Goode sees prestige, wealth,
and power as the three bases for class systems and for social control,
i.e., of people over each other. ("Heroism" appears only twice in index.)
Two major patterns are widely observed in human and nonhuman society. First, performance above the average becomes increasingly difficult to improve with each upward step even if the reward is great; consequently the number who can or will achieve such higher levels drops off sharply. Second, if a substantial number of people are engaged in the activity (because the rewards in influence, money, or prestige are high), there are, nevertheless, likely to be some peformers at the top level, separated by small differences, but not typically one person who is unequivocally superior to all the rest.
(LE: Except for the hero!)
... few wars have continued for long when the entire population is engaged in them without people reducing their praise for military heroism (and thus eliciting less of it). At such phases, even modest factors may tip the balance toward a rejection of the war. For in that situation, as in the moral heroism of a religious sect, a large part of the population must carry the burden that heroism demands-spoliation of property, disfigurement, and death.
Some respect is paid for
heroism of almost every kind, even for going over Niagara Falls in a barrel;
but the greatest amount is given when an individual risks or loses his
or her life for the group or another person. Eulogies and poetry have echoed
this view through the ages. The highest military medals for bravery
in the United States and Great Britain, the Congressional Medal Honor and
the Victoria Cross, have often been given posthumously because the kind
and deed that earns them is likely to end in death. They are always given
for helping or saving others.
However, it is not the saving of others' lives that makes an act heroic. After all, physicians do that everyday, and so do drivers when they swerve to avoid a collision. Rather, the greater the potential loss (the risk of death) and the more successful the exploit, the greater the honor. An officer or a member of the upper classes has typically been given more esteem for risking his or her life for the group than have enlisted personnel or members of the lower classes^*since the lives of the former are viewed as worth more, they risk more. If a person rushes into a fire to save others' lives but is killed along with them, the self-sacrifice is accorded less honor (the effort was ineffective). If an individual has a high personal stake in saving another (her own baby, his new bride) the esteem is less. In this case the potential loss from attempting the rescue will be weighted against the alternative costs (in self-esteem and the respect of others) of not even trying. Thus, the net potential loss is not as great as it would be if the rescuer were not also pursuing his or her own needs.
It can be argued that here (as in the economic market) it is mainly through restricting supply that costs affect the honor paid (since it costs a great deal to make a Steinway grand piano or a Ferrari, supply will be limited to the few people who can pay a high price). We honor more those who risk their lives for others because the contribution may be crucial, and thus demand high; and because the supply of willing self-sacrifices is low. The argument is not entirely convincing, however, since the honor is paid mainly by those who derive little benefit from the heroism and whose demand for that particular act would seem to be somewhat modest. At least, it seems likely that the spontaneous feelings of respect are more direct than such a calculation implies.
Heroism is perceived, I believe, as an extraordinary free gift of the self, made with little thought of reward and with the knowledge that survival is chancy. To revert to the imagery of supply and demand, though supply may be somewhat low, the more important fact is that group demand is high-not simply the demand to save a life or win a skirmish, but the demand to preserve the group itself. Specifically, individuals feel their own needs and wishes to be so imperative that groups and societies expend much energy in persuading them that group needs should instead be given priority. This is not a preference that individuals would easily accept without pressure. Such a priority is however necessary if the group (and its advantages) are to survive. As a consequence, people in all societies are taught to pay respect to those who give much of themselves to group needs, whether that gift is a lifetime of community service or an act of self-sacrificing heroism.
Devotion to group goals, as against self-interest, may be common enough and its consequences large enough to be of practical importance in many groups or organizations. It has certainly played a large role in the success of revolutions. Heroism in either military actions or civilian life, however, has too small a practical effect to explain the great respect it arouses. One therefore looks for its symbolic meaning: It represents an extreme conformity with the ideal of putting group interests ahead of one's own, and asserts dramatically that the ideal is not mere rhetoric but lies within human capacities. Here, then, it appears that costs do figure significantly in calculating the justice of the prestige rewards the self-sacrifice gets.