A question of altruism

Discussion in 'General Military Arms & History Forum' started by Pistolenschutze, Feb 25, 2007.

  1. Just for fun, I thought some of you might enjoy tackling this question I put together this morning. Though my philosophy students won't know it until next week, it is one of the questions they will be required to answer for the mid-term exam. :D

  2. pawn

    pawn New Member

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    This is probably a question of altruism vs duty. To me, these are not necessarily mutally exclusive. Private Young demonstrated altruism in the course of performing his duty. He understood the needs of the many outweight the needs of the few.... although wounded multiple times he continued to advance, killed his enemies and lost his own life in defense of his platoon.

    -pawn
  3. click

    click New Member

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    Pistol, who could truly say what motivates a man and his actions at the time and place at which they occur? I would like to remember our entire country as being an altruistic one at the time of WWII . Pvt. Young would be extension of that wonderful period in time of this great nation, making the ultimate sacrifice! The Medal of Honor is sadly & richly deserved! I may be a bit cynical in my later years, but i have yet to hear of anyone recently throwing himself on the proverbial grenade for the sake of all others.:( If i am wrong, please tell me as i would consider it a favor and not a criticism. I would like to go on believing there is still more good in our nation than our friends in the media and elsewhere would lead us to believe! Peace out!;)
  4. Pawn and Click, thank you both for your answers; I enjoyed reading them. I purposely wrote this question so that there is no "right" or "wrong" answer. What I look for from the students in my course is the ability to reason out their responses logically and convincingly; that's part of what philosophy is in my view. The issue of altruistic behavior in humans--behavior for which one expects absolutely no gain of any sort for himself--is a topic we debate extensively in class after I present a number of differing philosophical views on the subject. Needless to say, the debate often gets lively! ;) That is, of course, precisely what I wish my student to do: think and exchange ideas. There are those philosophers--I am not among them--who believe sincere altruistic behavior is simply impossible among humans, that we always have some intention of gaining something from everything we do, even if it is only fleeting "glory." My own view is that Young did act altruistically, that he was not seeking medals or glory, or fame, but simply made a courageous and selfless sacrifice in order to save those around him. There is much more courage in the human soul that many wish to believe.
  5. DWARREN123

    DWARREN123 New Member

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    He was protecting his squad mates which can sometimes be more than blood relations.
  6. Xracer

    Xracer *TFF Admin Staff Mediator*

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    Minn-eeee-sota, ya, sure, you bet!
    I agree with DWarren.....I've heard it said so many times from combat veterans (including a Medal of Honor winner*), that they fought, not from patriotism or for any grand idea, but for their buddies....the guys to the right and left of them.....

    I think the song "Roger Young" says it best.....

    "On the island of New Georgia in the Solomons
    Lies a simple wooden cross alone to tell....
    That beneath the silent coral of the Solomons,
    Lies a man, lies a man remembered well....

    Lies a man, Roger Young....
    fought and died for the men he marched among...

    That in all the glorious annals of the Infantry,
    Shines the name, shines the name of Roger Young."



    *JOHNSTON, WILLIAM J.
    Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company G, 180th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Padiglione, Italy, 1719 February 1944. Entered service at: Colchester, Conn. Birth: Trenton, N.J. G.O. No.: 73, 6 September 1944. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. On 17 February 1944, near Padiglione, Italy, he observed and fired upon an attacking force of approximately 80 Germans, causing at least 25 casualties and forcing withdrawal of the remainder. All that day he manned his gun without relief, subject to mortar, artillery, and sniper fire. Two Germans individually worked so close to his position that his machinegun was ineffective, whereupon he killed 1 with his pistol, the second with a rifle taken from another soldier. When a rifleman protecting his gun position was killed by a sniper, he immediately moved the body and relocated the machinegun in that spot in order to obtain a better field of fire. He volunteered to cover the platoon's withdrawal and was the last man to leave that night. In his new position he maintained an all-night vigil, the next day causing 7 German casualties. On the afternoon of the 18th, the organization on the left flank having been forced to withdraw, he again covered the withdrawal of his own organization. Shortly thereafter, he was seriously wounded over the heart, and a passing soldier saw him trying to crawl up the embankment. The soldier aided him to resume his position behind the machinegun which was soon heard in action for about 10 minutes. Though reported killed, Pfc. Johnston was seen returning to the American lines on the morning of 19 February slowly and painfully working his way back from his overrun position through enemy lines. He gave valuable information of new enemy dispositions. His heroic determination to destroy the enemy and his disregard of his own safety aided immeasurably in halting a strong enemy attack, caused an enormous amount of enemy casualties, and so inspired his fellow soldiers that they fought for and held a vitally important position against greatly superior forces.

