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Altruism and the Good Samaritan PDF Print E-mail

given by Hazel Popp

Altruism and the Good Samaritan

How do we define altruism? The word itself was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in the mid 1800s, and is based on the Italian adjective altrui. He coined the word "altruism" to refer to what he believed to be our moral obligation to serve others and place their interests above one's own. Through his philosophy of positivism it was introduced into English and was popularised by the advocates of his philosophy.

The word may be less than 200 years old, but altruism is older than humankind itself. We can see altruistic behaviour in evolutionary biology. An organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, but at a cost to itself. This behaviour may reduce the number of offspring produced, but at the same time increase the chances of more offspring being produced to another like-organism. There are many such examples: the insect world with intricate social arrangements; vampire bats which regularly regurgitate blood for other members of the colony who have failed to feed; animals warning the group at a risk to their own safety.

In human understanding the action of helping another person is a conscious action. In the biological sense there is no such requirement. Natural selection may have favoured humans who genuinely care about helping others. Consider child raising, it is easy to predict an evolutionary advantage associated with taking good care of one's children. As a result, caring, altruistic parents will have a higher inclusive fitness, and spread more of their genes, than parents who do not care. Humans behave more altruistically towards their close kin than towards non-relatives, as within the animal kingdom; and we tend to help those who have helped us in the past – not dissimilar to the reciprocal altruism displayed in the animal kingdom – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!

"The Golden Rule" is a moral principle which is a corner stone in most major religions and cultures. Basically it means "treat others as you would like to be treated."

Confucius talks about shu, which is translated as altruism, saying to his disciples: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you"; similar words are used in other religious scriptures. Altruism is an extension of this reciprocity. Examples of how it crosses religions or cultures include:

- Aristotle: lists benevolence as one of the virtues.

The Qur-an: If you give alms openly, it is well; but if you do it secretly and give to the poor, that is better. - (Qur-an 2:271a)

In Islam, zakat, or the giving of alms, is the third of the five pillars of Islam. Various rules are attached to the practice, and a set amount is stipulated. The recipients include the destitute and the working poor, those with excessive debt, strangers and others who need assistance. The general principle is that the rich should give to the poor.

Buddhism recognizes three kinds of charity: giving material offerings, sanctuary and protection to animals and giving doctrinal lectures. In Buddhism, alms or almsgiving is the respect shown by the giver to the Buddhist monk, and is offered in return for prayers.

In Judaism, the term for charity is tzedakah, which derives from tzedek, meaning "justice." I like this concept - it gives respect to the person receiving the charity. An example of Judaic altruistic behaviour is Ruth when she places the needs of her mother-in-law before herself; or the commands in Deuteronomy to leave a portion of crops for the poor to glean.

Altruism is central to the teachings of Christianity. Think of the Sermon on the Mount, and the parable of the widow’s mite.

Although altruism means helping another person without expecting a reward, there is often an "internal" benefit for the subject, a good feeling, a sense of satisfaction, a fulfilment of duty. If one does something for another person, simply with the view of gaining something for oneself then it is not really altruistic.

With this in mind let us think about the above examples, each of them has an accompanying reward for doing good. Aristotle recommends adopting the virtue of beneficence to advance one’s standing in the community. A person adopting such a virtue will not only benefit others, but will generate a response that will likely bring benefits in return. Within the other doctrines there is a concomitant reward, Ruth married the rich landowner, the golden rule is all about reciprocity, the Christian and Islamic doctrines focus on a better after-life – laying up treasures in heaven, other religions suggest good karma such as rain to grow crops. Even old adages – such as what goes around comes around, suggest that if you do the right thing by someone else, you will get your reward.

According to the theory of psychological egoism, while one can be outwardly altruistic in the practical sense, there is no such thing as pure altruistic motivations. That is, while one might very well spend one's life helping others, one's motive for doing so is always the furthering of one's own interests. One claiming to be an altruist might get a great deal of pleasure from helping others. That pleasure, according to this theory, is both the motive and the resulting benefit one gets from the act.

