been particularly susceptible to peer preasure that I can remember, and I never did care much for stupid rules in the first place. Yes, not playing in traffic is a good idea, but for the sake of a shiny new ball, the 10-12 year-old me would have said “screw you guys, I’m getting that ball”

  46. Shinjin says:

    but approach the question with your grown-up mind

    I answered yes since I’d have been unwilling to accept the loss of my precious.

    Special note – your question is flawed. No child puts that much thought into *anything*.

  47. Dave says:

    Given the restraints (think with my adult mind). No.

    I’d call across to someone else on the other side of the street and get them to throw/kick it back.

    I know I’m assuming that people actually leave their homes with this answer, but it’s stated in the first paragraph that there are nice homes on either side of the highway, so I think it’s a safe assumption.

    That said, my kid mind wouldn’t have thought ANY of the other stuff. I would have gone and got the ball.

    Even smart kids don’t always think their actions all the way through. And I can’t ever recall thinking to myself as a kid about how my actions would affect the motivations of others.

  48. Shinjin says:


    This is, while partly true, also stunningly self serving and naive.

    While you intended this as an assessment of the (presumably) adult population filling out the survey, you manage to sum up children perfectly.

  49. Matt C. says:

    I said “No” only because there weren’t options for “Ask a grown up for help” or “Wait until I’m sure the hyperactive kid won’t see me.
    That said, if you had put this question to the ten year old version of me he’d probably shout “Yes” over his shoulder as he was running across the street.

  50. Strangeite says:

    This reminds me of a discussion of the Cain and Abel story in Bill Moyer’s Genesis.

    In the book, one of the Rabbi point out that when Cain says to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” it doesn’t necessarily mean that Cain was trying to be a smartass. He maybe asking the question because he really doesn’t know the answer. At that point in time, there had never been death and it could be argued that Cain was not aware of the consequences of his actions. Therefore, his “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was his appealing to God for guidance. Obviously the story provides an answer, and that answer is “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” In this particular interpretation of the story, it is Cain’s learning of this fact that leads directly to his son founding the first city (i.e. Civilization). So the Rabbi argues that us being our brother’s keeper is the foundation of civilization.

    I thought this was interesting, even though I am neither Jewish nor Christian.

  51. Mark says:

    My vote: No.

    My justification: 1 Corinthians 10:27-33.

  52. Sydney says:

    I tried to vote “Yes”. I really did. Literally, my mouse slid up and down what must have been twenty times. Because all my personal principles align with voting “Yes”. Then I asked myself: “If I went and got the ball, and the next day Susie next door tried to cross the road and got splattered, would I feel guilty, all philosophy aside? Could I, with a straight face, invoke abstract arguments about Truth and Responsibility when I met her parents at the funeral?”

    I voted “No”.

    Can I pose that secondary question to all who answer “Yes”? Let’s say you reason that “Well, they should know better than to imitate me without thought”, get the ball, and the next day, the hyperactive little kid dies. What do you say to his parents?

    I don’t mean this as a challenge, or a Phoenix Wright OBJECTION!! I’m just interested to know what you think about this. Having struggled with this question myself, I’d like to hear the other side of it, just for my own curiosity.

  53. Maddy says:

    As a kid, I’m sure I would have. And I probably would have gotten run over. With the invention of “Frogger” I discovered that I might not be good at this kind of thing.

    As an adult, I’d probably call someone across the street to throw it back. We could work out a deal where we agree to take care of this stuff for each other.

    If that wasn’t possible, I’d take care of it later when nobody was looking. I am definitely going to get my stupid ball back one way or another.

    If I were a parent in this neighborhood, I’d also put up a fence to keep the dog from running into the road, and I’d organize a campaign to get a pedestrian overpass so that everybody has a safe way to cross. Grumble grumble stupid dangerous road.

  54. Rebby says:

    I voted no, but I also try to think of other alternatives and a few have been mentioned – go get it later or get an adult to get it for you. Even if I knew how to cross the road, i’ve always been pretty cautious and I would want the kids to like me, and like someone else said early – they might shun me if I cross the road. So – i’ll wait and get my ball later or get an adult to get it.

  55. krellen says:

    Proving I am, in fact, a RPG player, I voted yes: I go down to the cross-walk, people-bridge, or whatever safe crossing place has been put in place (even if it’s a mile up the road) and cross there to get my ball. If someone has built residences that close to a highway, they’ve built a means for pedestrians to cross it.

    I think I broke the game. :D

  56. Danath says:

    I said yes, adult or child situations, I have done things I shouldnt have, I have called out Pepsi as being shit at taste tests, I have called PETA terrorist supporters in a class that talks about them being an ethically repsonsible group, I am perfectly willing to call people stupid for things I feel are stupid. Its not up to me to teach them though, thats up to them, I wouldn’t teach others how to think, or how to do something, not without them asking me first anyways.

    Course at a funeral I would use tact, thats a bit different than calling someones problems stupid. This is adult thinking, as a child I would never have contemplated something so deep, as an adult, I find irrationality about things utterly ridiculous. Not that I am not prone to the same at times, but I hope others feel like they can counter my views and if I can learn from that, all the better.

  57. Primogenitor says:

    Not straight away, but maybe later when no-ones looking. Of course, this leads to the “self-propelled red ball”, or “child of infinite red balls, or “red ball eating grass of doom”, or “ghost child that disobeys the rules”, or you actually being killed/injured from bad luck, or someone watching you anyway, or rocks fall and everyone dies.