    P.S. "Johnny" Johnston was a personal friend of mine, and we served on the Colchester Board of Burgesses (Town Council) together.
  7. I agree, DW, but perhaps the more salient question is why he felt compelled to do that. What was his true motive, what made him take that action? It seems clear he knew that attacking the pillbox would cost him his life, yet he acted anyway. If he acted from true selflessness, and I think he did, then altruism stands proven.
  8. Marlin

    Marlin *TFF Admin Staff Chief Counselor*

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    Many persons who have committed selfless acts such as this do so with little or no conscious thought of or weighing consequences.

    Rather, in the heat of the moment, they simply act upon an unknown subconscious motive that may arise from their training, upbringing and/or likely religious training. I hate to oversimplify the act, but it could be just a rote reaction to the instant circumstances, a large part being to protect himself and his buddies. For want of a better term, self-preservation kicks in.....

    Please understand, I am in no way trying to minimize the circumstances or the act. In any way that one might interpret the case, I agree that altruism was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
  9. Indeed true, Marlin. Courage is far more common than most people believe. I would argue that courageous actions in combat, more often than not, are spontaneous. One simply acts without thinking on the conscious level. But, as you point out, I believe much of that action unconsciously stems from a foundation deep within the person. Granted, training is part of that, but it is by no means all.
  10. JohnK3

    JohnK3 New Member

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    The actions of Roger Young so impressed a noted libertarian science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, that he named the troop ship that carried the hero in Starship Troopers after Pfc Young.

    "To the everlasting glory of the infantry,
    shines the name, shines the name of Roger Young!"


    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. -- John 15:13
  11. Indeed he did, John, in his novel, Starship Troopers, one of my very most favorite stories. In fact, that is where I got the idea of using Young's action as the basis of the question. I've been a Heinlein fan since I was a kid of about 10. :D
  12. clmanges

    clmanges New Member

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    Wow, you too, huh?
    I look at it this way . . . if the main motivation was to escape fire from the pillbox, why would Young not simply encourage his platoon mates to dig in and take better cover while awaiting other support? To me, his attack shows that he may have had a greater scope of his action in mind, if only subconsciously, perhaps a larger tactical understanding of how the pillbox was important to the further advancement of other troops to follow.
    However, there are some important elements missing from this description of the event. Was Young simply responding to an officer's direct order ("Young, get up there and take out that emplacement")? Did he volunteer for the assignment when an officer asked for volunteers? Did he simply take on the task without any specific orders at all? The details of these circumstances would shed some important light on the issue.
    That said, it can't be denied that his act is one of a person who has clearly decided that his own near-certain death was less imortant than the potential benefits that others would gain by his possible success. And we can't know what level he put that on, whether he was thinking of his family back home, or of his platoon mates, the strategy, or the entire war effort. We can only be grateful to him and others like him.
  13. SF Mike

    SF Mike New Member

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    I don't think Roger Young was thinking about anything.
    You talk to some of the guys involved in long serious Pacific toe-to-toe combat, they say the feelings of personal survival involve "when, not if" you're going to get it.
    I think the minute was there and he got caught up in it.
    I did two combat tours with SF in Vietnam and saw that close combat brings out a lot of different things in people.
    I think Young got so focussed and caught up with the events at hand that reason did not not play any part.
    I knew a guy who kept going back for wounded when his operation had been routed.
    He kept fighting after he ran out of ammo.
    He was given a chance to surrender, but kept swinging.
    The NVA shot him. His family got the MOH posthumously.
    I knew the guy, he was not a maniac. I believe he was overcome by the moment and not entirely in control.
    Close is violent and dirty, painful, and terrifying. A bunch of flowery commentary on motivation and nobility is pointless babble.
  14. At least the discussion is on a positive and intellectual level, Mike, unlike much of what you post. I strongly suggest that if you do not like the topic, don't comment.
  15. SF Mike