We do need to recognize that there are powerful external motivators for altruistic acts. But does this mean that there is no such thing as true disinterested altruism? I don’t believe so, people acting altruistically are not consciously calculating the benefit that they are gaining for themselves each time they reach out to help another person. Research with young children, demonstrates how a toddler will help somebody struggling with a task, suggesting that we are indeed hard-wired to be altruistic. Neurological research has found that a particular area of the brain – the posterior superior temporal cortex - is activated by altruistic behaviour.

800 years ago, Maimonides, the mediaeval Jewish philosopher drew up a golden ladder of Charity.

  1. Giving grudgingly
  2. Giving to the poor less than one should, but in a friendly manner
  3. Giving to the poor after being asked
  4. Giving to the poor without being asked
  5. Giving when the recipient knows the donor but the donor does not know the recipient
  6. Giving when the donor knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the donor
  7. Giving when neither the recipient nor the donor know each other
  8. The highest degree of all is one who supports another reduced to poverty by providing a loan, or entering into a partnership, or finding work for him, so that the poor person can become self-sufficient.

Today 3 percent of the Australian population climb to the second highest rung on the ladder when they give blood, knowing not the donor, nor the donor knowing who gave the gift of blood.

There are multitudinous examples of altruism: the kindness of strangers; the Salvation Army making prison visits; our spontaneous response to the Tsunami victims; the philanthropic gifts of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet; Geoff Dixon’s $70 million donation to Parkinson’s research. Then there are the truly heroic altruists; the soldier who gives his life for his mates, the person who jumps into a swollen river to rescue a drowning child; Oscar Schindler; Raoul Wallenberg.

The term the Good Samaritan has entered into the vernacular. It is one of the most well known stories exemplifying selfless giving. The parable was told by Jesus in response to the question "And who is my neighbour?"

In brief, a man was set upon by thieves and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest came past saw him, and crossed to the other side of the road. Next a Levite, an important religious official, came past and he too crossed the road. Then along came the Samaritan. Now Samaritans were despised religious outcasts, but the Samaritan when he saw the victim, helped him, fixed up his wounds, took him to an inn and took responsibility for his on-going care.

Two Princeton researchers (Darley & Batson) wanted to test the psychological motivators behind the behaviour of the Good Samaritan, and by extension our own supposedly altruistic behaviour. They took a cohort of students at Princeton Theological Seminary with different religious and moral orientations. As each subject arrived, he (I think they were all men) was informed that he was to give a talk in another building and was sent on his way. On the way there, there was a "victim" slumped strategically in a doorway and clearly needing help. The question was under what conditions would a subject stop to help the victim?

Half of the subjects were assigned to talk on the Good Samaritan Parable; the others were assigned a different topic. Some of the subjects were told they were late and should hurry; some were told they had just enough time to get to their destination, and some were told they had lots of time. The results showed that only one of these variables that made any difference was how much of a hurry the subjects were in. Subjects in a hurry were far less likely to stop and provide assistance than the other subjects.

What does this indicate? These were all Princeton divinity undergraduates, students who you would expect would be switched on to helping those in need. But they were easily manipulated by an instruction to hurry. Even making the parable of the Good Samaritan a part of the actual experiment had no real effect on the subjects.

The standard interpretation of the Parable focuses on the moral character of the people, the goodness of the Samarian as opposed to the religiosity of the priest and Levite. But this interpretation is wrong because it overlooks situational factors. In this case the important situational factor is how much of a hurry the various agents might be in. I will come return to this later.

In light of the above we can re-evaluate our reactions to certain situations. For example, why did Australians give so readily to the Tsunami victims, but have overlooked the famine sufferers in Daifur? I contend that situational factors are behind our altruistic response or lack thereof. The dramatic nature of the Tsunami, the proximity to our own shores, the sense that they, the Tsunami victims, are not responsible for their fate, the acute presentation over the chronic problems of Africa.

I have a second Samaritan story for you to consider – the story of Kitty Genovese which demonstrates a phenomenon which came to be known as the Bad Samaritan Complex and I would also remind you that there have been similar occurrences recently in Australia.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York while thirty-eight people watched without intervening from their Queens apartment block. This was in middle class New York, but where, one might ask, were the heroic altruists on that day? The circumstances of her murder and the apparent lack of reaction by the neighbours who watched it was reported by a newspaper article published two weeks later. The incident prompted investigation into the psychological phenomenon that became known as the bystander effect the "Bad Samaritan Complex" or "Genovese syndrome".

