Last week, David Beckham stopped to help someone push a broken-down car to the side of the road. We know this because the incident was treated as news, and the famous footballer was appropriately dubbed a Good Samaritan for doing it. Cynics might say that the media treat as news anything done by celebrities, whether good or bad. True enough; but the incident has also prompted the inevitable debate about contemporary morals and mores, principally on the subject of how much rarer such acts of Good-Samaritanism have become.
But the question is: is it really true that such acts are now rarer than formerly? The answer is an emphatic no. Every day of the week, in every community everywhere, the vast majority of human interactions involve co-operation, civility, mutuality, the keeping of promises, and a normal readiness to give assistance; and many of these interactions are further characterised by kindness, consideration and pleasantness. Sometimes, as with the original Good Samaritan, the kindness is extended to one who is not a natural ally, but whose human need is greater than any ideological difference between the two parties. The lack of kindness is what surprises and upsets us; its presence is commonplace.
Think of the treatment you usually receive in any shop, in any encounter with a stranger coming out of a door as you go in, in any doctor's surgery, among other parents at the entrance to your child's school, in queuing at the supermarket checkout, in buying a pint at the pub – and ask yourself what they are like. The truth is that we take the ordinary friendliness and cooperation of others so much for granted that we forget it is the norm of our lives; we likewise forget the reason newspapers are full of stories about conflict, crime, quarrels, problems and outrages is that these are newsworthy precisely because they are, relatively speaking, rare.
There is a simple reason why every generation thinks its own time is less moral and civil than earlier times. It is that our adult experience of life really is less ordered and safe than (for most of us) our childhood experience was; and, moreover, our parents kept telling us that their past was even better than our comfortable childhood world. Thus arises the myth of warmer summers and more cosy times gone by. Cricket on the village green, the cheerful postman on his rounds and the friendly policeman on his beat: they populate these visions of a better but lost world.
Myth this certainly is, because, with the exception of intense periods of upheaval and difficulty that all societies can face, the norm of human existence is a co-operative one because – and this is the key reason – we are an essentially social species. We live together in complex communities, and sociality and community only function if the vast majority of interactions are mutually positive ones. The great majority of us, for almost all the time we spend dealing with others, take responsibility for ensuring that social interactions work well enough, and accept the obligation to reciprocate and respond appropriately to others. All this is completely standard.
As a result, buses run, the sewage and electricity systems function, people get to work on time and, for the most part, do the jobs they are meant to do. We notice when things go wrong; we do not take much notice when, as is far more often the case, they go right. But if we reflect on why they go right, we see that it is because people keep their promises and do what is expected of them. To do that, they must co-operate, they must avoid or limit conflict, they must observe quite high standards of civility. And that is exactly what happens.
In fact, there is much more than this: genuine mutual kindness is a norm too. William Hazlitt, the great essayist of our language, tells the story of a walking tour he took with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Somerset, and of how they stopped at a fishing village where in a storm the previous night a boy had drowned. The fishermen told the two men how they tried to save the boy; when Coleridge asked why they had risked their own lives, one of them replied:
"Sir, we have a nature towards one another."
This beautifully captures a truth about humans as social animals. If you saw a pile of bricks just about to fall from a wall on to a stranger's head, you would instinctively shout a warning; you would not stop to consider whether or not to do it. This is the "nature towards one another" that the fisherman meant. You see it in small children in kindergarten, oblivious to any differences of race, creed or colour among them. It takes a lot of hard work to persuade people, as they grow up, that because of politics, religion, ethnicity, tribe or language, there are serious differences at stake and that the "other" should accordingly be viewed with suspicion. Alas, some people seem to undertake this task with dedication. But even then, Good Samaritans ignore the boundaries they put up.
Sociologists, anthropologists and historians will harp on the innate tribalism of human beings, and point to rival football fans, to nationalism (actually, a historically recent and unhappy invention of human folly), and to the greed, selfishness and cruelty of which humans are capable. This latter is certainly true, and history groans with the examples of bitter rivalries and great cruelties that besmirch it. But even when one adds up all the wars and horrors, they do not outweigh the millions of daily acts of mutuality that sustain the ordinary social bonds of human communities. They do not because they cannot; the very existence of human communities is premised on the fact of ordinary, everyday, low-key Good Samaritanism.
Moral panics in society arise when a severe one-off interruption occurs in these normal co-operative arrangements. The murder of a child, an atrocity in which a gunman shoots a number of people in a school, a major public scandal, unsettle us because they challenge our collective sense of an ethical order. People immediately begin to think that everything has gone to the dogs. But the truth is that bad and even evil things have always happened on occasions, even on a massive scale, as with the attempted genocide of European Jewry in the 1940s. Past times might have seen more bad things than now, quite possibly, just because societies were less well organised; but they too would mainly and mostly have been places where ordinary everyday goodness was the norm. They could not have survived otherwise.
This view might seem too rosy to some. But it is not based on an over- optimistic view of human nature. A realistic view of human nature recognises it as an alloy, and there are always serious questions each of us can ask of ourselves: would we have been brave on the front line in battle? Would we have resisted the instruction to murder Jews if we had been German soldiers in the 1940s? How do we know how we would behave in extreme circumstances? Few of us could confidently guarantee that we would be as virtuous in the safety of our armchairs as we would like to hope. But equally, most of us know that the majority of our interactions with our fellows will be reasonably polite and helpful; and that if we saw someone in need and we were in a position to help, we would.
Not everyone would stop to help push a car off a road, though. In this over-hurried high-speed world, rushing by on an A-road is too easy, and we know that there are other things a stuck motorist can do: phone the AA, or perhaps a police patrol will come by. If you were passing by with a horse and cart you would certainly stop; at that pace of life human interaction is inevitable, and you would have to be a very unkind individual not to stop. But at the speed of a car, in such circumstances stopping is the hard thing, not the obvious thing, to do. So I think Mr Beckham deserves his Good Samaritan label, and I hope the rest of us will follow his example if similarly placed, even though we will not get into the newspapers for doing so.Reuse content