Why Some People Act Altruistically

IN THIS ISSUE DECEMBER 2009

Interview with Kristen Renwick Monroe
Author: Jair Robles

There are many examples of everyday altruism, but some of the most outstanding arise from extremely tragic events in human history. Examining these events and their participants can be a great source of empirical evidence for any researcher interested in providing a greater understanding of such behavior and developing new models of thought in social science.

Kristen Renwick Monroe has dedicated more than twenty years to research on altruistic behavior, interviewing rescuers of Jews during World War II in Europe. Her work has led to two award-winning books, The Heart of Altruism and The Hand of Compassion. She is Professor of Politics and Philosophy and Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality at the University of California at Irvine. Past President of the International Society of Political Psychology, Monroe also served as Vice-President of the American and the Midwest Political Science Associations.

She spoke with SuperConsciousness about her Theory of Ethical Perspective, developed in an effort to create a broader understanding of why some people act altruistically and how we can foster such behavior in the future.


SC: How did your interest in ethics and altruism begin?

KM: I think if you’re a human being, you’re interested in ethics, because ethics really deals with how we treat other people. That should be a central concern for every human, so I think that I have been interested in ethics in that sense my whole life. I got interested in altruism in the 1980s. I was trained as a mainstream political scientist, a political economist, and I worked in what’s called the rational choice tradition, which is the economic theory that assumes that if you want to understand how human beings operate, you should assume that people will try to do what’s best for them, given the opportunity, cost, and time.

I thought I’d look at altruism to see what that told me about the basic weakness and strengths of the rational actor theory. So, it was important for me, as an empirical political theorist, to know the limitations of one of our most basic theories about how people behave. After twenty years of working in the field, I think that theory is very widespread and has a great success because of its foundational assumption: People act to pursue their self-interest. But I don’t think that self-interest explains everything in human behavior, because human beings have needs for human communication, human closeness, that go far beyond anything that can be explained through a simple self-interested model. We don’t just need other people in order to help us cooperate in our individual enterprises. We need to be close to other people because part of what it means to be human is to have human connection.

SC: Do you think that, if these prevalent theories have certain limitations, those limited perspectives affect policy making?

KM: Absolutely. If you assume that the basic starting point for our models of public policy making would be the benefit-cost analysis, which is what every government and every business uses and which is based on rational actor theory, then according to the theory you look at the cost for an action, and you look at the benefits for you, and if the benefits outweigh the costs, you go ahead and you do it. If they don’t, then you don’t take that action. That’s one of the models that we’re applying to the healthcare debate right now, for example. They’re talking about how much it’s going to cost the government to do this kind of thing, and when you employ a model (which is a bad model empirically, remember, because that’s not how people actually behave), you’re going to end up with bad public policies based on assumptions that are not valid.

SC: If those models’ assumptions are wrong, is it because they do not conceive altruism as normal human behavior?

KM: Altruism is not the normal behavior; but it does exist and it does influence behavior some of the time. The selfinterest assumption is powerful precisely because there is so much validity to it. You can’t explain altruism using classic paradigms in economics or psychology; self-interest is the foundation of economics and egoism is the foundation of psychology. To explain altruism you have to use a different model. You need an identity model, and you have to think about what it is that people need as human beings, as individuals, to be happy. It’s a different way of looking at the world, not just a way of looking at it in the self-interested paradigm. When you do, you realize that altruism is an intrinsic part of human nature and so is self-interest. Both are important, and you have to try to understand how the two will work together, so that sometimes doing something for somebody else actually makes you feel better as a human being and sometimes you may act to further your own selfish interest. The whole paradigm where we juxtaposed altruism with self-interest is narrow. It keeps us trapped in a particular way of looking at life.

Let me give you an example. One group I have spent a lot of time with has been people who rescued Jews during World War II in Europe. These people were very interesting in a variety of ways. They were ordinary people in the sense that they weren’t heroic types, they were just like you and I. Demographically, there weren’t more men than women or more women than men; there were not more religious people. There would be some differences along some of these lines. But the critical variable seemed to be how they saw themselves in relation to other people, and when an altruist or rescuer looked at a stranger, they would just see another human being. They thought of themselves as people who were tied together, bonded together, to other people through the common humanity that we all shared. So the attitude that rescuers had towards other people – and ironically this included Nazis as well as Jews or allied airmen, or anybody else that they were saving – was that we’re all human beings. We’re all part of this together.

Altruism is an intrinsic part of human nature and so is self-interest. Both are important, and you have to try to understand how the two will work together, so that sometimes doing something for somebody else actually makes you feel better as a human being and sometimes you may act to further your own selfish interest.

Helping other people was where their happiness came from. There were lots of rescuers who could have sat out the war in safety. But they didn’t because that’s not the kind of people they were. I think we all have a lot more in common with rescuers than we think. Most of us like to have a job that is meaningful, but most of what gives us happiness is the community of people; it’s friendship. There’s all kind of empirical work that demonstrates this. Happiness is love. If you don’t have love with other people, then you’re not going to be a very happy person, and so when you realize that, the whole concept of self-interest that is a kind of narrowly defined, “what’s in it for me,” goes out the window. I think that whole paradigm we’ve grown up with in Western European and North American society, and really throughout the world, may be trapping us in its limitations.

SC: Some of your work refers to how this sense of connectedness with humanity is explained neurologically.

