I would jump in front of a car for you…

After reading Rob’s soliloquy on activism (note to Rob: I recommend a listen to this and this and this, all interviews with activists about why they’re active), I was reminded of my own personal Mobius loop of a logical problem.

Conventional wisdom has it that parents will automatically, without thinking, do anything to save the life of their child. I knew this going in. But I always thought it was going to be some sort of intellectual thing, this burning building, speeding car, thundering bison rescue exercise. What nothing prepared me for is that it’s neither intellectual nor emotional, at least in any conscious sense: I simply would. Without thinking, or feeling. My defense of my son has become a part of me. Or it has always been a part of me. Or something like that.

Now here’s the thing: I would also, in exactly the same vein, risk my life to save Catherine’s. And my brothers’. And my parents’. I’d run into a burning building to save my nextdoor neighbour. If a speeding car were speeding down on the kid from around the corner, I’d try to save them too.

All of these are easy and natural.

The question is: where do I draw the line? For whom, as the ripples of familiarity wend weaker, would I not try to distract the bison or jump across the rushing gulch?

Which is where things get complicated. Right now there are probably things I could be doing that are far less self-indulgent than sitting in front of a computer in a warm house at 2:12 a.m. writing about bison. Things that could save lives. I could be donating money to Save The Children, or writing letters for Amnesty International, or on call for the local volunteer fire department. I could be writing an educational pamphlet about the dangers of globalization, or caulking my windows to reduce my reliance on oil.

But I’m not.

Which means that, somewhere after, say, my 6th grade teacher (save) and an anonymous [insert malady here] kid in [insert far away place here] (don’t save), lies the line. Somehow lives I know are worth more than lives I don’t know.

I’ve a feeling that in that lies the root of a lot of what ails the world.


Rob MacD's picture
Rob MacD on October 31, 2003 - 14:10 Permalink

This is partly what I was attempting to get at. How close to home is that line drawn?

Alan's picture
Alan on October 31, 2003 - 14:57 Permalink

When I was younger in Halifax I intervened a couple of times with strangers on the street at night in physical trouble — one time a women who called over “help” to me and the three women I was walking home from downtown with. He said “this isn’t your problem” and I said “I just made it mine.” He went away, she joined our walk home [and the women all said “men, what bastards” — I pointed out my particular unbastardlyness at that moment]. I now can’t believe I did this, or jumped the guy breaking into my pal’s car. A little older, in the UK on a train on Saturday night, the next car was being ripped up by drunk mid-teens after the soccer match. I scowled behind my steel toes and the travel knife I put on my lap. They, too, went away from me and the grannies who had moved into the seats behind my row. I suppose I had no choice at these times but I have no idea now that, though still 6 foot 3 and big, I am 40 and fat how I would react. Neither situation, or any others like it, were of the running into the burning house class or the guy who goes to witness war he does not believe in as a protester or the guy who goes out in to Halifax harbour to meet a US aircraft carrier in a row boat with signs on it. I have met one or two of them and I can not believe their confidence that things will work out ok. But maybe they do not have that confidence — it just does not occur to them not to do what to them is the right thing.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on October 31, 2003 - 17:22 Permalink

Robert Wright in The Moral Animal makes a case that levels of concern are evolutionarily hard wired; e.g. based on how much of your genetic material a person shares and, regarding strangers, based on rules of altruistic behavior that researchers find consistent with social stability in multi-agent computer models. It’s very interesting reading, if not exactly the vein of thought you were mining. It does seem to speak though to the feeling that your response isn’t consciously contemplated but feels automatic.

Ken's picture
Ken on October 31, 2003 - 17:57 Permalink

Put your oxygen mask on before assisting others.
Jump in front of the car, pushing your child out of the way.
The thing is when it happens it happens fast, and you will react fast and because it is out of control there is no right or wrong way, that comes into it when you have time to look back after the fact.
My point is rationality has no place — when the blue spark hits your brain you react with adreneline and muscle. Your brain really has no role until about three seconds into it which may be the end. If you get past those three seconds then you’re into some very quick choices. About an hour later your brain will try to define what happened and if your the only one living welcome to shell shock.
That’s when you spend the rest of your life donating money to CARE and trying somehow to help those you lost.
Or you join the PLO if you are Palestinian.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on October 31, 2003 - 18:31 Permalink

My friend Paul, who’s an EMT and volunteer firefighter, says that the first rule of that world is to keep yourself safe, because if you’re injured you can’t do anyone else any good.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on October 31, 2003 - 18:42 Permalink

What does murder and the PLO have to do with dignity, kind deeds and doing the right thing? Unless you are relating this discussion topic to inhumane animal-like behavior.In that case, you might be right.

Lou Quillio's picture
Lou Quillio on November 1, 2003 - 00:19 Permalink

… the first rule of that world is to keep yourself safe, because if you’re injured you can’t do anyone else any good.

But I think this is only how firefighters and EMTs (and cops, et al.) talk to themselves. Clearly they’ve opted to take unusual risks in the first place, so these professional cautions are made within that primary context.

Remove that advice from its context and extrapolate and project it onto Average Joe, and you end up with the argument that (1) since you can’t help if you’re not safe and (2) doing nothing is usually the safest thing then (3) one should never intervene because it thwarts one’s ability to intervene.

So I guess the rescuer’s code is that an effective hero must take action and take pause. In that order.