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« Explaining Extreme Altruism | Main | Are Christians (like Francis Collins) Fatalists? »

In Defense of Cowardice

I could have titled this post “In Defense of Selfishness,” but “cowardice” is a more precise antonym of the “extreme altruism,” death-defying heroism, I fretted over in my last post. Moreover, I like to defend the indefensible. Selfishness has its advocates (Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, the Michael Douglas character in the film Wall Street), but who sticks up for cowardice? Not Gandhi, who often said, “Nonviolence is not for cowards.”

He once proposed that Indians resist Japanese invaders nonviolently, refusing to follow any orders, even if the Japanese kill every last one of them. “The non-violent resistors will have won the day,” Gandhi wrote, “inasmuch as they will have preferred extermination to submission.”  I loathe, and fear, this macho pacifism, almost as much as I loathe and fear militarism. The death-embracing pacifist is the suicide bomber’s fraternal twin.

Cowardice—aversion to suffering and death--is the key to humanity’s survival, past and present. This notion pops up in an unlikely source: Edward Wilson’s seminal sociobiological treatise On Human Nature. Wilson points out—with approval!--that our altruism is almost always tempered with calculating self-interest. If we were all as selfless as wasps and bees who robotically sacrifice themselves in defense of the hive, or as men who leap on grenades to save their comrades, Wilson says, there might be no hope for us; we might all perish in a cataclysm of murder-suicides. (I hope I have this right; I don’t have Wilson’s book at hand, and I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

I admire Wesley Autrey, the Subway Samaritan. But our craven desire for safety and creature comfort, not our selflessness and courage, will save us, if we can be saved.



I wish people would stop using the term Samaritan so loosely and incorrectly. Samaritans are a distinct ethnic and religious group to which Judaism is schismatic. The good Samaritan of the Gospels is so designated because Samaritans in general were despised by the Jews, so a good one was considered something of note.


A compelling argument could be made that warfare is just murder-suicide on an industrial scale (especially considering that some species of ants attack other species of ants for resources).

(replace "species" with "ethnicity", and, depending on whether you think the statement holds up, observations/notations about things like "ethnicity" become relevant, at least within this discussion...)

mike cook

There's also the kind of heroism exemplified by the long-time astronaut who was asked what he thinks about in the moments before blast-off.
He replied: "I reflect that I am sitting on an incredibly complicated machine with a million parts, all of which were supplied by the lowest bidder."

Then you have new-rich entrepeneurs who are willing to pay the Russians $20 million US funds for the same experience!

Andrei Kirilyuk

It is interesting to note that finally everybody wants to believe in the present humanity salvation, either by way of “compassion and heroism” or through “selfishness and cowardice”: only an “explanation” varies, not the expected result. Nobody is cool enough to acknowledge the (ultimately optimistic) evidence: in its present state the so-called “humanity” has no clearly specified perspective and therefore cannot pretend to more than a physical survival (and inevitable degradation, already quite visible).

Both “heroism” and “cowardice” have their higher, “intelligent” and lower, “stupid” versions. One can be brave but not reckless and help to survive (or progress) both others and himself, in an optimal way. One can be “reasonably” selfish understanding that his personal progress is closely related to that of others. However, it is not those “intelligent” versions of courage and self-interest that dominate in “human” behaviour, but rather their “stupid”, ultimately limited caricatures (crazy “heroism” close to a version of “justified” or just simply mad suicide and equally reduced selfishness readily killing the whole supporting system, or “environment”, in favour of immediate, strictly personal profits). To avoid a really long list of examples, just take science we like so much. That very advanced activity performed by apparently the best representatives of “humanity” demonstrates very strong, practically absolute domination of low-level selfishness, where totally subjective personal and group interests always win over the interest of general knowledge development and where such “advanced”, officially supported practices as straightforward slavery of junior researchers by their seniors constitute a well-known, widely discussed basis of the whole enterprise.

In general, if one wants to find a genuine, reasonably reliable “hope for humanity”, something that will “save us all”, one should specify the corresponding way/possibility of (progressive) development because it's only (sustainable) progress, rather than any fixed, existing state or property, that can bring about the desired “salvation”. What are the perspectives of real, dominating versions of (com)passion/heroism (from charity to various crazy fighters), on one hand, and cowardice/self-interest (from profit seeking to scientific mafias), on the other hand, considered as a possible basis for further progress? No perspective here for humanity. It's true that the latter has “somehow survived” until now mainly due to a combination of those low-level, “animal” versions of both tendencies and has even performed a visible technical progress. But has it performed a really human, “intellectual” progress as such? Rather the reverse, today we have the absolute domination of generally “milder” (less bloody, but not really kinder), but also more mediocre, futile versions of the same, “eternal” behaviour types. The only real, strong, and ever growing kind of progress we have is that of empirically driven technology, but in its present form it doesn't lead to any progress in proper human properties, rather the opposite (let alone anti-utopian fantasies about moronic man-machine combinations becoming sometimes too real...). Here again, a genuine progress needs a qualitatively big step to a superior level of development, but one can only expect it as a miracle, quite similar to religious (especially Christian/Jewish) waiting for externally gifted, “divine” and therefore unconditional salvation (that should come from the one whom “humanity” has multiply betrayed, both directly and conceptually).

In the meanwhile, as John announces us (in a comment to previous post), another alleged “genius” of science is given another top prize for the discovery of a really great truth, that collective behaviour forms in animals can provide essential advantages for their survival... And other, yet more advanced “geniuses” generously supported by unaware “Samaritans” arbitrarily extend that “social Darwinism” to society of conscious(!) humans “explaining”, of course, everything in our behaviour, from self-interest to self-sacrifice. Ultimately ironic science is here again, no escape from it. And the “humanity” of obedient “Samaritans” is always there giving all those solid lumps of money to already rich “researchers” for the results that bring us nowhere but only infinitely multiply themselves as some cockroach-like, parasitic “memes”... They are indeed “properly” selfish, those heroes of official science, and are indeed afraid of any genuine truth exceeding their 0 = 0 kind of “discovery”, but can we see any progress possibility here? What about problem-solving, “dangerous” and therefore truly useful ideas so badly needed today, can THEY be supported at least at a minimum reasonable level by that properly “selfish” community of “advanced” thinkers?

When at last that “promising” humanity can start stepping out from the misery of its “best” illusions?

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