Jumping on a grenade: To become a hero you have to think beyond self-interest
19th December 1941 Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn showcased the ultimate limits of human heroism As his group became divided from the main battalion in the hills of Hong Kong and had to withdraw against an overwhelming enemy he stayed behind to single-handedly engage the enemy while others ran to safety. After joining the others they soon found themselves surrounded by the enemy. Several enemy grenades were thrown towards them but the soldiers picked them up and threw back. Suddenly, a grenade landed in a position where it was impossible to return it in time. To protect his troops, Osborn shouted a warning and threw himself on the grenade. He was killed instantly.
There are many lessons to be learned from this dramatic real-life story. One of them is about human motivation. All too often we hear people saying that people are motivated solely by their own happiness. That human beings are self-interested creatures whose every single act contributes towards their own well-being. It would be quite absurd – and dishonoring – to say that John Robert Osborn was motivated by self-interestedness when jumping on the grenade. Instead we should see that he was moved by something that he considered to be so worthwhile that he was willing to sacrifice his life for it.
Many people love to debate about whether human beings are essentially egoistic or altruistic creatures. In my opinion the whole distinction is founded on a mistake. The mistake is to think that altruistic behavior must be something which is against your personal motives. Instead we human beings can be motivated by many different things, some more related to our own well-being while others are more about the well-being of others. Osborn’s case was not an isolated incident. There are several recorded incidents of similar deeds of saving your comrades by sacrificing yourself. Less dramatic acts of self-sacrifice are a significant part of everyone’s life.
So instead of this imaginary polarization between two opposing positions the real question is this: To what extent a certain person is motivated by his own well-being and to what extent by some wider concerns? Some people lean more towards egoistic end of the continuum while others are more able to take others into account. Test here where you are located.
How egoistic or altruistic we are is largely determined by our cultural upbringing. Some cultures put more emphasis on self-interest while others learn children to value more the perspective of the others. In this regard there haven’t been many cultures during the course of human history that would have emphasized more egoism and self-regard than the current western culture. The catch is here: The way we see ourselves and others is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the politicians, economists, media and we all as individuals talk about human beings as rational and strictly self-interested, the more we become such cold and calculating creatures. And the more we have to suppress our natural tendency for empathy and regard for others. No wonder economy students demonstrate the least other-regarding behavior in tests.
Yet despite this cultural propaganda to behave egoistically all of us transcend the limitations of such a selfish lifestyle and demonstrate remarkable deeds of acting in the name of the well-being of those around us. When the situation calls for it there are greater capacities for other-regarding behavior in us than most of us would ever imagine. John Robert Osborn’s act is a testimony for this.
By emphasizing such acts and the general human capacity for empathy we can strengthen the other-regarding tendencies in our society and in our own lives. Therefore the most essential question as regards egoism and altruism is this: In what direction do you want to develop yourself and those around you?
- Being individualistic and altruistic at the same time. The story of Jack Casey the firefighter.
- The four ultimate elements of motivation: How to get the best out of you and others? (And how robots will save the world)
- What is the most fundamental question in life? Hint: It is not about meaning of life or about what exists fundamentally
- Are household duties ruining your relationship? The solution: Do more than your partner!
- What brand of individualism are you wearing? The original noble individualism, the watered down consumer individualism or the new alternative: compassionate individualism?