KM: We’re going to see an explosion of research in that area. I don’t think we know very much about the neuroscience behind altruism. The thinking is that there is some kind of change that goes on in your brain surrounding how you think about yourself. The self-concept may actually shift, to include other people in that sense of your welfare. This might happen in the same way that if there were a shooting in a school yard and you had a child there, you would immediately go, you would do anything, you would give up your life for your child. It wouldn’t even be a question for you: You can’t separate your happiness from that of your child. Altruists have something akin to that with other human beings. I don’t think we understand the biochemistry of what goes on in their brains when they help other people and they are actually involved in caring for other people. My guess is – but it’s only a guess – that there’s something that shifts in the way we think about ourselves when we are engaged in altruistic acts, and whether that precedes the act and causes it and then feeds back into it, I don’t think we know too much about it yet.

The critical variable seemed to be how they saw themselves in relation to other people, and when an altruist or rescuer looked at a stranger, they would just see another human being.

SC: The people you interviewed who rescued Jews during WWII said that it was very natural for them to act the way they did. They did not perceive their actions as being extraordinary.

KM: They didn’t think what they did was extraordinary at all. In fact, they’d almost get exasperated with me. I’d say, “Well, why did you do this?” and they’d say, “What, are you crazy? What could you do? How can you walk away from somebody who’s in trouble?” It was so much a part of their normal landscape that they just didn’t even comment on it. It was how they saw themselves in relation to others, and that was really what I think is the key to understanding altruism. You have to understand how people see themselves in relation to other people. I tried to develop this into a theory that I’ve called “The Theory of Ethical Perspective.”

Too often in discussions of ethics, we assume the Kantian model, or the Utilitarian model, or the Platonic model when we reason about ethical issues. We have certain values. We recognize that there is a situation that requires a moral choice of some kind, our action, and then we deliberate about it, and in that deliberation we have the idea that all the values that we’ve been taught up until that time come into play. These values might be the Christian values revealed through the Ten Commandments or parental socialization or whatever religion you’ve been taught, Islam or Judaism or whatever. But the assumption is that you think about these values rationally and then you act.

What I found is there’s also a lot of spontaneous action that goes on so quickly that people don’t even think about it. That’s what I was trying to tap into and explain using my theory of ethical perspective.

I called the second book I wrote on altruism The Hand of Compassion. This phrase comes from a quote from a Czech rescuer I interviewed. I asked him why he risked his life to save over 100 Jews and he said, “The hand of compassion was faster than the calculus of reason.” He had not thought about it, and I think that’s true. If you think about the times when you’ve actually done something that was good to help somebody else, you can understand this. Western literature and philosophy has the idea that people pace the floor, deliberating what to do, and the sun comes up in the East, the hero reaches the right choice. But that just wasn’t it at all, not for the rescuers I interviewed. People just took action and it really wasn’t a choice. What they said to me was, “What else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.”

This phrase comes from a quote from a Czech rescuer I interviewed. I asked him why he risked his life to save over 100 Jews and he said, “The hand of compassion was faster than the calculus of reason.” He had not thought about it, and I think that’s true.

If you look at rescuers just by themselves, you see their similarities, but then when you put them in the context with other people, you can see how they differ from other people. And the two phrases that struck me when I started doing the research were the phrase I just mentioned to you, “What else could I do? They were human beings like you and me.” The bystanders, when I asked them about it, would say, “Well, what could I do? I was one person alone against the Nazis.” So, very different self-concepts and very different actions, but no choice for either people: Very different concept of agency in the sense of who was able to make things happen.

SC: Is there something that we as individuals or as a society can do to foster more altruism?

KM: The short answer to your question is that I do think we can change things. You want to make people more secure, then give them less fear of threats from people who are different so that they have a higher sense of agency. The second thing is to try to strengthen their empathic ties to other people, so that they see that they have bonds in common with other people.

SC: How do you envision the future? Do you think that the perspective of connectedness is going to grow, or is it going in the opposite direction?

KM: I would have two responses to that. One, I’m not one of these people who says that things are worse now than they were. If you look back at history, there certainly were time periods that were much worse, and just as bad, and then we have had good pockets here and there, so I’m not sure that there’s any natural progression of history one way or the other. Having said that then, what do I think of the chances for altruism? Well, here you go back to the concept of agency. The ball’s in our court. It’s up to us what we want to do. I don’t think that the world is something that’s out there that has to happen in a certain way. I don’t believe that there are historical forces that necessitate certain things.

Human beings have a lot of agency. We can make things happen, and it’s up to us if we want to live in a society where we are terrified of anybody who’s different – Jewish, Muslim, whatever’s upsetting people at the moment. There are differences between people and if we want to make people villains because they are different, we can do it. We get to make the world unfold the way we want it to. To a large degree, we do have the ability to shape it. I’m hoping it will all go the right way, but I think it’s something that we have to be eternally vigilant about. The future is up to us.

If you really care about values like altruism, you have to act them out in your own life. You have to try to inspire them through your behavior in other people, and I think it’s a world which is still ours to be lost or won, but we need to start thinking in more conceptual terms that allow for a richer sense of what it means to be a human being. The goal should not just be someone who wants to die with the most goodies. It’s somebody who should have a lot of rich friendship networks and should be able to enjoy all the wonderful people in the world, not just the people that you’re born next door to.

You want to make people more secure, the second thing is to try to strengthen their empathic ties to other people, so that they see that they have bonds in common with other people.

For more information about Monroe’s work visit www.ethicscenter.uci.edu


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