The parable of the Good Samaritan (who pays it forward in a big way) not only compares the actions of the self-righteous and the righteous but speaks of human motivations to help or not help. Although we vilify the priest and the Levite, we find ourselves exhibiting the same avoidance behavior (sin of omission) on a regular basis. How can we recognize and overcome our tendencies to ignore opportunities to show compassion?
Why do People Help?
The evolutionary model maintains that people are naturally inclined to help one another because it contributes to the survival of the species. This is especially true in situations that are considered low or moderate risk, such as helping someone pick up something they have dropped.
In higher risk situations, however, a phenomenon called kin selection occurs. Kin selection indicates that people are more likely to help only their relatives, because they are intuitively carrying on their genetic line.
Whereas the evolutionary model seems to employ a more collective effort for helping behavior, the egoistic model suggests that sometimes people egoistically help others because helping elicits some type of reward. People who are intrinsically motivated, help others because it makes them feel good inside. Their empathy allows them to understand what another person is feeling and their desire to relieve them of their suffering elicits an altruistic behavior. Think of it this way: when you give a donation to a cause about something you care about, you are not necessarily expecting anything in return. Because you deeply care about that cause, it makes you feel good to be a part of it.
When intensified to an emergency, bystanders may feel fear, anxiety or sympathy. Being upset by this emotion the bystander feels a need to relieve it. The greater the perceived need for help, the greater the bystander’s emotional response and the greater their likelihood of providing assistance. But not always as you will soon see.
Reciprocity states that people help because they expect to be helped in return. Additionally, it states that a person who has been helped previously, will feel indebted to help those who helped them. And often that is true. But let’s say that you give a donation to your cause, but you know that you are getting a gift card to your favorite restaurant in return. Although this may seem like a selfish motive it is not necessarily so. Often it is apparent that the donation is of a far greater value than the reward-it is a thank you rather than a reciprocation, but it’s just enough to make the giver feel like they are also getting.
Furthermore, helping someone and thus receiving something in return, can benefit your family. Although the welfare of your family can be seen as a gesture of self-interest, you may be motivated knowing you are contributing to their health, safety, and happiness. Of course, we can also see an example of the evolutionary perspective here as well: you are helping someone and receiving something in return in order to enhance the survival of your family, which in turn carries on your genes.
Social responsibility is a feeling that a person has an obligation to act in such a way that benefits the whole society. With this, a person has a duty to fulfil or maintain the balance in his environment. A person may do this actively, by donating money to government NGO’s or recycling their garbage, or passively, by ensuring that he commits no harm to others.
The passive response brings to the surface a discussion of the “sins of omission” wherein we don’t further damage someone in need, but neither do we do anything to help them. We ignore them: let’s see why.
Why do People NOT Help?
The Bystander Effect
This concept states that the presence of bystanders inhibits or decreases the likelihood of a person helping another. The more bystanders there are, the less likely that a person will extend help [an experiment on bystander effect]. Several variables explain why this occurs.
This variable pertains to a person’s perception of how grave the need is. High ambiguity situations would cause a person to have second thoughts about helping – for example, a soft cry vs. a loud scream.
This variable affects the likelihood that bystanders will help another based on familiarity with the person in need. Remember evolutionary kin selection above?
Diffusion of Responsibility
The presence of other bystanders leads one to believe that the others will take responsibility. This may be affected by skills or qualifications, in which one believes that others are more qualified to help, thereby avoiding giving unwarranted assistance. How many films have you seen in which a crowd gathers on a beach watching a drowning person? Did you admire the one or two individuals who stepped out to provide the rescue?
Modern Good Samaritan Rescues Boy from Humiliation
I found the following post on social media. It provides a great example of someone who acted compassionately, but also note that it appears that there was only one bystander who might have inhibited the woman’s intuitive response to help.
February 14, 2019
So, I just stopped at Arby’s to treat myself to a mint shake for V-day. While waiting for my order I was watching this silly and playful group of high school boys order lunch for V-day for the girls with them. One young man who was hanging towards the back of the group was being pretty quiet and particularly caught my eye. The last boy placed his order for the young lady and ordered nothing for himself. The girl then ran away with her gaggle of other girls to go get seats. I watched this boy fumble through his empty wallet holding only $2. He then hands over his debit card slowly and of course it declined. I watched his little head look down with the saddest feeling of defeat and boy did it pull at my heart strings (I literally could feel his heart sink into his stomach while his mind frantically raced as how to fix this situation without his friends knowing)…I pray no one ever has to feel that feeling of sheer embarrassment and helplessness because of lack of money…Lord knows I’ve stood right where he was many times in my life…it’s awful.
