Oliner, P., Embracing the Other

P. Oliner, et al. Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological , and Historical Perspectives on Altruism. New York, New York University Press: 1992. Pp. xiii + 460. *

 

After the publication of the Oliners’ study of almost 700 rescuers and bystanders, still the largest such systematic study,[1] a conference was held in Poland in June 1989. This book makes public the papers presented at that conference and, like all such books, it has some moments of important insight, some essays of great interest, and some disappointing pages.

The fact is that our age, the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, has seen evil on an unprecedented scale perpetrated in large measure by well-meaning people. It has also seen planet-wide economic exploitation and ecological pollution. From whence will come the resistance to our own barbarity and stupidity? How will humanity avoid another holocaust or inevitable human-generated disaster? If we believe — and we want to — that humankind has basic good impulses, how can we nurture these? How can we cultivate goodness? Herein lies the importance of “altruistic studies” and this book is an important contribution to this field.

There are five chapters which contain important insights for addressing this vital question. The essay by the philosopher, Lawrence Blum, nuances the conceptuality of altruism and rescue. Rescue, which seemed so direct, is not so simple because one can be altruistic without risk-taking (32). Rescue also was about more than saving lives; it was about resistance to a perceived evil whether racist, antisemitic, or political (36-9). Furthermore, rescuing Jews because they are Jews is different from rescuing Jews because they are human beings (42-4). Nuance is important, for the future as well as the past. The essay by the developmental psychologists, Krebs and Van Hesteren, works on three assumptions: that cognitive structures lend perspective to behaviors, that there is an “invariant sequence” of stages in the development of these structures, and that each succeeding stage is more inclusive (149-50). They, then, set forth the seven stages of the development of the altruistic dimension of human personality, bearing in mind that people vary in their growth (153-61). I disagree with the basic proposition that there are “invariant stages” of human development — why can’t we have typologies that are not heirarchical — but the proposal is important.

The essay by the Polish psychologists, Smolenska and Reykowski, limits itself to the study of rescuers but sets forth “… three major classes of motives that apparently instigated the rescuing — Allocentric motives originate when attention is focused on the persecuted person or persons and his or her situation … Normocentric motives originate from the activation of a norm of helping … Axiological motives originate from the actualization of moral principles such as `justice,’ `sanctity of human life’ … The main goal of action is to reaffirm the principles” (217-19, italics original).[2]

The two most important essays were written by the Oliners and by Staub. Turning to address the problem of how one can promote an altruistic orientation, Pearl and Sam Oliner begin where they left off in their previous book, by expouding the centrality of the concept of extensivity: “… extensivity means the tendency to assume commitments and responsibilities toward diverse groups of people. Extensivity includes two elements: the propensity to attach oneself to others in committed interpersonal relationships; and the propensity toward inclusiveness with respect to the diversity of individuals and groups to whom one will assume obligations….” (370-4, italics original). They, then, point out very poignantly that the family cannot be the sole basis for an altruistic orientation:

Families — whether families of origin or acquired — continued to be one critical social institution for such encouragement. Families, however, are neither uniformly equipped nor uniformly inclined to promote an altruistic orientation toward others. Moreover, people spend large percentages of their time in social institutions other than families, and unmarried working people in particular frequently live alone and without access to families. If peer groups, schools, religious or ethnic groups, and the workplace fail to provide experiences conducive to an extensive altruistic orientation, then even already-predisposed individuals may be threatened with losing it. When family beginnings are less than benevolent, the need for other institutions to provide such encouraging experiences increases. We thus assume that people are most likely to develop an extensive orientation toward others if the institutions in which they live most of their lives support it (377).

Given this important lesson, the Oliners go on to develop eight social processes which, if practiced in all social institutions, will cultivate an altruistic orientation:

Bonding means forming emotional attachments to people and places … [E]mpathizing means understanding others’ thoughts and feelings … clarifying one’s own values and feelings and having opportunities for taking the perspective of others (including interpreting others’ feelings and thoughts) … [Learning] caring norms — including rules, values, and principles — [which] express expectations regarding appropriate helping behaviors … communicated implicitly and explicitly through oral and written language, goals, myths, stories, codes of conduct, and models … serve as self-monitoring devices … [P]articipating in altruistic behaviors … Diversifyingmeans enlarging the groups of people and objects with whom people normally interact for the primary purpose of promoting positive social relationships … not sufficient that people view others as part of a universal humankind; they must learn to prize others in their distinctiveness…. [N]etworking is another way for making linkages to the broader society … whereas the purpose of diversifying is merely to promote positive social relationships, the purpose of networking is to cooperate with diverse others in pursuit of some shared goal … [D]eveloping shared problem-solving strategies…. Making global connections implies learning to link the “here-and-now” with the gloabl-ecospheric nature of life (379-85, italics original).[3]

