Where have all the heroes gone? For gone they have, if we believe congressional medal of honour awards are a good proxy for heroism – such awards are scarcer in absolute terms, let alone proportional to the US population. Brock Blomberg, Gregory Hess, and Yaron Raviv think it’s all perfectly rational. (HT: Zubin Jelveh)
For an alternative perspective, check out Philip Zimbardo’s view on “the banality of heroism”. Zimbardo – yes, he of the Stanford Prison Experiment – argues:
It is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.
There is a little bit more here; frustratingly little. Zimbardo argues that people act heroically when unexpectedly called to do so – “I only did what anyone would have done in the situation” – if they have mentally rehearsed acts of heroism. Not everyone does this, and not everyone does “what anyone would have done”.