    SF Mike New Member

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    Free country, pal.
    Unless you want to kick me out of your sandbox, keep your suggestions to yourself.
    Some of us got out and got dirty. Some, with embellished experiences and inflated views of self are threatened by that.
    Definition of a forum involves discussion.
  16. Expression of your views is one thing, Mike, stooping to personal inuendo and insult in the process is quite another. The former is well within the rules of TFF, the latter most certainly is not.

    Since I am involved in this dispute directly, I choose to take no action here myself. I feel a moderator should make decisions based on objectivity, and in this case that would clearly not be possible. I will therefore leave that decision to others. For the record, however, I consider your remarks both insolent and personally insulting.
  17. clmanges

    clmanges New Member

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    I agree.
    Another forum I visit has a system to deal with offensive posters. When someone gets out of line, the mods issue them a "pip," which shows up on the page below their avatar. Five pips and you're kicked off for some while, six months, I think. This forum may not have such a feature, and up until now, I haven't seen the need for one, but it's an idea worth considering. Too bad it's happened here, but some kind of sanction is in order in this case.
  18. armedandsafe

    armedandsafe Guest

    It might, indeed, be pointless babble to you. However, to those of us who have been involved in such, and can still think clearly, the lessons to be learned from such actions are not pointless. Nor is teaching our next generation that community action is often necessary and, sometimes, enobling, just babble.

    My life was saved by a gentleman who smothered a Bouncing Betty. I feel he was a noble man. Your denigrating his action will not change my opinion of him.

    Pops
  19. Now, where we before an excellent and most interesting discussion was so rudely interrupted by arrant drivel? :D Oh yes, the issue was altruism . . .

    Cl, your analysis is a most excellent one in my opinion, and the issues you raise indeed relevant. It does appear certain from record that he was not under orders to undertake his assault on the pillbox, thus it would seem that upholding his duty to obey orders could not logically have been a factor in his decision. Obviously then, that leaves us right back where we started. We can never know with certainty exactly what did go through the mind of Pvt. Young that day in terms of his immediate motivation. Was his response merely automatic, based on training? That seems at least possible, yet it would imply that humans are mere automatons under combat stress and not thinking, emotionally motivated beings--in other words, that conditioning always prevails over reason. I find that hard to accept. It therefore seems quite reasonable that the simplest explanation--true altruism, the protection of lives more important to him than even his own survival--cannot be ignored as his most likely motivation.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 28, 2007
  20. clmanges

    clmanges New Member

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    So do I. It seems to me that an automatic, unthinking response would not allow for moment-to-moment adjustments to a person's choice of action. Humans are very adaptable to immediate situations, and training alone can't cover every possible situation.
    At risk of getting a little bit off the issue, this leads me to think that a training regimen might be best designed if it includes some concepts of what may be termed meta-tactics, generalized guides such as how to look for cover, how to look for the enemy's weak spots, etc., beyond mere technique. I have no military experience, myself, so I don't know if this is already incorporated in the training, especially at basic level. I'm sure that this is covered in more specialized levels of training, such as for Rangers, Seals, etc.
    Anyway, back to the topic, I have read a little bit about the field of Evolutionary Psychology, and in among there are findings that altruism does exist. It was contested by those who felt that any organism had self survival as its first priority, but the EP theorists contend that an individual has the capacity for self-sacrifice when it would benefit the species as a whole.

    There may have been other things going through Pvt. Young's mind as well. The possiblities are endless, of course, but suppose that his drill sargeant in boot camp had endlessly berated him as a no-good. Throwing his last grenade, Young may have thought, "Here, Sarge, this is for you!" Not very altruistic, but it might have been a motive.
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