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On heroism.

IN HIS STATE OF THE UNION address on January 23, 2007, George W. Bush recognized Wesley Autrey for his act of heroism in a Manhattan subway station. On January 2 Autrey, a fifty-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran, leapt in front of a train to rescue a man who had suffered a seizure and fallen onto the tracks. He covered the man with his own body as the train passed overhead. Both men lived.

Many who had heard of the incident considered Autrey's heroism memorable because the other man, Cameron Hollopeter, was a complete stranger. Autrey had been one of several bystanders who had tried to help him minutes earlier, but this had been their first-ever encounter.

Autrey's act was a prime example of altruism in action, the innate sense of empathy for others that makes cooperation (and ultimately all civilization) possible. I say innate advisedly, because we are now quite certain that an instinct for altruism is coded in our genes as an essential part of our human nature. (See my review of Marc Hauser's Moral Minds in the January/February 2007 Humanist).

The problem with altruism is that it's in short supply because it has to compete with a balancing force in human nature--selfishness--or what we might more charitably describe as the will to survive and prosper. Do you remember the old comic strips where the hero has a little angel and a little devil hovering around giving him conflicting advice? Manichean oversimplification perhaps, but not too bad a representation of what actually goes on in our minds when we face choices between being nice to others and seeking immediate gratification.

For most of us, our altruism doesn't extend far enough beyond immediate kin. And here we get into a complicated area where scientific authorities still disagree. While they all recognize that altruism can be a product of biological evolution when applied to blood relatives (witness a mother bear protecting her cubs), some question what the payoff might be, genetically speaking, for an individual willing to sacrifice some immediate interest to benefit unrelated strangers. If individuals cooperate in larger groups, such scientists contend, it must be because some principle other than altruism is motivating them.

Their skepticism is giving way, however. We are beginning to understand that a dynamic process took hold when our ancestors learned to think symbolically and to talk, affording a unique capacity to evolve increasingly elaborate and extensive societies. And the basic innate sense that drives that process is our old friend altruism. We have learned to cooperate with unrelated strangers by developing symbolic means of assimilating them into our in-group, which allows us to expand our innate sense of altruism to cover them.

Societal evolution is now seen as a process similar to biological evolution, but operating parallel to it under similar but somewhat different rules. It explains how our ancestors managed to develop large agricultural communities out of small kin-based bands of hunters and gatherers, and then move on to kingdoms and nation states. Each transition from one level of social complexity to the next has involved wrenching changes in individual attitudes regarding how to identify members of one's own in-group. Once the expansion is recognized and assimilated, however, altruism kicks in and provides the basic motivating force for cooperation within the larger group.

We are in the middle of one such transition right now. As Americans, we have learned to treat assorted ethnic groups, homosexuals, and other minorities as fellow citizens and co-equals. The process is patchy and still incomplete, given residual prejudice, the opposition to same-sex marriage, and a still regrettable exclusionary stance toward atheists. But it is real, and it is continuing. As I have argued at length in One Planet, One People: Beyond "Us vs. Them," it is probably unstoppable and will eventually lead to global governance and a sense of community on a global scale. (Unless, that is, we render the planet uninhabitable in the meantime).

Back to Mr. Autrey. It's a rather long stretch, especially on a Manhattan subway, to look at all those strangers and feel even somewhat altruistic toward them. And Autrey is black, which takes his altruism to another level considering that the psychological integration of blacks in the United States is still incomplete. But his totally unselfish act can serve as a kind of beacon to the rest of us, a parable of how we all ought to feel toward fellow citizens even if we've never seen them before. It can even shine some light on the quintessentially humanist goal of a world at peace, lubricated and undergirded by a generally accepted sense of global altruism.

Yes, Autrey's act was heroic, and quite merited the attention it received.

Carl Coon is a former ambassador to Nepal and is also vice president of the American Humanist Association.
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Title Annotation:Living Humanism
Author:Coon, Carl
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:804
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