Just then, his girl comes fluttering back to the counter to check on him…the cashier and I’s eyes locked and it was just this overwhelming feeling in my body that I had to do something. Being a mom makes you look at the whole world differently. So, as though it was second nature, I quickly bent down and pretended to pick up $20 as though he dropped it. I handed it to him and he paid with his mouth wide open. He then tried to hand the change to me as his girl went to fill up her drink cup. I politely declined and told him he still needed to get her dessert. In that moment, a 15 year old boy grabbed my hand and squeezed it so tightly…with tears welling in his eyes he simply stated “Thank you…thank you for your kindness ma’am”
That was an awesome moment. As I went to leave with my shake, the cashier winked and said with a giant smile, “well played!”
I didn’t change the world today…but maybe, just maybe, I helped a boy know that love and kindness can come in many forms. Damn that felt good…especially on Valentine’s Day 💘
This lady had just gloriously avoided a “sin of omission” and gives us an excellent example of empathy and altruism in action.
How Can We Realize Greater Christian Perfection?
Dr Samuel Paul Veissiere provides brilliant insight on how we can do better at avoiding the sins of omission by merely acting on our natural impulses.
He observes that probing the core of what makes us human can seem rather bleak in these times of humanitarian crisis. That we have such a crisis to begin with speaks to the terrifying violence, callousness and ignorance we are all capable of. But there is also something deeply precious about our unique nature-nurture, and now more than ever, it is time to remember, honor, and summon that part of the human in each of us.
Altruism, cooperation, and caring for the vulnerable is what made our species unique. It is empathy and cooperation, not self-interest and competition, that drove our physiological, cognitive, linguistic, cultural, social, and technological evolution. We wouldn’t be the large-brained, neurally-plastic, intelligent, cumulatively-learning, empathetic beings that we are without the mutual help that characterizes our everyday interactions.
Our evolutionary history is one of collective child-rearing, cooperative hunting and gathering, caring for elders and the sick, and freely sharing information. Raising weak, slow-maturing human infants requires immense amounts of collective effort and the free sharing of knowledge, attention, time, love, joy, and fun. This is a miracle that we have reproduced in each generation. That every one of us can walk, think, talk, and imagine in one or more language(s) and navigate complex social worlds is a testament to this collective miracle. We owe this miracle to everyone alive today, and all that came before us. We could never be our own selves, in other words, without others – without all others in time and space!
In his excellent ethno-history of money and passionate debunking of the rational-actor, homo econominus‘ view of human nature, anthropologist David Graeber points out that for most of human history, the reciprocal expectation that social obligations had to be repaid in kind was simply not the norm.
What’s in it for you, after all, when you stop a stranger to let them know they dropped their wallet, when you freely give them directions, or watch their belongings on a beach or at a café? Absolutely nothing! Nothing beyond the intrinsic, automatic urge to help a fellow human.
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone but does nothing to help their circumstances. It is without consequence or action. Another way to look at any problem is through the lens of empathy; and to distinguish between what we may term deep and shallow levels of empathy.
Empathy requires the ability to put oneself in someone else’s perspective. Intuiting ‘correct’ behavior from a set of implicit rules (something at which humans are extraordinarily skilled) requires just such perspective-taking abilities. We behave according to the way we expect others to expect us to behave in any given context. Empathy is a highly complex cognitive operation that we engage in without conscious effort in all but the most trying of everyday actions, from knowing how and where to sit on a bus or waiting room to ignoring the homeless. Bystander experiments in social psychology have shed ominous light on our collective social minds: as strange as it may seem, someone being harassed in public is more likely to be helped by a stranger if there are fewer people around; if the bystander mode of attention is one of callousness and ignorance, breaking that spell becomes counter-intuitive and very difficult for all involved.
Consider the following scenario. You are sitting in a crowded subway, and notice a pregnant woman standing by the doors. Every part of you is aching to get up and offer your seat (deep empathy), but everyone on the train is looking down at their mobile phone and blocking off the social world around them with their headphones. You find yourself, somehow, too shy to offer help.