Darley and Latané conducted a series of experiments to tease out this problem. In one such experiment, a subject was put in a waiting room to fill out application forms. The subject was either alone, or there were two other people in the room filling out applications. Then smoke began pouring out of a hole in the wall. The researchers were interested in ascertaining who would report the presence of smoke. The results? Three quarters of the people who were alone in the waiting room reported the smoke before the experimental period came to an end (6 minutes). When there were three people in the room only one person out of 24 reported within the first 4 minutes, and only 38% reported it within the 6 minutes. Basically people were twice as likely to report the smoke if they were alone than if they were in groups. Darley and Latané’s other experiments produced similar results.

The researchers offered several possible explanations for these results. One hypothesis is diffused responsibility: passing the buck assuming or hoping, that others will intervene; the fewer people present the greater the sense of responsibility. Another explanation is that subjects interpret the situation as other people around them do, rather than making their own judgement. Suppose a person is staggering in the street, we may not know whether he is drunk or suffering a heart attack. If we look around and see others paying no attention, we are more likely to ignore the situation, and assume the person is drunk and can therefore be ignored.

Maybe people are concerned about how they appear to others around them, and don’t want to make fools of themselves; when alone, people do not worry about their image and are therefore more likely to act. There have been other experiments which show that people are influenced enormously by the perceptions and behaviour of those around them. If we don’t help because no-one else is getting involved, we might help more when we are given the lead by other people helping.

As an aside - To counter the bystander effect when you are the victim, the recommendation is to pick a specific person in the crowd to appeal to for help rather than appealing to the larger group generally. This places all responsibility on that specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse.

All too easily we attribute character traits to people in order to explain their behaviour, the priest was bad, the people in the apartment block were morally suspect, Oskar Schindler was a saint (he wasn’t); remember that until recently Bill Gates was not universally admired. But we can so easily be wrong as people behave differently in different situations. In trying to explain why someone has acted in a certain way, we concentrate on the person, their supposed character, and ignore the situation. What I believe is that in another situation, another time, another place, if he too was in a hurry, the Samaritan could have passed by on the other side of the road.

Why is this important? Understanding the complexity of altruistic behaviour can help us understand our motivations, the triggers that make us commit to a cause, why we don’t all give, why we are not always generous or why we don’t behave to others, as we should.

I would now like to move on, to take you away from the standard view of altruism and its underlying psychology, and introduce the philosophy of Peter Singer.

In 1972 at the age of 26 Peter Singer published a seminal essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” This essay challenged, and still challenges, contemporary philosophers and ordinary citizens alike. It was confronting, it asked a lot of hard questions about the moral obligations the west in light of world poverty and the unequal distribution of global resources - an issue still going on in the environment debate. Singer is an unabashed utilitarian, and he uses utilitarianism to argue that we are obligated to do something about it. We need to ” give aid until giving any more would hurt ourselves more than it would help recipients”, and ”whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”

Today Singer admits that he himself falls short of the standards that he set in this seminal essay but he is still writing and enjoining the affluent west to face up to their responsibilities. Recently he wrote a long article which was published in the SMH setting out clearly how targets to alleviate world poverty could be reasonably met.

The pressing philosophical questions now are: what in the way of humanitarian assistance do people who have more than enough owe to those who do not have enough? What are our obligations? Is the alleviation of harm of higher moral good than prevention of harm? And once we recognise our obligations and act accordingly, then are our actions no longer altruistic, but a requirement or duty?

In his final chapter in the book A Darwinian Left - Politics, Evolution and Co-operation, Peter Singer takes an ambitious leap past the view of altruism that I have presented today, he enjoins us to move beyond ourselves when he says, and I quote.

We do not know to what extent our capacity to reason can, in the long run, take us beyond the conventional Darwinian constraints on the degree of altruism that a society may be able to foster. We are reasoning beings…… Reason provides us with the capacity to recognize that each of us is simply one being among others, all of whom have wants and needs that matter to them as our needs and wants matter to us. Can that insight ever overcome the pull of other elements in our evolved nature that act against the idea of an impartial concern for all of our fellow humans, or better still for all sentient beings?

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