What is it that makes us human? It’s a question that scientists, psychologists and philosophers are constantly exploring, and one possible answer often prominent in their discussion is that of altruism – we humans regularly reach out and help other people, and sometimes other animals, even when we have no emotional connection to those in need. An even more interesting question is what lies behind this need to spend our energy, time and valuable resources giving assistant to other people, with there being no obvious personal or evolutionary benefit to ourselves.
This is a question that is usually asked only in academic circles, but has become unexpectedly relevant in recent weeks, as Europe’s leaders scramble to try and come up with viable solutions for the refugees who are still arriving in not unprecedented, but apparently overwhelming numbers. This sense of urgency is evident only now, after months spent ignoring, not only a swiftly escalating crisis, but the suffering of countless human beings and the loss of thousands of lives. Why has it taken so long to take action, and what is driving the actions of those now in power? Perhaps getting a better understanding of our own motivations, ethical and psychological, might help us to deal more effectively with the challenges we face.
Professor Peter Simons is the 1837 Chair of Moral Philosophy. In the course of the refugee crisis some people have argued that Ireland’s government should have a duty to their own people first – that there is a moral conflict between protecting our own interests and reaching out to help refugees from elsewhere. However this argument, Professor Simons says, is essentially a nonstarter in moral terms. “The moral case for helping refugees is not difficult. All the world’s major religions and ethical systems consider charity, the rendering of help to those much more unfortunate than oneself, as not just a virtue but a duty. Refugees, as those fleeing war, famine, and natural disasters, are by definition in extreme need: they have lost or been displaced from their homes and livelihoods. They lack basic necessities and the means to provide for themselves, so those who are not in such need have a duty to help them.”
Ireland’s geographical distance from the conflict makes it easier for us to detach ourselves psychologically and to pretend that it’s none of our business, but this, says Simons, is a false sense of distance. It’s easier for us as a nation to send naval vessels to the Mediterranean, and dispatch our charity organisations to the site, saving lives without any direct sacrifice to the Irish people but harder to actually get involved ourselves, in order to fulfill what Professor Simons maintains is our duty as part of the EU. “The government and state have a duty too, which comes both from the general duty of charity but also from being part of the European Union, and the history of deriving benefit from this association. The high standard of living enjoyed in Ireland is due in no small part to the redirection of resources from richer countries in the interest of solidarity. Clearly, as a small country, Ireland should provide help commensurate with its size, but also commensurate with its wealth.”
So far, so obvious, you might say. But if our duty is so clear, why does our government – and Europe as a whole – seem to have such a difficulty in performing it? A clue might come from the related area of psychology. Ewan Douglas, a research assistant with the TCD’s School of Psychology, is studying culture in organisations. He looks for the small changes that can make people comply with regulations, and the factors that stop firms from operating well. I asked him if you could take those findings and apply them to a much bigger structure, such as Europe. “Yes, you could say Europe is like a really big, really complex organisation,” he said. “The problem in Europe is that it’s a top down scenario where basically Angela Merkel and a few other people are deciding things, or trying to decide them, and nobody else is really participating.”
On top of that, he points out that it’s very hard to take action on any issue when you’re all trying to go in several different directions at once. “In terms of refugees, every country has its own laws and then the EU is trying to follow a lot of different laws all at the same time. They’ve got conflicting interests.” Hence a lot of talking and very little action.
This might suggest that improving how well we respond comes down to all agreeing on widerreaching policies. It might not be as simple as that though, Douglas warns. The big problem with refugees, he thinks, is that there appears to be no direct benefit to those who help them. “I think people are kind of inherently selfish in the end. They only support things when they get some benefit from it. In the studies we did we saw that people were definitely more engaged when they saw benefits for themselves.”
An example from his research is that when people are incentivised to comply with safety regulations, compliance generally improves significantly. In a humanitarian crisis, there can be social benefits to being seen to donate money – we feel good, and other people think well of us too. Is accepting refugees seen as a more risky proposition in terms of cost and benefit? For those who are wary of the idea of taking in lots of people from elsewhere, Douglas notes, “I think for some people there’s definitely an element of the unknown involved. People in the UK for example are seeing reports in the media of terrorists and they assume refugees from places like Syria are dangerous – they have a skewed perception of risk.”
