Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Volunteer firefighters are prime examples of altruism. A study in Vermont found that "service to others" was far and away the main motivation for volunteering for the serious responsibility, vital training, and dangerous work of putting out fires in rural communities. The second motivation, though, was what the researchers called "image," or what sociologists usually call status.
Some people think desiring status for good works undermines their goodness. Tocqueville, though, reminds us that American democracy works by mobilizing the citizens' sense of self interest - but self interest, rightly understood. And that right understanding is that when I serve the community, I am also serving myself. This does not undermine the virtue of serving the community. Rather, it puts that habit on a more reliable footing.
Status is a gift we give to others out of justice - a sense that they truly deserve it. We would hope that, in a just community, they would do the same for us, when we truly deserve it, too.
The Vermont study made ingenious use of one local fact - volunteer firefighters could buy a special license plate with an emblem marking their role. This was not needed to to their job. They often added lights and sirens to their vehicles to help clear their way to a fire. Rather, the license plates were pure status markers. And as such, they were good signals of civic virtue, which other people did honor.