"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -Edmund Burke

Is there an idiom, phrase or preferably a single word that we can call people that could have helped but didn't? Bystanders don't necessarily have help to give. Cowards aren't particularly helpful either.


For example, once EMS has arrived on scene, bystanders are encouraged not to try to help, unless they're a nurse and therefore have the necessary skills to, and sometimes even then so. If in The Service, I would not want a coward (a liability) next me holding the line. Not to take anything away from these great answers, or to insist on a non-militaristic point of view, I would like to veer into the commercial or civilian realm in which I find this quote most often alluded to, E.G., "If we all gave 5 cents we could cure cancer tomorrow." Pretend most of us did give 5 cents and we did cure cancer, but you didn't give. You are now a(n) ____?... yes, I know what we call them, but what is their proper designation?

  • 1
    Could have helped? Bystanders is probably closest. Anyone not involved in actually doing something is a bystander.
    – SrJoven
    Aug 12, 2014 at 0:32
  • 3
    If a Good Samaritan is a passerby who chose to help, maybe a plain old Samaritan is someone who is in a position to help, but hasn't (yet?) chosen to.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 12, 2014 at 0:41
  • @SrJoven, I knew that "could of" sounded funny but it sure looked right to me, tx.
    – Mazura
    Aug 12, 2014 at 0:50
  • 2
    What about passive?
    – ermanen
    Aug 13, 2014 at 18:12
  • 1
    The indifference of good men is just another way to say it. I know that one as a movie quote from Boondock Saints. That scene is actually the inspiration for this question.
    – Mazura
    Sep 8, 2015 at 20:39

10 Answers 10


Per Merriam-Webster:

shirker: One who neglects his duty, responsibility, or obligation.

This assumes that involvement is obligatory (even if not assigned). If such was the case, avoidance — as in, not actually helping — is shirking.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for shirkers to shirk.

The problem to answer is inherent in the question. It is the difference between could but didn't vs should but didn't.

As I mentioned in my comment, bystanders works as a term because anyone who isn't participating is a bystander. Coward has an implication of being afraid of doing the task.

Observing the crowd, there was no difference between the bystanders and the people who could have helped but didn't. But they themselves knew. There were the shirkers: the ones who should have helped but didn't, the cowards: the ones who were afraid to get their hands dirty, the apathetic: the ones who just didn't care, and people who just liked to watch the flames dance.

  • 1
    I think "shirker" is too negative. I am sure I have heard the phrase as "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do stand idle." or "stand idly by". In the specific phrase the idea is that good men should act so you may say they are shirking the responsibility but it is ambiguous that said good men should act in most cases. Bystander standing idly by would be a more neutral phrase suggesting those that could act but felt they did not have to. Good men do not like to or go to start war.
    – TafT
    Mar 9, 2017 at 9:27


In the context of "all that is necessary for evil to triumph, is that good men do nothing", these good men doing nothing are enabling evil to triumph.

In a negative sense, "enabling" can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. A common theme of enabling in this latter sense is that third parties take responsibility or blame, or make accommodations for a person's harmful conduct (often with the best of intentions, or from fear or insecurity which inhibits action).

The practical effect is that the person himself or herself does not have to do so, and is shielded from awareness of the harm it may do, and the need or pressure to change. –Enabling, Wiki

TFD: enabler

  1. To behave in a manner that facilitates or supports (another's abusive, addictive, or self-destructive behavior).
  • I'm seriously considering accepting this as the answer. Personally, I consider this word yucky (perhaps that makes it all the more appropriate).
    – Mazura
    Sep 8, 2015 at 20:46
  • Thanks for the edit. I see how providing even more context/definition to my suggestion really helps to flesh it out and support my intent. 'Enablers' feels yucky to me because of all the new-agey touchy-feely connotations that it brings with it. Is that what you mean?
    – DSKekaha
    Sep 8, 2015 at 21:08
  • More than anything, I find it used in the context of addiction if the word enable has a suffix. That's why it's {cough} personally, a dirty word.
    – Mazura
    Sep 8, 2015 at 21:12
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    That's what I meant: it's always in terms of alcoholics or wife-beaters, and my initial reaction is always to think "welp, here comes the psycho-babble"
    – DSKekaha
    Sep 8, 2015 at 21:18

In the context of your quote, I would suggest cowards, or future victims. See also, 1984 by Orwell and First they came... by Martin Niemöller, the text of which varies - but one version is,

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Another possibility is do nothings from dictionary.reference.com -

a person who chooses to do nothing...


The context differs too much to give a singular answer; In context of the original question in context of witnessing a crime or in regards of providing first aid, I think "Reluctant bystanders" might be a way to go, as it describes a bystander (non-participant) who is unwilling to intervene (but could have).

