Did my title catch your eye? Have you ever thought about why you do selfless things? When you stop and think about it, why do people do good things? Would you help a person, even though you would stand to gain absolutely nothing? I’m sure you would, and you more than likely have before. But, why?
It’s a Friday night, and after a long week at work, you decide to stay in for the night and catch up on your favorite T.V. shows. You slam down on your couch when suddenly you hear someone shrieking, “”Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!” As you are unsure if the screams are coming from your television or outside, you mute the television and hear more screams, “I’m dying!” The shouts are in fact real, and they are coming from a woman outside.
Now which scenario would you assume would happen next:
- You run downstairs to help the screaming woman. When you notice that she has been stabbed and is in excruciating pain, you quickly call the police department and alert them on the incident and its urgency
- You unmute the television and continue to watch your show.
Well you’re a good and moral individual, right? I can assume that you chose option 1 without any hesitation, right? —And you probably did indeed, choose that option. What if I were to tell you that if this scenario were real, you most likely would actually act upon option 2 instead.
This incident is no hypothetical situation. In fact, on March 13th, 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered outside of her apartment building in the middle of the street. Thirty-seven of her neighbors were aware of what was going on outside. Despite shouts and screams, not a single one of her neighbors came to rescue her and Kitty was murdered.
Given the Kitty Genovese incident, Thomas Hobbes would argue that none of the neighbors phoned the police because there was no social authority present at the time. In Hobbes’s book Leviathan, he argues that in the State of Nature, an anarchical situation of the way things naturally are, the life of man is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Without any form of government or laws, human beings would be in a constant state of war with one another because each person would be for himself. However, no one wants to live this way; therefore, out of fear of our own life, we enter a State. Society creates a moral code because individually, each of us is selfishly motivated. Moral values are based on the agreement that an individual will not harm another individual, if he agrees to not harm him in return. Therefore, we need moral codes and social authority to keep things in order or else we become “nasty and brutish.” Without any authority present, the Kitty Genovese’s neighbors felt no social obligation to interfere because human beings are innately selfish.
I argue however, that when human beings act “altruistically” it is not out of fear of social authority; rather, the presence of others actually has the opposite effect. When the police asked Kitty Genovese’s neighbors why they each hadn’t called, they said that had the situation been serious, then someone would have surely called. Increasing the amount of bystanders, actually decreases the likelihood that one of them will intervene—a term coined as the bystander effect. The neighbors were each suffering from pluralistic ignorance—interpreting a situation as not as urgent as it may be, after seeing the inaction of others. Furthermore, there was a diffusion of responsibility where each neighbor felt less responsible to intervene because they thought another person would. Human beings act altruistically when they feel a personal responsibility; when they think they are the only person there to help.
Given the following two situations, which would you most likely intervene in:
- You are alone, sitting in a booth with a pair of headphones and a microphone. You are being asked to discuss the potential problems new college students might have in an urban area. To protect your identity, the discussion is taking place via an intercom with one another college student. Suddenly, the student on the other line suffers a seizure and calls for help.
- You are alone, sitting in a booth with a pair of headphones and a microphone. You are being asked to discuss the potential problems new college students might have in an urban area. To protect your identity, the discussion is taking place via an intercom with four other college students. Suddenly, one of the student’s on the other line suffers a seizure and calls for help.
This was an actual experiment conducted by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane, who became interested in the bystander effect after the murder of Kitty Genovese. They found that 85% of the participant’s who thought they were the only other person in the intercom (situation 1) reported the seizure. However, only 31% of the participants reported the seizure when told there were other students in the intercom (situation 2).
In order for a bystander to intervene, he must feel a certain degree of responsibility. I believe that this degree of responsibility is why we are motivated to act altruistically, when we do. I disagree with Hobbes’s belief that a presence of social authority is necessary to do good, because evidently, people are more altruistic when they are alone then when others are there. Evidently, a feeling of personal responsibility trumps
social authority as the root of altruism.