This view from the world of psychology would seem to suggest that there’s little we can do about a role we feel is inadequate– we are essentially selfish animals whose first instinct is to protect ourselves above all else. Yet that is only one school of thought, and Anne Holohan, Assistant Professor and director of the MPhil in the Sociology of Race, Ethnicity and Conflict, has a somewhat more optimistic perspective on human nature. Asked what makes us want to reach out and help other people, her answer was that it does not involve selfinterest, but another aspect of our basic instinct as humans. “People are social animals. We’ve always depended on others, on the collective, to survive and thrive. That requires empathy and all the evidence shows that women in particular are wired for empathy and communication, contributing to group cohesion and looking after the vulnerable.” This helps to explain why a single photograph of a child’s body washed up on the beach caused such a dramatic increase in media interest in the past weeks, which in turn may have had a significant influence on governmental policy.
“People also respond to story and visuals much more than to statistics,” continues Anne Holohan. “So the picture of that toddler washed up on the beach, obviously loved and cared for, triggered the empathy of people everywhere. Because of the needless tragedy of that young life lost, many people responded to the callousness of a political system that effectively kills an innocent child. I think institutions states, governments, police can make people feel powerless, forgetting that we, the people, are the institutions. We are the ones who give them power and we can take it away. So that picture was the catalyst that woke us up to remember that, and the politicians know that too. That’s why there have been many Uturns in the last few days.”
She disagrees with Ewan Douglas about the level of difficulty with assimilating refugees amongst Irish citizens, however, she admits that “populist politicians can use rhetoric and capitalise on insecurity to blame refugees for preexisting social problems.” This might exacerbate any “skewed perception of risk” for an ordinary citizen.
There can also be problems, however, when the response to a humanitarian crisis depends on its ability to generate automatic impulses of sympathy and thus enough media coverage to get things moving. Sorcha Nic Mhathúna is head of Communications at Oxfam, and she pointed out that often in certain kinds of humanitarian emergency, the situation has to reach critical levels before people will notice.
“Media coverage is vital in raising public awareness of an emergency, and this can differ depending on the type of situation. A largescale natural disaster can dominate the headlines in the immediate aftermath, while high profile media coverage of a slowonset food crisis may come very late on, when it has reached famine level.” Sorcha, however, is complimentary about Ireland’s record of giving: “Ireland has a proud history of helping those in need.” She agrees with Anne Holohan that empathy and personal experience has a lot to do with the level of support people show. She cites examples in the recent past when people were particularly generous: “The 2004 tsunami affected areas familiar to Irish holidaymakers, and resulted in a very generous response in Ireland. Similarly, many Irish people will know Filipinos living here and this may have had some influence on the strong level of donations to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.”
History may also have something to do with a nation’s response: “Our history of famine here is sometimes cited as a reason why Irish people were so moved by events such as the 2011 famine in Somalia and donated in high numbers to food appeals.”
If this is true, then this might help to explain why Germany has committed to taking in 800,000 refugees this year – it has frequently been stated in the media that this is the biggest migration of people since the Second World War, and for Germans, the comparison must strike a particularly strong chord. Professor Simons points out that this should have implications for how Ireland must respond, and he is not the first to do so. “More than any other nation,” he states emphatically, “the Irish know what it is like to be forced to move abroad to escape deprivation, and to find a welcome and make a new life overseas.” Indeed, we do still have many of our own people living with homelessness and deprivation – but this should not stop us from acting with compassion towards others in desperate need, Holohan insists. Hardship should remind us of our common humanity, rather than pushing us apart: “If anything, accepting refugees could be the catalyst to recognise that housing, shelter, a home, is a human right, not a function of your ability to pay. We have internal refugees in this country and they have common cause with the Syrian refugees.”
Whether it is history, personal experience, or some sort of positive mental feedback that pushes us towards altruism, most sources agree that Irish people in general are rather good at it. Professor Simons adds his voice to Sorcha Nic Mhathúna’s, as he optimistically concludes, “our reputation for sympathy and generosity is well deserved. Let us live up to it.