While we play a variety of "games" in our life, they are all dependent on a single game that we play from conception right up until shortly after our last breath. It's a game we must inevitably lose – the game of survival.
It is possible to take the idea of survival one step further than our own physical survival and consider the survival of our legacy (what I will term legacy survival, to distinguish it from physical survival). Note that legacy survival relies on us having sufficient physical survival in the temporal sense – if we die before cementing a legacy, then any potential legacy dies with us. Legacy survival does not imply that we ourselves have continuing involvement after death, although our descendants or other agents may act on our behalf, but instead it should be understood that the ramifications of our actions in life may continue to be felt for a considerable time after we have retired from the playing arena.
The importance of physical survival is something which we generally feel quite keenly. We will fight for physical survival in situations in which it seems nonsensical. People who have lost the ability to move any part of their body other than their eyes will signal that they nevertheless wish to live. People fight for survival despite horrible pain and scarring after suffering terrible burns. Those with life will go to extreme lengths to preserve it with some animals even chewing off their own limbs to escape a trap or other entanglement. Not having such strong jaws, humans will nevertheless also go to similar extremes, such as in the case of Aron Ralston who severed his right arm with a pocket-knife in order to free himself when he found himself pinned by a boulder with little chance of rescue.
That said, humans and animals will sometimes deliberately put themselves in situations in which they will almost certainly die. In most cases, it can be shown that these are acts of legacy protection rather than of self-destruction, and when they are acts of self-destruction they are driven by an awareness (or perception) that a temporary extension of survival would bring with it more suffering than is bearable. Natural examples of where legacy protection concerns supersede those of physical survival include risking death to protect one's young (such as when wild pigs will divert attention from a litter by breaking cover and enticing away a predator), risking death in the act of mating (such as with the mantis, the female of which will often try to eat the dismounting male) and dying to feed progeny (such as with the female Stegodyphuslineatus which is eaten by its young). In humans, however, legacy protection can be more complex and symbolic. Ensuring that a child is educated so as to have a better chance of not only survival but wealth and success in adulthood, ensuring that a company thrives and ensuring one's good name is maintained are all examples of efforts to promote legacy survival.
In humans, even symbolic legacy survival, as distinct from survival of one's genetic legacy, can be perceived as more important than physical survival. This is not to say that physical survival is actually unimportant, merely that in a psychological sense we may consider the conception that we have of ourselves as being more important than our physical embodiment. Our perception tends to be such that our body is where the phenomenon of being takes place, and therefore while our body is an important part of our being, it is not perceived as being the totality of our being. And, to the extent that we are social animals, our sense of being is interwoven with our place within a community.
In some cases, we reify our sense of being more than our physical bodies and our conception of self into a soul and then imbue it with immortality. When we do so, our legacy survival efforts can be expressed as an array of efforts to protect this immortal soul. While the reality of a soul may be questioned, the psychology of someone who believes in such things will be largely unaffected by the doubts of others and efforts to preserve the good standing of one’s soul generally seem indistinguishable from efforts to maintain one’s good name.
The bottom line is that, quite often, it should come as no surprise that humans will occasionally sacrifice physical survival for legacy survival, whether that be survival of their progeny, their reputations or their souls.
This article is one of a series. It was preceded by Towards a Rational Origin of Ethical Structures and will be followed by Morality as Playing Games. It all started with the first prelude, Saving the Dog.