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Altruism Takes Center Stage: After being saved by a liver donor, TC’s altruism researcher Elizabeth Midlarsky shares her views of Miller’s “Incident at Vichy”

 

After surviving a long and life-threatening illness, most people would choose to ease back into their work. Elizabeth Midlarsky was having none of it.

In late December, Midlarsky, TC Professor of Psychology & Education, took the stage at New York City’s Signature Theatre for a post-performance discussion of Arthur Miller’s one-act play “Incident at Vichy.”

Set during World War II, the play is a fictional account of a group of 15 men, all but two of whom are Jewish. All are detained in Vichy – the seat of France’s wartime government that collaborated with Germany – for “racial inspection.” Rather than banding together to fight their captors, most either refuse to believe they are in serious danger or else focus on their own odds for survival. 

Only one prisoner – a non-Jewish expatriate Austrian prince who has witnessed the Nazis’ arrests and incarcerations of Jewish colleagues and friends – takes a different perspective. Though a member of a prominent anti-Semitic family, he is aghast at the collapse of humanistic values in his own country and understands that the prejudice and wanton cruelty that he observes threaten civilization as a whole. Following his own “racial inspection,” he is given a “pass” that guarantees his freedom. However, at the play’s conclusion, he gives the pass to a Jewish psychiatrist who has a wife and small child.

In one way, the play constitutes familiar territory for Midlarsky, whose work has focused on the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust. She has conducted studies of Holocaust-era non-Jews aimed at identifying personality traits that discriminate “rescuers” and “bystanders” under conditions of high risk to themselves, and seeks to identify the thoughts, emotions and values that distinguish people who genuinely wish to help others with no expected gain for themselves.

This past summer, however, Midlarsky underwent a liver transplant that cured an inherited condition diagnosed almost 20 years ago, and the cancer caused by that condition. As an added bonus, since having the surgery she no longer has a separately inherited case of “hemophilia C,” something even her doctors weren’t entirely sure would happen. Although she is still working on returning to full strength, she is making a full recovery and feels that she has a new lease on life – and a deeper perspective on altruism.

“It’s amazing that I’m still here,” she says. “I was told that, as a person over the age of 60 who was in a very weakened state because of the illness, I was unlikely to be chosen for a transplant, as so very few organs are donated. I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what motivates people to donate organs” – her own donor was someone killed in a crash over the July 4th weekend – “and the unfairness of a system that discriminates against any group of people.”

More than ever, Midlarsky believes, “altruism is a behavior motivated by empathy and compassion for others, and by moral principles.” In December, for example, she argued that in Miller’s play, the Austrian nobleman’s decision to potentially sacrifice his freedom, and possibly his own life to save another person, was not motivated by altruism. It might, instead, be seen as “suicide by Nazi” – a despairing response to the crumbling of his own culture.

“The question really is, how do you make an altruist?” she asks. “How do you create a society in which people will have genuine concern for others and the moral courage to act on that concern?” Socializing agents such as family members and teachers can be powerful role models.  Disciplinary techniques can be very influential, as well. Adults who punish or withdraw their love from children who “act badly” are not likely to create altruists.

Outcomes are even worse when adults force children to sacrifice themselves for others while they themselves display selfish behavior. In a study she did at an elementary school some years ago, Midlarsky noted that while administrators and teachers were constantly telling children to behave morally, they themselves were acting in overbearing, punitive ways. “It’s no good if authority figures preach one thing while modeling another sort of behavior,” she says.

When young children act thoughtlessly, Midlarsky says, parents can encourage them to note when they are hurting others, whether emotionally or physically; to make reparations; and to take pride in the latter behavior: “This can create the intrinsic desire to be compassionate toward others, even when facing great personal risk or cost.”

Published Tuesday, Feb 2, 2016

Elizabeth Midlarsky
Elizabeth Midlarsky, Professor of Psychology & Education

 

After surviving a long and life-threatening illness, most people would choose to ease back into their work. Elizabeth Midlarsky was having none of it.

In late December, Midlarsky, TC Professor of Psychology & Education, took the stage at New York City’s Signature Theatre for a post-performance discussion of Arthur Miller’s one-act play “Incident at Vichy.”

Set during World War II, the play is a fictional account of a group of 15 men, all but two of whom are Jewish. All are detained in Vichy – the seat of France’s wartime government that collaborated with Germany – for “racial inspection.” Rather than banding together to fight their captors, most either refuse to believe they are in serious danger or else focus on their own odds for survival. 

Only one prisoner – a non-Jewish expatriate Austrian prince who has witnessed the Nazis’ arrests and incarcerations of Jewish colleagues and friends – takes a different perspective. Though a member of a prominent anti-Semitic family, he is aghast at the collapse of humanistic values in his own country and understands that the prejudice and wanton cruelty that he observes threaten civilization as a whole. Following his own “racial inspection,” he is given a “pass” that guarantees his freedom. However, at the play’s conclusion, he gives the pass to a Jewish psychiatrist who has a wife and small child.

In one way, the play constitutes familiar territory for Midlarsky, whose work has focused on the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust. She has conducted studies of Holocaust-era non-Jews aimed at identifying personality traits that discriminate “rescuers” and “bystanders” under conditions of high risk to themselves, and seeks to identify the thoughts, emotions and values that distinguish people who genuinely wish to help others with no expected gain for themselves.

This past summer, however, Midlarsky underwent a liver transplant that cured an inherited condition diagnosed almost 20 years ago, and the cancer caused by that condition. As an added bonus, since having the surgery she no longer has a separately inherited case of “hemophilia C,” something even her doctors weren’t entirely sure would happen. Although she is still working on returning to full strength, she is making a full recovery and feels that she has a new lease on life – and a deeper perspective on altruism.

“It’s amazing that I’m still here,” she says. “I was told that, as a person over the age of 60 who was in a very weakened state because of the illness, I was unlikely to be chosen for a transplant, as so very few organs are donated. I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what motivates people to donate organs” – her own donor was someone killed in a crash over the July 4th weekend – “and the unfairness of a system that discriminates against any group of people.”

More than ever, Midlarsky believes, “altruism is a behavior motivated by empathy and compassion for others, and by moral principles.” In December, for example, she argued that in Miller’s play, the Austrian nobleman’s decision to potentially sacrifice his freedom, and possibly his own life to save another person, was not motivated by altruism. It might, instead, be seen as “suicide by Nazi” – a despairing response to the crumbling of his own culture.

“The question really is, how do you make an altruist?” she asks. “How do you create a society in which people will have genuine concern for others and the moral courage to act on that concern?” Socializing agents such as family members and teachers can be powerful role models.  Disciplinary techniques can be very influential, as well. Adults who punish or withdraw their love from children who “act badly” are not likely to create altruists.

Outcomes are even worse when adults force children to sacrifice themselves for others while they themselves display selfish behavior. In a study she did at an elementary school some years ago, Midlarsky noted that while administrators and teachers were constantly telling children to behave morally, they themselves were acting in overbearing, punitive ways. “It’s no good if authority figures preach one thing while modeling another sort of behavior,” she says.

When young children act thoughtlessly, Midlarsky says, parents can encourage them to note when they are hurting others, whether emotionally or physically; to make reparations; and to take pride in the latter behavior: “This can create the intrinsic desire to be compassionate toward others, even when facing great personal risk or cost.”

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