You leave the train filled with shame, and soon forget about the incident. Your basic empathetic abilities in this case are translated into a pro-social urge to enforce local norms-do what everybody else is doing. This is what Dr. Veissiere terms shallow empathy.
The scenario described above is something we have all experienced. We experience it daily. We experienced it with tears and horror when we saw the picture of the dead Syrian child washed ashore on the Turkish beach during the September 2015 refugee crisis. We desperately wanted to help, but soon felt too shy or insignificant. Some of us shared the picture on social media and wept a little more; some of us donated money here or there, but soon, we all moved on to the next Facebook post about cats, cars, or vegan meals, and resumed our ignorant bliss as usual.
What it takes to break out of the hypnotic pull of rule-governed shallow empathy, then, is an approach to virtue ethics that is best exemplified in Confucian and Taoist traditions; one which, as neuroscientist and philosopher Francisco Varela argued can be broken down in cognitive-scientific terms. In the Confucian and Taoist practice of wisdom, the sage does not rely on abstract rules like those of the western sense of obligation, but rather trusts his or her intuition to act virtuously according to the minute particulars of each situation (remember the lady at Arby’s). Who would not ‘violate’ someone’s private property to rescue a child drowning in a residential swimming pool? Surely, the virtuous thing to do in such a situation is to overlook our respect for another’s property in order to save a life. But how many of us would allow our socially-created conscious to delay us too long before jumping that fence and submerging ourselves, cellphone, wallet and all, to save that drowning child?
As we can see, intuition is no simple matter. The autopilot through which we navigate most of our everyday situations is deeply conditioned by largely implicit social regimes of attention that shape our every movement. This, in a nutshell, is what anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu described as the “habitus”, or the way in which our most ‘personal’ styles of thinking, moving, and feeling, are constrained by a broader cultural context. It is this “broader cultural context”, (see ‘Why People Do Not Help’ above), which we must become more aware of as each situation presents itself. To overpower it with our more ethical intuitive response to assist others allows us to avoid sins of omission
Once we are conscious of this problem, the virtuous approach entails an arduous back-and-forth monitoring of our conscious and unconscious intuitions, and the search for that right gut feeling, that feels counter-intuitive most of the time, on which to base our actions. It supports our desire to offer our seat on a bus to a pregnant woman or comfort a homeless man who was crying on the sidewalk. It also begins with a critical, ongoing examination of how we see others that continually shapes our relationships. In this process we may discover that our culture has fostered the wrong kinds of standard values. At this point we are ready to rediscover and learn from other cultures, that have made charity and hospitality a sacred tenet, what it is like to be human.
The tradition of care and hospitality to strangers, to be sure, has been encoded, honored and kept alive in many languages, moral systems, and everyday modes of relations. This is what the African tradition of Ubuntu, “the quality of being human” stands for. In the island Mayotte off the coast of East Africa, people like to say mañka uluñu uluñu uluñu: “what makes a person is other people”.
In the postindustrial capitalist West, our deepest sense of ‘self’ has been shaped by the false notion that individual problems are distinct from social problems. As we forget our history and that of the world, we become content, selfish, and ignorant. We are not entitled to any of the privileges we take for granted. More than our privileges, we owe our very life to humanity and the planet as a whole. This is a debt that, as David Graeber points out, can never be repaid. The road ahead, then, entails honoring this Gift through compassion, love and care for others, even – and especially! – when it seems socially counter-intuitive to do so.
Even though he had just heard of the death of his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus wasn’t just sympathetic to the crowd before he fed the 5000. He didn’t just feel sorry for them. He had compassion for them, and that gut reaction spurred him to do what he could to help them. He cured their sick. He met them at their need and did what he could to serve them, to minister to them.
It’s a heart issue. The sin of omission is allowed by the widespread hardness of societies heart. But everyone has the choice to follow their instinct and step out of the crowd in a stand for virtue ethics. When you listen to the Still Small Voice or act on your natural desire to help, you can welcome refugee families in your homes; show mercy for those trying to escape from violence and deprivation; campaign for healthcare, and immigration law reform in your countries, and so much more.
Then think further and keep questioning your allegiances to such strangely violent and narrow rule-governed divisions such as race, political party, and nation-states. You can do it.
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Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37)
“Caring for Others Is What Made Our Species Unique” by Samuel Paul Veissiere PhD
“Psychology of Helping Others” by Instructor: Joshua Mummert