Helping Those in Trouble…Or Not.

November 30, 2011

Political Theory


Each year I spend Thanksgiving in Coon Creek, West Virginia, which, if you couldn’t tell from the name, is far away from civilization of any sort.  This, and probably the fact that I enjoy sleep, has prevented me from ever partaking in Black Friday, the new rising “holiday” of the United States.  However, this Thanksgiving, along with the stories of violent deaths from competitive shoppers, a different type of problem caught my eye.

William Vance, a 61-year old pharmacist, collapsed at a West Virginia Target on Black Friday, and shoppers, instead of helping him, simply stepped over him and continued shopping.  Vance died later that night; this article further describes the situation.  This simple act of ignoring a man in need of help greatly distressed me.  Under a structured state or commonwealth, people though self-interested, are able to show altruism, like Hobbes himself who did not like to see people in suffering, and gave money to a poor man because “I was in paine to consider the miserable condition of the old man; and now my almes, giving him some reliefe, doth also ease me” (John Aubrey, Brief Lives).  Granted, he helped others in need in order to alleviate the problem and to help himself.  Assuming that we believe people cannot be altruistic or charitable for purely good reasons, wouldn’t this very thought have stopped several individuals who also hate to see suffering from casually walking over the man?

Similarly, Toqueville also noted in Americans a sense of self-interest, in an enlightened sense, but he held that people could be altruistic.  He stated that Americans “show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another” (Democracy in America, Bk 2, Ch 8).  In this way, American shoppers might have helped Vance in order to later brag to others about their good deed for the day, versus the good deal they received.  However, Toqueville is skeptical of these reasons as he noted that they did the right thing in the situation, and made excuses for it as acting in their own interest.  Instead, maybe he believed there was compassion that ran within human beings that led them to these tendencies, much like Rousseau saw in the noble savage in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.  Several people did eventually help Vance by calling an ambulance, though it was not in time to save his life.  Yet, these individuals helped an individual who needed help and they could connect as humans to his suffering and worked to alleviate it.

Maybe it is the very state of nature-esque demeanor that Black Friday takes on during the year that prompts this type of behavior in people.  Self-interest is pre-eminent in the occurrences of the day, resulting in an every man out for himself situation focused on filling the space beneath their Christmas trees and filling out the rest of the stockings.  The greed for low-priced items may actually drive this state of nature, possibly due to the low-economy in which many families’ Christmas celebrations depend on the low savings they can find.  It seems as if on any other shopping day out of the year, when we are not subjected to this crazed shopping, that others would be more willing to help those in need.  How exactly, though, does our nation allow this state of nature to occur?  Where does the breakdown of our society occur in this situation?  Is it due to the media hype of the holiday?  Or is it due to the economy as I acknowledged before?  Maybe stores should have increased security or limit the number of people entering at a time in order to offset these occurrences, regardless of the money that they might lose.

While I hope that people are not always naturally bad and may have a good streak in them, was it the situation of Black Friday that kept people from moving to help Vance?  Or was it not in their self-interest to help a stranger suffering?  Would you have stopped to help him?

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About amgille

Graduate of The University of Michigan. Lover of cats, wine, cheese, and bagels.

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4 Comments on “Helping Those in Trouble…Or Not.”

  1. benhenri Says:

    First, I am saddened by the fact that few people chose to help William Vance, even though they saw him suffering. Unfortunately, however, I am not appalled. I think that people are innately self- interested. People will most likely not respond to a person, yelling “Help!,” but they will react to that person if they scream “Fire!” because it may impact them as well. Like Hobbes and Tocqueville, I think people, including myself, do definitely feel pride after helping someone in trouble. But, personally, I would feel more of emotional relief if I helped a person suffering. Hopefully, I would find myself helping this man. But, I do not know for sure because I think it depends on the situation as well as a person’s own character. However, since I am not such an avid shopper or very fashion-forward or technologically savvy or very economically frugal, I assume I would have assisted William Vance in Target on Black Friday. Lastly, I think that we, as humans, have always been innately self-interested. We are always interested in our own survival first. But, as our society becomes more consumer-driven, I think that we become even more self-interested. Not only are we interested in survival, we are now also interested in buying the latest technology and showing it off. In other words, today, our society is very much concerned with money. Our society is perpetuating showing off our personal resources and wealth as much as possible.

  2. maryblee Says:

    Black Friday definitely attracts a certain crowd, one that generally supports Hobbes theories on self-interest. The author brings up Hobbes example about giving money to a beggar because seeing him beg made Hobbes uncomfortable. It’s a great example, but it is slightly different. In Hobbes case he was just walking down the street, and Target, the shoppers were racing to snag that $2 TV or whatever. This pits the satisfaction of helping the man lying on the ground against the satisfaction of saving $300 on electronics. And unfortunately, in this case, saving huge amounts of money outweighed helping a suffering man. If Hobbes had been in the midst of a footrace against Locke for the title of best social contract theorist, would he still have stopped to give money to the beggar?

  3. Sydne Stacker Says:

    In response to your last 3 questions: 1. Unfortunately, I do think it is the situation of Black Friday that prevent people from helping Vance. 2. I don’t think that many people are consciously SO self-interested that they won’t lend a helping hand to an elder in need. 3. Of course I would help him, regardless of what day or “holiday” it is. I’m glad you wrote about Black Friday and the dangers that stem from it and shared it with us. Personally, I’ve never been Back Friday shopping either, probably because I like sleep also, and just never thought much of it. But, recently I was made aware that Black Friday can be pretty dangerous. I heard that in Grand Rapids someone had gotten stabbed, another held at gunpoint, and that a huge fight broke out amongst teens. I was extremely shocked at this news about the dangers of Black Friday, as I had never known or looked at it as a dangerous event. I was just really surprised at the extremes people have been known to go to specifically on Black Friday. Quite frankly, I don’t see why Black Friday shopping is a more dangerous event than any other day of shopping. Like yes, there are savings, but I really don’t understand how or why people are being victimized on this day more than others. My view is that just because it’s a significant day or “holiday” doesn’t justify people’s actions to act completely crazy and out of control. I think it’s ridiculous that if this danger phenomenon has been apparent on Black Friday that there aren’t a liable amount of police control and security at every store. People shouldn’t lose lives fighting over a TV for 200 dollars. People shouldn’t be stepping over a dying man just because they want to be the first to get to the cashier. This is completely unethical and this “holiday” clearly brings out the WORST in people, rather than the best. I pray for everyone who has suffered through what should be a harmless and FUN event. What a world we live in….

  4. emmaschneider11 Says:

    Wow, I honestly cannot believe that people aced that way and simply stepped over a dying man in order to get a good deal. If that doesn’t show how self-interested and uncaring people can be I don’t know what does. While Hobbes felt that we should help people because it will make us feel better and Tocqueville believe being altruistic allowed us to appear better people I feel that in some cases we should help people simply because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. At the very least you think people would have aided the man in order to not appear like assholes in front of everyone else, but hopefully people would have helped the man because they would feel completely immoral if they didn’t.

    I feel like this case shows the absolute worst in people. I am not sure if these shoppers were just hyped up or sleep deprived or what but I believe that most normal people would have helped the man. I know I could never just step over him to get to a deal. Maybe I am too optimistic about people but I hope this situation was the exception and people in general are more caring than this.

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