In context of the addendum, I don't think you can find a single phrase to cover it, because again the context differs across each situation making another phrase to cover it. Not giving '5 cents to charity' makes you either selfish, indifferent, lazy or similar depending on the motivation behind.

I simply think your original "could have helped, but didn't" type of definition is the best you can come on a generalized phrase.


How about a depraved heart:

In United States law, depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is a type of murder where an individual acts with a "depraved indifference" to human life and where such act results in a death, despite that individual not explicitly intending to kill.


Irresponsible. If you have knowledge and power, and you're not putting it to good use, then you're being irresponsible.

  • 1
    Welcome to Stack Exchange. Most people will find your unsubstantiated answer to be unacceptable. I however, enjoyed your thought provoking insight.
    – Mazura
    Aug 12, 2014 at 1:12
  • ^I agree with @Mazura but yes, the answer is no good.
    – tmj
    Aug 12, 2014 at 7:53
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    Just because a car has wheels, does not mean that the word for "something with wheels" is car. Just because a politician can lie, does not mean that the word for "someone who lies" is politician. Likewise for your answer here. It is backwards. Yes, you can apply irresponsible to people who do nothing, but it does not mean "people who do nothing". It is a catch-all term that can be applied to a zillion things, including the exact opposite of what we have here, "people who do something (though they shouldn't)".
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 12, 2014 at 13:58

The simple answer here is there is no such single-word solution

I fear that sometimes when people have single-word requests, answerers are reluctant to state this as an answer.

  • 1
    "idiom, phrase or preferably a single word"
    – Mazura
    Aug 13, 2014 at 1:06

Since your fill-in-the-blank direction seems to require a noun, I suggest “proximists”. In being familiar yet novel, it confirms the factual information provided while at once providing interpretive flexibility which your context can inform. Too bad history doesn't seem to have yet supplied what you require, although there must be hundreds of debacles in our collective past fairly pregnant with possibilities.

I would agree, however, with “bystanders” as, strictly speaking, it conveys the critical hinge on which the concept must turn, but of course further agree to its failure to arrive at your winsome rhetorical destination.

A caveat: When considering your question, my brain, inexplicably, keeps generating images of Captain America looking disapprovingly at crowd of “bystanders.” Perhaps my suggestions are best ignored.

  • On EL&U neologisms rarely work. I would not understand that a "proximist" was a passive/indifferent spectator at a crime scene.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 11, 2018 at 21:42

Depending on how sympathetic you feel toward the "good men" in question, you could refer to them as Oblomovs, after the titular character in Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov (1859). As the Wikipedia article on Obolomov observes,

Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is the central character of the novel, portrayed as the ultimate incarnation of the superfluous man, a symbolic character in 19th-century Russian literature. Oblomov is a young, generous nobleman who seems incapable of making important decisions or undertaking any significant actions.

As this excerpt suggests, another term that might be applied to "good men who do nothing" is superfluous. The term Oblomovs tends to arise in the context of discussions of Russia (naturally), but it does sometimes come up in broader discussions of psychology and philosophy. For example, from an essay on freedom in Erik J. Olsson, Knowledge and Inquiry: Essays on the Pragmatism of Isaac Levi (2006):

... our becoming decadents and "wastelanders," nothing to stop ourselves from committing rational suicide, nothing to stop us from becoming Oblomovs but further commitments of ours.

From Mordecai Richler, Joshua Then and Now (1980):

There seemed at first glance, to be a few of the very, very rich in Barcelona, many who were unspeakably poor, but hardly any middle class to speak of. The rich he discovered, were for the most part vastly entertaining fellows who had never done a day's work in their lives and were offended by the very notion of it. Oblomovs abounded. Among them, the engaging but People gathered mindless Antonio, who wore a Savile Row suit and drove a sparkling white Austin-Healey. "Given the benefit of a couple of drinks," Antonio said, "we're all republicans here. A few more stiff ones, and we're Communists. But come four o'clock in the morning, man, every self-respecting Spaniard is an anarchist. So we need Franco, don't you see?"

And from Wales, issues 1–47 (1958[?]) [combined snippets]:

Their output is just enough to personally satisfy on the score of competence (a gesture rather like flexing one's biceps), while adding nothing to the growth of national culture. This purely nominal genuflexion to literature is a symptom of the disease that afflicts all Welshmen culturally. Their day-dreams of achievements are so much more satisfying than any real achievement could be . . . they do not bother with the realities.

This is the fatal flaw of the Welshman. It would not be untrue to describe the Welsh as a race of Oblomovs.


One word answer: coward.

From Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis" pamphlets:

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

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