Being Human. Chapter 11: Altruism And Prosocial Behavior

In 1964 a shocking incident occurred in New York City that caused distress and concern among social psychologists. A young woman, Kitty Genovese, was walking to her home when a stalker attacked her. What was especially distressing was that she was stabbed repeatedly over a 35-minute time span while crying out for help. It was not as if no one heard her cries. According to several news reports in the days that followed she died while 38 of her neighbors saw the attack and did nothing. They watched the attack unfold from windows above the street and the only intervention occurred when someone yelled, “leave that girl alone”, at which point the attacker left temporarily. However, after a short interval the attacker returned and stabbed her 8 more times, sexually assaulted her, and left her for dead. When finally police were called, there was nothing that could be done as Kitty had died.

When the neighbors were later interviewed and asked why they did not intervene, some indicated that they felt no personal responsibility to help, whereas others misconstrued the situation as one that did not require intervention. Although recent research indicates that the news reports had not been quite correct about every detail of this incidence (Manning, Levine & Collins, 2007), more importantly social psychologists were motivated by the news stories about this crime to try to understand what caused such indifference to suffering. In a more positive sense it also led to the desire to know why on the other hand some bystanders in other situations do display concern and intervene in order to help (Darley & Latane, 1968). We will come back to this research later in this chapter.

When September 11, 2001 came to New York, we saw this different side of the human nature, a desire to help and intervene. That day close to 3,000 people died in a massive attack on the World Trade Center. However, there were also hundreds of people who died trying to help these victims and in the process sacrificed their own lives (Lee, 2001). Most of the people who displayed extraordinary courage and selfless behavior on that day were ordinary people just like those who decided not to help Kitty Genovese. The helpers were average human beings who found themselves faced with an extraordinary situation that demanded their attention. Most of the workers in the building did the natural thing and fled to safety. However, there were some who stayed behind and helped the physically handicapped, there were those workers who saw to it that others were led to safety first, and there were hundreds of firefighters who lost their lives trying to save others (Stewart, 2002).

In both of these incidents the possibility of behaving in altruistic and helping ways presented itself. Why did those who watched Kitty Genovese die not help? Why did altruistic heroes arise out of the catastrophe at the World Trade Center? These and other issues dealing with altruistic and prosocial behavior will be addressed in this chapter. Human history shows the selfish and dark side of humanity, but also records people who are willing to sacrifice even their lives to help those in need. For social psychologists these anecdotal examples create questions as to whether willingness to help has a basic genetic component, or whether it is a consequence of learning. Is there such a thing as a pure altruistic motive in helping people or are all such behaviors at least partly motivated by self-interests? Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 12: Morality: Competition, Justice And Cooperation

As we watch the news each day, and interact with others in society, our sense of right and wrong may often be aroused. There is a great deal of evidence in social psychology pointing to the negative effects of selfish and unbridled competition. People at times express extreme egoism in their behavior to the detriment of others, and the remedy may require legal sanctions. Fortunately, as we saw in the last chapter there are also people who seek to act in cooperative ways, and try to reconcile people in conflict. Conflict situations often call for moral judgment. What is right and wrong in the dispute and where is the common ground? Do you approve of murder as long as it is your enemy? How about killing in a just war as you have defined it? What about infanticide where illness or lack of resources makes the future seem impossible for the child? How about assisted suicide for the hopelessly ill? These issues and many other challenges all require moral judgment.

Perhaps you have taken note of how people live in other countries and cultures. Some behaviors like polygamy or polyandry may strike you as odd, but do they also require moral judgment? In that case we can see that moral judgment is not universally similar as social conventions vary on marriage and other social practices in different cultures. How about a situation where parents deliberatively starve their children to death? Is that universally rejected, do you think people find that acceptable in any culture? Deliberate killing of children is probably not acceptable in modern societies, so there is also evidence for some universality of moral judgment.

