While catching an aeroplane last week, it occurred to me that we have at least one situation in everyday life in which altruism is trumped by rational self interest:
During the mandatory pre-flight safety rundown, passengers are told that if, during an emergency, oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, to put on their own one before seeing if their neighbour needs assistance – especially if their neighbour is their own child.
I find it interesting that this procedure has to be made explicit. In an emergency situation, is the urge to be “noble” and sacrifice oneself for someone else so irresistible that we have to be told to look after ourselves first? This is a situation where looking after one’s own interests first enables one to be more use to others. We must keep in mind that this is secondary to one’s right to one’s own life in the first place, but also that it is not wrong to want to help others, or to feel compelled to put others’ needs before your own. But the airlines have clearly calculated that more good is done, and that more lives are saved, by promoting rational self interest in such a situation.
What is remarkable, then, is that it takes an instance of extreme danger to make the utility of rational self interest so obvious. A similar approach can be seen when dealing with electricity and electrocution – the idea that it is best to avoid having two victims to save or to bury, rather than one.
Is it only in situations of danger that we revert to self interest, and if so, why? It is possible that it is only in dangerous situations that the negative consequences of an act of altruism have immediate impact – in the case of the oxygen mask in an aeroplane, if you try to fit the oxygen mask to your child before your fit your own, you may pass out before you are finished, in which case, you’re may both end up dead. In the case of mundane government policy, the negative impact is dispersed or delayed. It is not wrong to give food to a starving person, (far from it), but if, for example, the retirement benefits of government sector union employees are made too generous, the definition of “disabled” made too broad, industry nationalised to ensure stable work and affordable prices for the poor, there will negative consequences – the country running out of money, people losing their jobs, starving in the street, etc. – but these may not be seen for years if not decades.
Thus, moments such as this on an aeroplane provide an interesting reality check – we can often be more use to others, and of more benefit to society as a whole, but putting ourselves first. Can people suggest other examples in everyday life where our urge to do what we think is the right thing – put other’s first, or what could be deemed our society’s conditioned reflex toward altruism – is overridden by the more natural and useful urge to rational self interest?
Photo by seatonsnet
Photo by Darron Birgenheier