The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity

The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity

The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity

The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity


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. In "The 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 wel


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 fellow human being. While many disparate factors may contribute to the existence and development of what I will identify as an altruistic perspective, it is the perspective itself that constitutes the heart of altruism. To understand what makes one person act out of concern for others, instead of pursuing individual self-interest, we need to ask how that individual's perspective sets and delineates the range of options the individual finds available, both empirically and morally.

Beyond explaining altruism as an empirical phenomenon, however, I have a second purpose in writing this book. I treat altruism as an analytical tool that can yield insight into the strengths and limitations of the dominant theoretical structures underlying many public policies and academic disciplines that assume normal human behavior consists of the pursuit of individual self-interest. This assumption exists in disciplines as diverse as economics, evolutionary biology, and psychology; it permeates much of social science through rational choice theory. the assumption that self-interest is an intrinsic part of human nature lends an aura of scientific inevitability to self-interested behavior. Altruism challenges the inescapability and the universality of that assumption. I will argue here that although self-interest forms a useful starting point for explicating human behavior, it leaves many important forms of human action unexplained. Altruism is but one example. By understanding how theories based on self-interest fail to offer adequate explanations for altruism, we may learn something about the limitations of these theories themselves. This theoretical aspect of the analysis led me to develop my own theory of ethical political behavior. Although incomplete and flawed, this theory is offered at the end of the book in the hope that it will stimulate the debate necessary to advance the development of theoretical tools useful in both understanding altruism and more fully explicating other forms of ethical political behavior.

The preface tells the story of one altruist, an ethnic German who risked his life to rescue over one hundred Jews during World War ii. Otto's story gives . . .

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