The essay by Staub is, in my opinion, the most cohesive of his long career in the study of aggression and altruism. He begins by pointing out that experience, not education, is the main socializing element in a child’s life: “The education of the child in values and rules is less basic than the child’s direct experience. Interpersonal relations and experiences with caretakers, with people in authority, and with peers are the sources of feelings, values, and beliefs about self, about other people, and about connection to others…. Values, rules, and modes of behaving will not be acquired by children if they are verbally propagated by adult socializers but not manifested in their conduct” (393, 397). Staub, then, makes specific suggestions for childrearing:

… patterns of parental practices … includes parental warmth, affection, or nurturance; the tendency to reason with the child … pointing out to children the consequences of their behavior on others, both negative and positive; firm but not forceful control; … and guiding the child to engage in behavior that benefits others … [m]odeling by parents … Even when socialization practices and the family environment are optimal, however, children require help to correctly read and code their own feelings and those of others (395, 398, italics original).

Staub, then, points out that parents are limited in their abilities to do all these things. So, “society will have to provide parents with at least a modicum of security and the fulfillment of basic needs … at least minimal supportive societal conditions are required” and points to a parent-training program in Missouri (402-3). Finally, Staub lays a heavy charge on schools and universities: to use “cooperative education” methods, to consider carefully the rules they set and enforce, to develop “critical consciousness,” to teach the shared humanity of all persons and groups, and to give instruction in the various social processes by which antisocial and prosocial orientations are developed (404-9).

On the whole, a very good set of important essays which address the future of humanity in concrete social-psychological and ethical terms.

In addition to these seminal essays, this book contains some moments of great interest: Midlarsky’s studies on altruism in the ageing population is very informative. Baron’s essay on the normative nature of Dutch rescue, set over against Kurek-Lesik’s work on the nature of Polish rescue,[4] shows how culturally-dependent altruism actually is. The chapters on the Israeli resistor, Dov Yirmiya, and on Alcoholics Anonymous were both interesting but need more theoretical work on altruism. For me, the two most stimulating studies were those of Hovannisian and Osiatynski. Hovannisian’s study of Turkish rescue of Armenians during and after the massacre (284-305) shows, despite the methodological difficulties, that rescue did occur — which I did not know — but in conditions very different from those of the holocaust. Osiatynski’s study of altruism in classical, communist, and post-Soviet Russian culture (433-53) shows that the communalism of the Orthodox Church combined with that of communism to reduce individual responsibility, thereby either relegating altlruistic activity to charity or doing away with it altogether as a break from statist ideology; fascinating!

For those of us active in religious communities, the work in altruistic studies is very important because, as is well-known, organized religion has not supported altruistic activities nearly enough. People who care for others, persons who act without thinking to help another, and those who expose themselves to great risk to protect others are sometimes “religious” yet, even then, many ascribe their motives to home attitudes not to formal religious education. There is also a study done with Princeton Theological Seminary students in which they were asked to read the parable of the Good Samaritan and then told to go to a neighboring building to deliver a talk either on alternate careers in the ministry or on the parable itself. On the way to the neighboring building, they had to pass by a “victim.” Only 40% of the students stopped to help, and those who were to preach on the Good Samaritan were no more numerous than those who were giving the professional talk. Studying the parable did not increase Samaritan-like, caring activity.[5] What are we doing wrong in our churches, synagogues, and mosques? What are we doing, or not doing, in our religious schools? What ought we to be teaching and practicing? Books like this may help us learn the answer to these questions.

 


* Appeared in Pastoral Psychology, 46:2 (1997) 131-34.

[1] S. and P. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York, Free Press: 1988); reviewed by me in Critical Review of Books in Religion, 3 (1990) 409-11.

[2] This typology may be the basis of the typology in chapter 8 of The Altruistic Personality.

[3] These processes will be the basis of the Oliners’ forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Toward a Caring Society: Ideas into Action.

[4] This essay seems a little naive. The author claims 62% of the orders of nuns were involved in rescue work. With a population of 20,000 nuns (329), there should have been 12,500 nuns rescuing Jews. This seems a rather high estimate, especially given the results. The author also claims that conversion was “never an aim” though it was considered useful (332). This, too, seems overstated.

[5] J. M. Darley and C. D. Batson, “`From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27:1 (1973) 100-108.

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