The Heart of Altruism

The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity

Kristen Renwick Monroe
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 314
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  • Book Info
    The Heart of Altruism
    Book Description:

    Is all human behavior based on self-interest? Many social and biological theories would argue so, but such a perspective does not explain the many truly heroic acts committed by people willing to risk their lives to help others. InThe Heart of Altruism, Kristen Renwick Monroe boldly lays the groundwork for a social theory receptive to altruism by examining the experiences described by altruists themselves: from Otto, a German businessman who rescued over a hundred Jews in Nazi Germany, to Lucille, a newspaper poetry editor, who, armed with her cane, saved a young girl who was being raped. Monroe's honest and moving interviews with these little-known heroes enable her to explore the causes of altruism and the differences between altruists and other people. By delineating an overarching perspective of humanity shared by altruists, Monroe demonstrates how social theories may begin to account for altruism and debunks the notions of scientific inevitability that stem from an overemphasis on self-interest.

    As Monroe has discovered, the financial and religious backgrounds of altruists vary greatly--as do their views on issues such as welfare, civil rights, and morality. Altruists do, however, share a certain way of looking at the world: where the rest of us see a stranger, altruists see a fellow human being. It is this perspective that many social theories overlook. Monroe restores altruism to a general theory of ethical political behavior. She argues that to understand what makes one person act out of concern for others and not the self, we need to ask how that individual's perspective sets the range of options he or she finds available.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2192-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. The Human Face of Altruism
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Part I: The Importance of Altruism
    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-5)

      Most social and political theory since Hobbes is constructed on the norm of self-interest. As a guiding principle, self-interest informs many public policies and directs our daily lives. Yet even in the most vicious of Darwinian worlds, altruism and selfless behavior continue to exist. Why? In the following pages I try to answer this question, to consider the various influences that produce or encourage altruism and to examine the critical differences between rational actors and altruists. I will argue that altruists simply have a different way of seeing things. Where the rest of us see a stranger, altruists see a...

    • CHAPTER 1 The Puzzle of Altruism
      (pp. 6-24)

      What is altruism, and why is it important? Altruism’s significance comes not from its empirical frequency, which is relatively rare, but because its very existence challenges the widespread and dominant belief that it is natural for people to pursue individual self-interest.¹ Indeed, much important social and political theory suggests altruism should not exist at all. It thus becomes important to consider altruism not just to understand and explain the phenomenon itself but also to determine what its continuing existence reveals about limitations in the Western intellectual canon, limitations evident in politics and economics since Machiavelli and Hobbes, in biology since...

  6. Part II: Narratives:: From Self-Interest to Altruism
    • CHAPTER 2 The Entrepreneur
      (pp. 27-40)

      Entrepreneurs—classically defined as those who take an idea and turn it to personal profit—are well illustrated by Billy, a self-made man who amassed his millions through casting parts for cars.¹ I began by asking Billy to tell me something about himself and, in particular, how he became an entrepreneur. Like most entrepreneurs, for whom time is money, Billy was succinct and direct in telling his story.

      I was born in Alabama and grew up my first seven or eight years in Alabama. Then we moved to California. My father was in the foundry business, which I went into...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Philanthropist
      (pp. 41-62)

      What is it like to work very hard, see a business grow from nothing into a source of great wealth, and then give away much of this hard-earned money, with no strings attached? Melissa spoke graciously and openly about this, as about even more personal matters. Her narrative illustrates success and joy in sharing good fortune with others and captures the critical perspectival characteristics I found among all the philanthropists I interviewed.

      Like Billy, Melissa was born into a small town and modest circumstances.

      I’ll just start by saying I’m sixty-one years old and was born in Missouri in a...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Heroine
      (pp. 63-90)

      A most unlikely heroine, Lucille is a frail grandmother with a heart condition and braces on both her leg and back. Nor does her occupation—poetry editor for a local newspaper—seem the obvious training for someone who would swear like a marine while beating the proverbial out of a large rapist. But that is exactly what happened. Furthermore, Lucille was involved in the southern civil rights movement of the 1950s; this also makes her well qualified as a heroine. Because of her history, and because she was a real character—feisty and vulnerable, emphatically and deliberately opinionated, yet touchingly...

    • CHAPTER 5 Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe
      (pp. 91-118)

      However we define altruism, most of us would readily agree that people who rescued Jews in Nazi Europe are altruists, approaching pure altruism on our conceptual continuum. Because the rescuers I encountered were such diverse and fascinating people, this chapter excerpts narratives from two interviews rather than only one. Both the respondents were Dutch rescuers, but there the apparent similarities end. Tony described himself as a spoiled little rich kid when the war began, only nineteen and serving in an elite military unit. Bert was a thirty-year-old worker from a small town called Wobrugge, where he lived above a pharmacy...