1. Moral judgment and culture
How we define morality is of primary concern in moral judgment. What do we use to guide our thinking as we make judgment about right or wrong, good or bad? People rely on guides to live a life that is ethically acceptable. Some people use religious or humanistic scripture to make moral choices. Others believe they hear a little internal voice that warns them of moral compromise. Ethical principles determine a great deal of social behavior, from the paying of money owed to the election of government leaders and political parties. Moral judgment is central in the so-called war on terrorism. It has influenced both sides in the war on their attitudes toward killing and who might be considered innocent parties to the conflict. One side thinks that there are no innocent “infidels”; the other side defines all military opposition as terrorism. Nevertheless both positions are moral judgments based on ethics, which are derived from custom, religion, and social categorization.

1.1 Defining moral behavior
Morality is defined as the principles that guides our lives and which we use in making judgments about the behavior of others (Haidt, 2001). In a broader sense morality is what we consider ideal the utopian society that we hope for in the future. Moral principles incur obligations on us, and to a large extent determine our behavior toward self and others. Moral principles in society generally apply to all people. We would consider it hypocritical to tell our children to behave in a certain moral way, if we ourselves do not practice the same ethical principle. Likewise for a country if the morality of a society calls for peaceful relations with others it is hypocritical to carry unprovoked war to the shore of other nations. Moral principles are inclusive applying to everyone within the group, be it religious, nation, or other society. Human behavior is far from perfect, and we all violate moral obligations at times. Society, for instance, imposes a requirement not to steal from others in the community. If a member of the community violates this obligation society imposes sanctions. Sanctions vary widely in various cultures from a figuratively slap on the wrist to actually cutting off the offending hand in some Middle Eastern societies. Like in China, many states in the U.S. still have capital punishment for some crimes. Read more

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Being Human. References

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Abrahmson, A.C., Baker, L.A., & Capsi, A. (2002). Rebellious teens? Genetic and environmental influences on the social attitudes of adolescents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1392-1408.
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Oil Companies Spent Millions To Defeat Green New Deal In Washington State

Climate change appeared on the ballot in numerous states during the 2018 midterm elections, an indication of the growing concern among average citizens about the catastrophic effects of fossil fuel burning. But the struggle for regulations on emissions was repeatedly blocked by the money machinery of the oil industry. Record amounts of money were spent trying to derail the efforts of activists and labor unions fighting to save the environment. One such instance was over Initiative 1631 in Washington State where the oil industry spent more than $30 million trying to sabotage the struggle for a better world. In this exclusive Truthout interview, Jeff Johnson — who led the fight for the passing of Initiative 1631 — reflects on the lessons activists nationwide can draw for the future from the climate change struggle in Washington State.

C.J. Polychroniou: Jeff, share with me the background of the movement you led in Washington State for climate change and Initiative 1631.

Jeff Johnson: For the record, I am one of seven leaders representing communities of color, the environmental community, tribes and labor that came together to form the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. The Alliance spent three years building a climate justice movement based on principles of equity and giving assistance and voice to those most disproportionately impacted by climate disaster. Initiative 1631 was a product of this work.

I-1631 created a carbon fee of $15 a metric ton on carbon pollution and would have used the resulting $2.3 billion generated over five years to invest in clean energy, clean water and healthy forests – creating tens of thousands of family wage jobs and pulling 20 million tons of CO2 out of the air every year. Read more

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Noureddine El Moussati ~ Declenimo

What is Declenimo? 

In May 2016, during our last evening spent in New York a strange, confused man in Times Square inspired me and my friends to ask him a question which we believe is the most interesting one to ask. After he got kicked out of the Starbucks because of his loud and wild conspiracy rants, we decided to approach him and have a conversation with him. He annoyed people and wasn’t taken seriously, but he did have a story to tell. This individual had thoughts that made perfect sense in his head, but sounded like nonsense to others. He was probably considered mentally incapacitated, but to himself he was a sophisticated man. This individual was a book, constantly judged by its cover. So we decided to ask him the question: “What do you seek in life?” 