  58. Strangeite says:

    Shamus: About time for you to chime in with your answer. Not fair to have us go on the record and not you.

    • Shamus says:

      Strangeite: Ah. Fair enough.

      Honestly: I’d leave the ball, go home and complain about the unconquerable stupidity inherent in humans. I think the parents are doing their children a disservice, but it’s not my place to overthrow their teachings. Don’t come between a mother & children and such. If the parents are REALLY endangering the kids, then another adult should talk to them directly instead of me bypassing them and teaching their kids what I thought was better.

      The stakes are too high, and in the end it’s just a ball. You get ’em in a bin at Wal-Mart for $1.

      Having said that, I still don’t think getting the ball is “wrong”. It’s just… rude.

  59. I’d just go get it. Life isn’t safe and it doesn’t do any service to kids of any sort to try to prevent them from exposing themselves to danger by playing mind games of the “I won’t get the ball so the taboo stays in effect”.

    Besides, a possibility that you completely failed to consider, Shamus, is that these obviously mentally passive and obedient kids will be horrified that you broke the taboo and utterly ostracize you from that moment onward. You can’t KNOW whether your actions will motivate these kids to run out into the road because *humans have free will*. Basing your actions off what you IMAGINE other people are going to do is ridiculous and flies in the face of one of the necessary virtues: independence.

    So go get your ball back.

  60. scragar says:

    I know it’s a completely horrible move on my part, but I’d get the ball. I have a bit of a weak sense of empathy, so to me if some kids are dumb enough to walk near the road after being told not to and without any understanding of road safety, well, they deserves everything they get.

  61. Burning says:

    Taking everything in the story at face value, I voted “No.” True, my actions would not directly hurt anyone. True, I would not be forcing anyone to behave unsafely. However the problem is set up such that if I cross there is a high probability that one or more of the other kids will be inspired to do something dangerous (for them). I’m not comfortable with the view that I have no responsibility for that.

    It took a lot of suspension of disbelief to take the story at face value. That might have been deliberate on Shamus’s part; I don’t know. I think it would be tricky to set up the hypothetical in way such that (a) it is plausible that I would have all the insights attributed to me, but at the same time (b) my audience would not be prepared to accept my authority when I said “Don’t try this yourself.”

    I have responsibility for the other kids copying me because I recognize this as a likely outcome. As a child, I doubt I would have figured this out. If I had, I probably would have assumed that they could do it as safely as I. A child with realistic insight in this situation would bear no moral responsibility for going to get the ball, because they would be unlikely to conceive of the bad outcome.

    To realistically understand the consequences, I’d have to be a grown-up and not a kid. But if I were a grown-up, there would be no problem with me saying “Kids, obey your parents. I know what I’m doing when I cross this road, but you don’t know what you need to do this safely.” A kid who wouldn’t take me as an authority would be highly unlikely to have bought into the taboo in the first place. Which would pretty much absolve me from responsibility.

    So as a grown-up, yes I would go get the ball, because I could prevent the unsafe imitation. As the child I was, I would go get the ball, because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that something bad could happen. Only accepting the restriction that I am a child with a grown-up’s insight am I lead to answer “No.”

  62. Sydney says:

    Shamus: I hope you do posts like this again. You’ve got the DM’s touch for framing situations such that the “right answer” isn’t implied by the set-up, and this is one of the best comment threads I’ve ever read.

    Also, moral dilemmas like this are my heroin.

  63. Mythin says:

    Sydney, as to your second question, I have an answer to what I’d say as well as to what I’d think.

    As far as what I’d actually say, I would give the family my condolences and nothing more.

    As far as what I’d think, I’d wonder why the family would be willing to live that close to something they obviously found dangerous without giving their child the tools to deal with this eventual possibility. Do the parents just allow their children to lose stuff all the time? Have they never heard of a thing called a “fence” to avoid losing balls? Do they have no protocol to get the lost items? If they do have a protocol, then I would assume the other children would have informed me of it, which would change my answer from a “yes” to a “no.”

    Basically, there’s not nearly enough information to make an informed answer. Based on this limited information, and the limited set of answers, I would still answer yes despite your question.

    I would do my best to inform the children that I had been shown how to safely cross by my parents, and if they wish to learn how, they should ask their parents. But beyond doing my best to ensure their safety, I can not force their actions one way or another.

    Let me post a different question, should the Mythbusters cancel their TV show because they often perform dangerous acts? Kids can watch The Discovery Channel just as well as adults.

  64. Karizma says:

    I voted No. As a student of anthropology, one of the most dangerous things is to show up and say “You’re wrong.” You don’t know where it could lead. This isn’t just applicable to kids and a road, it’s applicable to adults too. Around the world, people do very different things than we do, people do things we would look at and think are “wrong”, but they’re not wrong, just different.

    These kids have created a survival tactic: Avoid the road. Breaking that tactic does allow danger, and it’s utterly foolish to freely shatter the paradigm without any forethought. A good anthropologist must know how something will be received before implementing with wild abandon. For example, an indigenous village in Central America might desire a church to be built rather than an infant hospital. You might THINK it’s more important, but they would rather have a church, and even if you disregarded their desire and built the infant clinic, they might not even bother to use it.

    Thanks for the great moral hypothetical Shamus!

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