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Sunday, October 2, 2016


“Your blood is red; so is mine. Your tears are salty; so are mine”. (Buddha)

Comte is said to have defined altruism as “devotion to the welfare of others, based in selflessness*”.  I just read a book on Altruistic Personality based on studies of common individuals who went out of the way to help Jews in Europe during World War II. According to the definition used in this book, voluntary acts, which may involve risk to one’s own life and/or personal sacrifice, in order to help someone in need, for no material benefit are acts of altruism.

Two defining characteristics of the individuals included in this study who took part in rescue operations as compared to the bye-standers were 1. “inclusiveness” which means an ability to care for all people and 2. “attachment” which means an ability to relate to others and a sense of commitment to the others.

In their analysis of the characteristics of rescuers during World War II, the authors note that “it was the values learned from their parents which prompted and sustained” their altruism. (page 142). The mother of one of the rescuers had taught him never to consider any human being as inferior. She would never look down on anyone. His father told him “All people are people”. The authors call this common quality of the “rescuers” as “inclusiveness”.

When comparing how the core values of the rescuers and non-rescuers shaped their world views and their interpretation of events, the authors noticed that the attitudes and the values of the parents played some part. “The willingness and ability to transcend oneself under such conditions (conditions of stress and threat) is usually based on sustained habits of orientation to the world, largely developed early in life”. (page 160).

To be an altruistic helper, one has to be aware of the needs of others (sensitivity), has to have desire to help, ability to help (such as finding resources), courage to act and be prepared to take risk, when needed. (It is interesting to note that compassion is defined in the Buddhist texts as the desire and ability to help.)

During periods of extreme violence and social unrest, some tend to accept the situation passively and close their eyes out of fear, hopelessness, uncertainty and fatalism. Caring for others requires an orientation different from that required for rational action. This requires “caring” for even those they do not know. It also requires empathy and sensitivity to the other person irrespective of their color or religion. 

Some decide to help or not  tohelp based on rationality. They can rationalize their non-action. Rationality is based on thought. Those who emphasize rationality and equity will emphasize “access to procedures and impartial application of those procedures”. But, caring requires subjective feelings towards the welfare of people without regard to fairness and equity. (page 163)

 Fairness and equity emphasize procedures (objective features); caring requires kindness and benevolence (subjective features).

Caring is based on the needs of the one who is suffering. Ideally, it should not matter who that person is; race, religion, nationality should not matter. However, perceptions of the victim as worthy or unworthy of help is a determinant, the authors found.  The victim’s “good” appearance and perceived innocence (as in a child) may create a favorable attitude in the rescuer, whereas laziness or lack of effort, “drunkenness” and “not worthy of trust” create a negative attitude. Media, of course, play a large part in creating negative “stereotypes” of groups of people, as it happened with the Nazi’s portrayal of the Jewish people.

When discussing factors that lead to “attachment” (relating to others), once again the major influence in the development of this character among the rescuers was the family. They had strong, cohesive family bonds as a primary psychological strength, often in the context of religiosity. The rescuers also had more friends among the persecuted group and knew their plight so that they felt a personal obligation to help them. Some had a deep sense of social responsibility and this also came from family values. Finally, there were some who were egalitarian, who felt the pain of others and had empathy.

In contrast, among the non-rescuers were those who had poor family and community relationship, those who felt distant from the lives of the victims (Jews), those who preferred to keep themselves and avoid social involvement and a few true “ethno-centric” individuals who considered some people as the “others”.

Although there was no difference in the religious affiliations and religiosity between the rescuers and non-rescuers, unfortunately “more intense religiosity is associated with greater prejudice” (page 155) as shown by Rokeach (A Mighty Fortress: Faith, Hope and Bigotry. M.Rokeach. Augsburg Publishing Minneapolis, MN 1973). This is a sad story of humanity.

In a more recent study of 1,170 children aged 5 to 12 years from six different countries, relationship between religiosity of the household was compared with parent-reported empathy and sensitivity to justice in the children. Children living in religious house-holds showed more empathy and sensitivity to justice. However, children growing up in “religious” households were less altruistic than children from non-religious house-holds. They were also more prone to punitive tendencies. (Current Biology  25: 1-5, November 16, 2015)

The most important lesson for me from this book is that children learn compassion, empathy and caring early in life from their family. It is from the family environment that children also learn intolerance and prejudice. That is where we have to start to reduce violence in the society, to develop peace and harmony in this world and to create a safe future for our children.

Fortunately, there are groups which emphasize early childhood education, not just about the world but also of values.  For example, The Loris Malaguzzi International Centre located in Reggio Emilia (central Italy) focuses on value and innovation in the education of children. (

 Another organization by the name of Living Values Education (LVE)promotes the development of values-based learning communities and places the search for meaning and purpose at the heart of education”. (

In matters of empathy, altruism and tolerance, education has to start very, very early and at home. And for that to happen, parents have to be educated. Parents have to be role-models - teaching children universal human values and an open mind (for "inclusiveness and attachment" as defined by Oliner*).  


*The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. What led ordinary men and women to risk their lives on behalf of others? Oliner,Samuel P and Pearl M. The Free Press, New York. 1988. Page 4.

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