Contrary to what most people believe, and even despite what they would give as an explanation for their benevolence, it is not a sense of responsibility that creates the culture of good will being show cased and celebrated in this commercial. If “responsibility” were the motivator for one’s benevolence – if a “responsible” person is willing to retrieve a bowl from a high shelf, or pick up a stranger’s luggage from a conveyor belt – why shouldn’t he go further? Why shouldn’t he leave his every day life and devote himself to helping consistently needy people who are in much more radically desperate situations in some far flung, undeveloped corner of the world? What is the principle which prevents him from carrying his “sense of responsibility” to it’s logical conclusion?
While the commercial asks the viewer to focus on the willingness to perform small courtesies for strangers as the trait common to each person featured, what is actually common to them is purpose, action, and vitality. One is dressed in business attire and, presumably, going to work. Two of them already are at work. Two more are shown later on to have occupations. The last presumably has a job because he is able to afford an automobile as well as airplane tickets. Each person is, primarily, concerned with himself. He is proudly self-sufficient. The ethical principle – whether consciously understood or merely subconsciously followed – which makes benevolence possible is selfishness.
At first glance, this is a paradox. How could people who are, on principle, selfish ever bring themselves to help others – and thereby violate their principle? The answer lies in a proper understanding of just what a principle is, and thus just what the principle of selfishness actually means. A principle is not a rule. “Responsibility” is a rule. It is an out of context injunction to be followed not voluntarily or because one’s judgment compels one to take a particular action, but to be followed in spite of one’s judgment simply out of fidelity to that rule. A principle, on the other hand, considers the context – so even though an action that on it’s face appears to be of one type, if the underlying facts support it, can actually be of an opposite type. This is the case with the selfish basis of benevolence, common courtesy, and a general good will towards others.
Here are the underlying facts:
Contrary to popular belief, those cultures who are explicitly “responsible” – where selflessness and self-sacrifice are held in paramount moral esteem – are in fact the least benevolent and courteous cultures. The reason for this is that an ethical doctrine dominated by self-sacrifice creates mutual contempt and suspicion amongst the population embracing it. They will still pay lip service to their love and concern for one another, but so long as they know that each person represents a potential claim upon their own life and happiness – that according to the rules of their doctrine they may be at any moment asked to give away everything to satisfy someone’s need (and that there is no principle to prevent it) – they will remain closed and suspicious. Why go out of one’s way to help perfect strangers when all that will do is show that one is a more vulnerable and less resistant target? The would-be benevolent person knows he is going to be taken advantage of. Besides, do people who think they are entitled to benevolence actually deserve it?
Conversely, those cultures where selfishness is explicitly the rule (or, at least, implicitly via it’s founding political documents) are the most benevolent – where people treat one another with the most good will and courtesy. In a society dominated by an ethic of selfishness, what causes people to be courteous to one another is a sense of the value that other people represent. By the mere fact that a person is out in society, active, seeking to make his own way, he represents a potential value to the person in a position to help him in his moment of need. The desire (as distinct from the willingness) to help him comes from a recognition of the fact that if someone appears to be at least minimally decent, then he deserves help – not because he needs it, but because who he is means he will pay it back; often with interest. In many contexts it is selfish to be “unselfish”!
Justice, not “responsibility”, is what it is properly called when people do the right thing.
[Update]: Here is another, newer (2011) from Liberty Mutual of the same theme. All of the comments above are applicable.