  7. Part III: Traditional Explanations for Altruism
    • CHAPTER 6 Sociocultural Attributes of Altruism
      (pp. 121-136)

      I suggested in part I that existing explanations of altruism satisfy only partially and that the missing piece in the puzzle can be supplied by considering cognitive phenomena such as perspective. In part II, I presented impressionistic evidence of how the individual’s perspective differs as we move from the self-interested actor to the altruist. I would like now to begin a more systematic examination by considering explanations that stress the importance of sociocultural attributes for altruism.

      Do sociocultural characteristics explain altruism? No. Indeed, none of the sociocultural attributes to which altruism is so frequently attributed—such as religious affiliation or...

    • CHAPTER 7 Economic Approaches to Altruism
      (pp. 137-160)

      If sociocultural attributes do not determine altruism, we must consider more subtle and sophisticated theoretical explanations. To assess the usefulness of these other approaches, I begin with economics, since economists frequently utilize concepts from other fields, such as evolutionary biology and psychology, and because economists have offered particularly rich and creative analyses of altruism.¹

      No matter how infrequently it occurs, the mere existence of altruism presents an important theoretical challenge for economic theory. Economists recognize this, and we find Adam Smith considering a phenomenon that resembles altruism long before Comte coined the actual term in the 1850s.² Recent economic work...

    • CHAPTER 8 Explanations from Evolutionary Biology
      (pp. 161-178)

      Altruism presents a major theoretical challenge for evolutionary biology, a discipline that relies heavily on the Darwinian concepts of individual selection and survival of the fittest.¹ Behavior in which one organism acts to promote the survival of another organism, rather than his or her own survival, violates this individual selection principle. The empirical rarity of altruism offers the possibility of explaining it away as an aberration; but its persistence makes this more difficult and presents a serious theoretical challenge for evolutionary biologists.²

      In general, evolutionary biologists explain altruism in one of two ways: kin or group selection.³ Both the kin...

    • CHAPTER 9 Psychological Discussions of Altruism
      (pp. 179-194)

      The field of psychology is dominated by the assumption of universal egoism.² Most psychological explanations of altruism reduce it to veiled forms of self-interest, utilizing concepts similar to those found in economics and evolutionary biology.³ Is altruism actually just a way to feel good about oneself? To alleviate guilt for earlier wrongs? To obtain praise for being a good person? This dominant view began to shift subtly, however, during the mid-1970s, as some psychologists became more willing to accept the existence of altruism.⁴ Two factors may account for this greater intellectual receptivity toward altruism among psychologists.

      (1) Psychology is widely...

  8. Part IV: The Altruistic Perspective
    • CHAPTER 10 The Altruistic Perspective: Perceptions of a Shared Humanity
      (pp. 197-216)

      I hope the preceding chapters have substantiated my claim that remaining within the paradigmatic confines of self-interest can produce only limited explanations for altruism. Let us now ascertain whether perspective does, as I have asserted, supply the missing piece in the puzzle of altruism and detect critical differences between altruists and rational actors.

      My findings concerning perspective differ from more traditional analyses of cognitive influences on altruism, which tend to stress the development of moral reasoning or suggest that helping behavior stems from attempts to replicate democratic norms or beliefs in a just world.¹ Indeed, we saw in chapters 6...

    • CHAPTER 11 Perspective and Ethical Political Acts: Initial Thoughts
      (pp. 217-232)

      Are there broader theoretical insights to be gleaned from our analysis of altruism? I believe so. It seems clear that perspective offered a less limited approach conceptually than did explanations that rest on assumptions of self-interest. This suggests the value of moving beyond theories based exclusively on self-interest if—as was the case with altruism—we desire a more complete understanding of important social and political phenomena. In particular, we should consider the importance of the cognitive and the value of utilizing concepts such as perspective when developing theories that concern ethical political behavior. Thinking about the elements of such...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 233-238)

    At the end of a long journey it is instructive to look back over one’s travels, to survey the terrain in order to understand where one has come and what one has seen and done. So it is with a book. What has our discussion taught us about altruism as a substantive phenomenon? About the different theories of social and political life? About ourselves? These are the issues I address in these concluding remarks.

    I begin with a simple but important methodological caution. The world is not divided into altruists and nonaltruists; the potential for altruism exists in all people....

  10. Notes
    (pp. 239-270)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-284)
  12. Index
    (pp. 285-292)