EVERYBODY is just about himself or herself. God help us all. God help us all.”
The quotation above came in the nick of time, as if by divine design, for our discourse today. It came at the end of a troubling video which a young man had shot in Lagos. The video was sent to me by a respected family friend who had also sent to me the video of the young lady who security officials had robbed of her N10,000 ATM withdrawals, which I used as illustration last week.
This new video was narrated by a visibly shaken young man who made it known that he was in emotional pain, having witnessed a morally callous occurrence. The scene was on Yaba road, Lagos. The young man, with bushy hair, had gone out to buy hand gloves for his barber to use for his haircut. On his way back, he ran into traffic. As he drove to the source of the traffic, he saw a young woman slump back inside her car. He approached the car with his gloves. He also gave gloves to some other onlookers willing to help. He noticed that the woman had used up two inhalers. She was apparently asthmatic and in crisis.
As the Good Nigerians worried about the woman, an ambulance approached. They were relieved that help had arrived, and they flagged it down. But the driver would not stop. Desperate, some of them jumped in front of the ambulance. But still the driver tried to move pass them. An older woman in red approached the driver, begging him. He did not appear to care. Another young man requested those with camera to take his picture. And you could hear the driver defiantly asking: “so what if you take my picture?”
The young narrator also alleged that some physicians drove by with stethoscopes hanging on their back mirror. None of them stopped. And, perhaps, no surprise to many in the populace, he added that it was only when the older woman, a complete stranger to the woman in need, offered some money to the ambulance driver did he agree to help. What he finally did was unclear. I assume he probably agreed to take the woman to the emergency room. The young man ended his narration with a bit of tongue lashing for us all.
Now, let us try to think through the case in hand. Were there any excuses on the part of the ambulance driver that could offer mitigating considerations? Could there be anything that was beyond his control in that situation which justified his conduct? Was he, for instance, on a call to another emergency? Doubtful. He could have offered that explanation on the spot. Was he on an errand? What errand could have excused him from offering help to a dying human being? Was he afraid hospitals would not take the case from him? Perhaps. It has happened on several cases that “Good Samaritans” ran into trouble with our medical system. But in this case, it couldn’t have been an excuse because this was an official state ambulance established for a purpose like this. And the fact that when money was offered to him, he did what he should have done, suggests a self-regarding motive. This is one sad fact about the ugly situation.
Last week, when I raised the question “Who will save us from ourselves?” it did not occur to me that within the week I would be confronted with such a clear illustration of the hopelessness of our condition as a portion of the human race in this part of the world. Our young man, so psychologically distressed by what he witnessed, asked a further question: “Is this what we have come down to?” In other words, is this what our humanity really means?
Fortunately, we have an answer for him, which he and his fellow human beings on the scene clearly demonstrated. No, the behavior of the official ambulance driver did not, and will not, represent humanity. And the fact that the young man, the older woman, and other folks at the scene showed such a compassion and empathy for a fellow human being in distress, was enough to reassure us that humanity will survive if the morally conscious, even if they are in the minority, do not give up.
Now, the question: “who will save us from ourselves?” beckons for an answer. But before we attempt the semblance of an answer, we need to break the question itself further down. What, for instance, is the object in reference? Who is “us” and “ourselves”? From the discussion last week, it appeared that my interest was in the sub-set of humanity that is domiciled in this part of the world. But I also had in mind the human race in its entirety.
With reference to the human race, it is clearly true that we faced a present danger even prior to the assault of the global pandemic. In the race for economic ascendancy, and its attendant greed and possessive individualism, we have jettisoned the moral imperative of moderation in our stewardship of the environment. With super powers asserting nationalist and populist prerogatives and following through with devastating policies, who will save humanity from this human greed that portends human disaster?
We could appeal to the human tendency to exploit religion and spirituality and suggest that the creator will save humanity because he is a loving God. That route has a soothing effect. But we deceive ourselves if we thought that without lifting our fingers, the manna of our survival of the coming danger will fall from heaven. Heaven, they say, helps those who help themselves. And should aliens truly exist in other planets, can we realistically depend on them for help, when it is more than likely that they are our rivals?
Some four centuries ago, some philosophers, thinking about the challenge of governance, came up with various versions of the theory of social contract. Central to their assumption for that theory, were two beliefs. First, none but humans would have to solve human problems. Second, there are copious resources internally available to humanity to solve its problems. Principal among such resources is human rationality. Based on this property, they suggested that humans will form a compact of association to prevent the state of nature degenerating into a state of war. This was their way of morally justifying the state.
We have the same resource and it has also been put to use in several instances, from the formation of the United Nations to the adoption of Universal Human Rights, to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Only humanity can save itself from imminent disaster provided irrational selfishness doesn’t predominate.
What about the portion of human race in this clime of ours? Who will save us from ourselves? The episode that I opened this discourse with is not an outlier. It is typical of our common experience across the nation. When it is not motivated by ethnic or sectarian animosity, it is the product of egoistic exploitation of the poor and marginalized. Not unsurprisingly, these category of the citizenry are even more at risk of neglect and abuse by their peers.
We can appeal to the same common property of rationality to deal with this issue. Assume, for instance, that there was a change of positions and the ambulance driver was on the receiving side of his own conduct. How would he feel? Or what if we have a generalised act of unconcern for the distress of everyone in a health emergency situation, so that no one comes to the aid of anyone dying. How about a generalised act of kidnapping in which everyone organizes themselves into gangs of kidnappers? Of course, in such settings, society will be worse for everyone. Therefore, if it would be intolerable for all if everyone does it, it follows that it is wrong for anyone to do it. This same principle goes for any conduct that has social consequences. It is the principle we need to adopt to save us from ourselves.