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?