Altruism – a ‘timed’ trait?

In a recent article in the New York Times, a study published in the PNAS was discussed, that looked closely at altruistic behavior in the face of a catastrophe. The events in question were the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and of the Lusitania in 1915. The former sank in the course of three hours while the latter only needed 18 minutes. The outcome of the study was that on the Titanic, more women and children were saved while on the Lusitania more men were saved. So, on the Titanic the ‘women and children first’ was heeded. The conclusion seems to be, that altruistic behavior has something to do with time. Nietzsche claimed that altruistic behavior is only performed by people who continually devaluate themselves and he attacked the behavior. In Christianity altruism plays a fundamental role as one of the cornerstones of the religion. Richard Dawkins says that human beings that display altruism are essentially much too nice in order to be real Darwinians, since in that sense the fitness of the altruistic creature decreases.
It is clear that altruism is not necessary behavior for human beings, but since we do act altruistically, the question as to how much time we need for that is important. If I have to time to think about my actions, then I might be inclined to put another persons well-being before my own. But is that really the case? Many people who have helped or saved others say that it was a split-second moment and almost no conscious decision at all but an urge to do something to reverse a potentially life-threatening situation.

Related Articles:
Recent Work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne, Florida State University
Vol. 3, December 2008
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The Experience of Time and Change
By Barry Dainton, University of Liverpool
Vol.3, June 2008
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Author: the medical philosopher

I am a philosopher of science with the main focus on philosophy of medicine. I write about evidence based medicine, medical research versus medical practice, ethics in medicine and why medicine needs to be patient centred and how we can achieve that.

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