It was a nightmare story which attracted enormous public interest.
A couple of months ago, in Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, the morning peak hour was disturbed by a man dragging a young woman towards a taxi. Two men intervened to help the woman, shots were fired and the assailant fled. One man, a husband, father and city solicitor on his way to work, lay dead. The other man, a Dutch backpacker, and the woman, were seriously injured, but survived.
And in the following days people asked: "In the same situation, would you intervene?"
Altruism is an interesting phenomenon, and was discussed in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article. It is a key question in any discussion of ethics.
Where do ethics come from, and why should we obey them? And why should we help others if we may endanger ourselves?
There seem to be three main views:
1. Some would say human beings have no ability to choose beyond how our brains are programmed, and therefore, ethics are an illusion. Thus Professor William Provine says: "Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. ..... no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; .... and human free will is nonexistent."
If this view is true, then we don't have any real choice about altruism - it is something our brains either do or don't lead us to do. We have evolved to sometimes behave in unselfish ways, if it benefits the species, and the survival of our genes. "Psychiatrist Dr Michael Dudley thinks our selfishness and also our latent altruism might simply get back to biology. He says there are arguments for altruism being beneficial for the species."
But if this view is true, we cannot really criticise another person's behaviour, no matter how extreme - they are behaving as they are programmed to do. It also makes punishment for crime unfair.
2. Others also believe that ethics, and altruism in particular, did evolve as human society evolved, but that we have a genuine choice whether we act selfishly or unselfishly. Thus social researcher Hugh Mackay writes: ".... morality is a social construction. At its core is the idea of mutual obligation .... willingness to take the rights, needs and welfare of others into account, on the assumption that they will do the same for us."
But this then raises some difficult questions. If I have a choice, why should I disadvantage myself for the sake of someone else? Why should I follow society's rules if I think I can get away with it?
And who decides what is right and what is wrong anyway? A common answer, evident in Mackay's comment above, is that society as a whole decides. But are we really willing to accept that? If the majority of Germans supported Hitler (I'm doubtful they actually did, but this is a hypothetical), would that make the Holocaust "right" for them? And presumably wrong for the rest of us? Was slavery right when the majority accepted it?
In the end, most of us believe some things are REALLY right or wrong, but this doesn't fit well with this view of ethics.
3. The third view argues that ethics have a factual basis in the universe and can be true just as the laws of physics are true, with the difference that we have a choice about obeying ethical "laws". This view raises its own set of difficulties. Who or what makes things 'right' in the universe? And if the answer is "God", then which god are we talking about?
Nevertheless, this view is the only one which explains what we generally believe about ethics, that some things really ARE right and wrong.
So altruism isn't a simple thing. It seems to go against nature. Hugh Mackay: "It's actually not natural. The natural thing is to go along with the crowd." Thus altruistic behaviour is, for some, another indication that the naturalistic explanation for ethics isn't correct.
And perhaps altruism is becoming a rarer thing. After the Melbourne shooting, police spokesman Senior Constable Wayne Wilson said: "I have no doubt we're a far more selfish society and far more individually-orientated than we ever used to be. For that reason, people are less willing to intervene in a humanitarian way in other people's lives."
Perhaps ethical behaviour and personal integrity are also becoming less common on an individual level (e.g. truthfulness, faithfulness in marriage, selfishness, greed), even as it appears that we are making progress in improving society in the areas of racism, sexism, pedophilia, abuse and war.
Would you intervene if someone needed assistance?