After quite some stubbornness (and repeated questioning on whether we worked for the cops or not) he revealed his ambitions and thoughts in life. He wanted liberation. He wanted a free system and did not want to be imprisoned by the rules set by those who controlled the system. He explained his answer using mice, science and New York as examples. His answer was a bit odd to be honest, but truly interesting. He showed me a different book than what I’d expect from the cover. Having learned from this situation, on Times Square I continued to ask people what they sought in life, together with my friends.

We got the most interesting answers that night from one of the most diverse cities in the world and I decided to keep on going with it. I brought the question home and wanted to explore the thoughts and ideas of one of the most open-minded, culturally diverse and crazy cities in the world: Amsterdam. I set a goal and started a personal project to ask 101 people in Amsterdam what they sought in life: Project Declenimo. The name Declenimo derives from the old-fashioned Gaelic word ‘Declan’, which means ‘Full of Goodness’. 101 strangers to interview. 101 different perspectives and views on life. 101 different people to get inspired by. There is so much to learn from the people that pass by you everyday. Never judge a book by its cover. So see here what Amsterdam has to answer on: “What do you seek in life?”

“Ask a man a question, and he’ll think for the moment. Make a man ask you a question and he’ll think for a lifetime”

Go to: https://declenimo.nl/

Book: Noureddine El Moussati ~ Declenimo. ISBN 978940217976 7. Brave New Books, 2018

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A Complex World: My Interview With Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has revolutionized multiple fields of study from psychology to linguistics to political science. Chomsky changed the way human beings even think about language through such concepts as the universal grammar theory. In the field of psychology, Chomsky was instrumental in debunking Skinner’s theory of behaviorism. In the field of political science, with books such as Manufacturing Consent to Fateful Triangle to Hegemony or Survival, and many others, Chomsky enlightened people all over the world, from individual citizens to revolutionary political leaders. It is for these reasons, and more, why it is no surprise that Chomsky is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of our time.

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. elections, I had the privilege of being able to sit down with Professor Chomsky at his office for a chat on an array of different topics, such as what is the fate of an honest intellectual, the concept of pre-modern societies, ethnic conflict, the religious nation-state, federalism, the political vulgarization of genocide, what is power, the value of truth and reconciliation commissions, and anarchism.

What is the Fate of An Honest Intellectual?

Noam Chomsky There’s a history, goes back 2500 years, back to the origins of recorded history, classical Greece, and the biblical records. Go back to Greece; there was a man [Socrates] who was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by asking searching questions. His fate was to be killed with poison—given the hemlock. In the biblical record, which is partly accurate, partly not, there were critical intellectuals—the word that is used for them is prophets. That is a dubious translation of an obscure Hebrew phrase. What they were, if you look at what they were actually saying, were critics. They criticized the acts of the evil kings, they gave geopolitical analysis, warned that the policies were going to lead to disaster; they called for helping widows and orphans and so on. That is what today we call dissident intellectuals. What happened to them? They were imprisoned, driven into the desert, maligned; the worst of the Kings, King Ahab, condemned the Prophet Elijah as a hater of Israel because he was condemning the acts of the evil Kings—it is probably the origin of the notion of anti-American and anti-Israel, and so on. And it goes the same way throughout history.

Going up to modern times, the term intellectual, in the current sense, is really not used before the late 19th century. It came into use at the time of the Dreyfus trial in France, and Emile Zola and others who supported Dreyfus and condemned the state and the military. They were critical intellectuals [who] were bitterly condemned by the mainstream of the intellectual classes. Zola himself had to flee France for his life. That is the treatment of dissidents.

Shortly after that came the First World War, which was very striking, a lot of commentary on it now since it is the centenary. One of the most interesting things is the reaction of intellectuals. On every side, the intellectual classes lined up passionately in support of their own state. In Germany, there was a manifesto of 93 leading intellectuals instructing the civilized world that Germany is defending the great cultural legacy of Beethoven, Immanuel Kant, and so on, and the world should join them—on the Western side, the same. There were critics, [such as] Bertrand Russell in England, Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknecht in Germany, Eugene Debs in the United States; they were put in jail. That is intellectuals. Read more

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