Sunday, July 19, 2009

Altruism At The Movies: Two Thumbs Down

It was standard movie fare. A great cataclysm was about to strike, the Army was putting people onto trucks to take them to safety. The last two spots were taken by the heroine and her male companion (who has already been characterized as being something of an asshole). Suddenly out in the crowd a heavy woman, clutching a baby with another child in tow cries out to be saved.

A soldier says that there is no more room...
"But you have to save my babies" cries the woman.
There is safety 10 miles away says the soldier, you will have to walk.
But we can't walk 10 miles she cries... Save my children!

At this point the heroine jumps off of the truck. "You can have my spot" she says, in the purest spirit of altruism, giving up her safety and security for a total stranger.

The heroine then looks back at her male companion. "Come on she says..."

And that is where it happens, the companion, rightfully concerned with his own welfare refuses to give up his seat.

The result (condemnation) is nurtured in the watcher, from the earlier characterization of this companion as a coward and a jerk. So the reaction of my wife when she muttered "jerk" under her breath came as little surprise.

I looked at her and realized that she hadn't thought about the elicited reaction. So I asked her. "If you were already safe in the shelter would you want me to give up my life for some complete stranger? Is that woman's life worth more to you than mine? Think about it... I'd gladly give up my seat for you or our kids but for a stranger? What makes her life more valuable than mine?

There was no answer.

Now being as smart (and normally) as rational as my wife is I don't often win an argument with one point like that, but it was so simple this time...

Why? Because the ideal of altruism is so often shown in this way, as a remote "lifeboat scenario" with the situation completely detached from those observing it, where the hero/heroine always eventually survives and the selfish jerk almost always dies. But that isn't true to nature. It is the people who do everything that they can to save their own lives that end up surviving, not the ones that give their safety away to a stranger.

Why is the stranger important? What possible reason could there be to sacrifice your life for a complete stranger? Some might point to animals using altruistic behaviour in the wild as an admonishment that we Humans should be at least as "good" but look at what they are comparing us to.

A monkey or a beaver can not reason and operates on instinct in a range of the moment existence. There are no value judgments being made, the animal is not sacrificing itself it is operating the autopilot of instinct.

So next time you see this cinematic or literary trick used take a moment to think. Raise yourself above the level of a Rhesus monkey or Beaver and ask the important question.

What do you value, what is being asked for in sacrifice?

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