Friday, July 20, 2012


A friend recently said she was tired of hearing about the Holocaust.  She didn't mean to be hurtful; she explained that she wanted to see attention given to other atrocities that are happening in the world right now.  I think I understand her point, but I don't think the Holocaust needs to be de-emphasized in order to highlight the horrors of today.

Stories of the Holocaust inspire altruism.  If nothing else, they do that.  All around me -- especially in grad school -- people talk in terms of utilitarianism.  My economist friends see the world as a place of decisions based on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.  Others approach life with objectivism -- establishing independence and making decisions based on individualism.

Consider this scene, though, from "The Pianist:"

After Szpilman plays the piano, the German captain asks to see where he has been hiding.  Instead of killing Szpilman, he keeps his secret.  He gives him food and the coat off his back.

There are other well-documented stories of people risking their lives to save a Jew during the Holocaust.  Why?  Why would they do that?  The only answer I can come up with is that they are not motivated by self-interest.  They are motivated by duty and love.  Altruism is not only possible, it's possible in the worst of circumstances.

If there are similar stories people can share from current problems in the world, then so be it!  But if those aren't being told, I will read the memoirs and watch movies about the Holocaust with wonder and awe.  I will focus on those stories to remind me that I'm not in this world for myself alone.  I'm in it to help others, no matter what happens to me.

Thing I'm thankful for: food


Blogger mlh said...

Is altruism just long-term utilitarianism? I mean, if it brings you the greatest good (happiness and peace) or least bad (future shame), then is it still altruistic?

9:57 AM  

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