Waffle House shooting saviour: ‘I’m no hero’

Survivor: James Shaw Jr suffered burns and a gunshot wound to the elbow during the attack.

Is self-interest a virtue? America’s latest mass shooting has left four people dead. But worse tragedy was averted after James Shaw Jr tackled the killer. He says he was just being “selfish”.

“I want people to know that I did that completely out of a selfish act. I was completely doing it just to save myself... I did save other people, but I don’t want people to think I was the Terminator or Superman or anybody like that”

These are the extraordinary words of James Shaw Jr, spoken hours after he wrestled a gun from a mass killer, saving many lives in the process.

At 03:19am local time on Sunday, Travis Reinking pulled up to a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee. For a few minutes he sat and stared at the diners. Then he attacked, shooting two people outside before opening fire in the restaurant.

Shaw heard the shots and took cover in a bathroom. As Reinking paused, Shaw sprang. He rushed the gunman, wrenched the weapon from his hands and threw it over the counter.

The attacker immediately fled, leaving four innocent people dead in his wake. Without Shaw, it could have been much worse; police spokesman Don Aaron praising his “heroic actions”.

Yet this is a label Shaw refuses: “I am not a hero,” he said. “I didn’t really fight that man to save everybody else… I took the gun so I could get myself out.”

While the massacre will inflame America’s gun control debate, Shaw’s striking comments also touch on an issue that has taxed philosophers for generations: the role self-interest plays in morality.

For example, in The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand argues that self-interest is the best guiding moral principle. Altruism (prioritising the well-being of others) she rejects, saying it teaches a person “not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it”.

Some emphasise how individual selfishness can actually benefit others too. For example, a parent who prioritises their own well-being will have enough energy to effectively care for their children.

In spite of this, self-sacrifice is often exalted as the highest moral good — from the story of Jesus Christ, to the humble French policeman Arnaud Beltrame — murdered by a terrorist last month after voluntarily swapping places with a hostage.

Is self-interest a virtue?

Do-gooders

No, our moral obligations must be to others, some argue. While Shaw intended to save himself, his actions became more morally good precisely because they saved the lives of people around him. Acting in self-interest is reasonable, but doing things that help others elevates humans to a higher moral position.

Self-interest is better for all in the long run, some respond. Humans know their own needs intimately, but can misread those of others. Therefore, meddling attempts to “do good” can make things worse. If everyone pursued their own interests, the overall well-being of society would rise automatically. It’s not bad to be selfish.

You Decide

  1. Is Shaw a hero?
  2. Is it moral to be selfish?

Activities

  1. James Shaw Jr described himself as “selfish” — a word often used to describe people negatively. Are there times when it is good to be selfish? Could selfishness be classified as a virtue? Share your ideas with the class.
  2. Using the Become An Expert section to start you off, research Ayn Rand’s philosophy of “selfishness”. Then look into the ideas of Auguste Comte — a french philosopher often credited with coining the term “altruism”. They propose radically different views on what constitutes morality. Who do you agree with more?

Some People Say...

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

Richard Dawkins

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Gunman Travis Reinking had multiple brushes with the law before the Waffle House shooting. Last year he was arrested by the US Secret Service after trespassing near the grounds of the White House, saying he wanted to meet President Donald Trump. After this incident police removed four guns from his home. However, Reinking got hold of them again after police returned the weapons to his father.
What do we not know?
The killer’s motive. County Sheriff Robert Huston claimed there was evidence of “some sort of mental health issues involved”. For example, last year Reinking contacted police reporting that 20 to 30 people were hacking into his phone and computer. He also claimed he was being stalked by pop star Taylor Swift.

Word Watch

Weapon
The shooter was using an AR-15, a controversial weapon due to its use in other mass shootings.
People
The victims were Taurean C. Sanderlin, Joe R. Perez, Akilah DaSilva, and DeEbony Groves. All were in their 20s.
Gun control
One controversial aspect of the case is that police had previously confiscated the attacker’s guns following a past incident. However, they later returned them to his father, who gave them back to the killer.
Ayn Rand
Russian-American novelist and philosopher (1905-1982).
Arnaud Beltrame
To find out more about his extraordinary actions, see Become An Expert.
They saved
This is a consequentialist view of ethics, meaning that the morality of an action is determined by the good it achieves. Some moral philosophers such as Immanuel Kant take a deontological view of ethics. This means that morality is intrinsic to the act itself, not its outcomes.
Automatically
This idea was famously applied to economics by Adam Smith and his notion of the “invisible hand”.

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