After the recent murder by stabbing on the DC metro, a great deal has been said about how sad it is that no one risked their lives to help the victim. Even invocations of manly duty to protect the weak and vulnerable have arisen. Naturally, there are also plenty of folks who don’t see it as a problem that folks on the metro didn’t risk their lives. Occasionally (though not typically), they are neuroscientists who have evidence on their side.
Over at Scientific American, R. Douglas Fields explains how our brains process threats and respond to them almost instantaneously. He notes that our brains are using heuristics to arrive at decisions about the best response to the threat without the intervention of conscious thought, and relates his own experience of successfully fighting back against a robber as well as testimonies from others to help understand the situation. He argues on the basis of the evidence that those folks on the metro did the rational thing completely in line with how we evolved to survive. And I agree that they did the rational thing, though I would suggest that they did not do the most moral thing.
An important difference between fighting off an attacker who is attacking you personally (or perhaps a family member or close friend) with a knife and an attacker who is stabbing a stranger is that we don’t normally have the immediate protection instinct kick in, that evolutionary drive to protect those to whom we are emotionally bonded and whose genes we want to be passed on. This is probably a factor in the results of the heuristics our brains use to process threats which would make us likely to avoid the threat by not triggering the threatening animal to see us as a threat and attack us.
Fighting for a stranger when we have had a moment to think is a different kind of fighting; it is a choice to risk our lives rather than an instinct to preserve our lives. This choice to fight when it is not necessary to our survival and does not gain us additional social status at low risk (as in professional fighting) is not one that we make easily. In order to react this way, we need to be habituated to fighting by choice and understand our fighting capabilities.
The folks who are more likely to be habituated to it are boxers, martial artists, law enforcement officers, and those with a military background. Even just growing up in a dangerous neighborhood can force a person to develop a habit of choosing to fight. Without the built up habit of choosing to fight, it is very unlikely that we would be ready to fight for a stranger against a knife-wielding robber. And whether we had the habit of choosing to fight or not, we would have to be motivated by something other than pure evolutionary instinct. That motivation might be a sense of manly duty, and that’s fine as far as it goes.
Ideally, though, we would be selfless enough to view even the stranger with sufficient compassion that we would be willing to risk ourselves for their good. If we would choose to fight, then let us learn to fight for the right reasons. The most moral fighter is the rare selfless fighter who manages to transcend the chains of evolutionary logic and fight for the stranger as if they were a brother or sister. I sincerely hope that those of us who are capable of fighting grow to be able to fight in that most noble way, recognizing the truth that our brothers and sisters and the stranger are of equal value and that it is worth fighting for each one.