The Difference Between Right and Wrong Begins at Home
July 25, 2010 2 Comments
Holocaust survivor and sociology professor Samuel Oliner tells a remarkable story of a Polish Catholic woman in Krakow during the Nazi occupation who accepts a Jewish infant from a desperate Jewish mother about to be sent to her death in a concentration camp. Certain Nazi-complicit Poles report the woman to the Nazi-complicit Polish police, and she is hauled into the station with the infant, and accused of the capital offense of harboring a Jewish child. There follows an extraordinary moment of righteous theater. The woman bursts into tears, pounds the desk, and says what an outrage it is that one of the police officers in this room, whom she will not name, is the father of this child, and so vicious that he will call his child a Jew rather than own up to his paternity. Throats are cleared, and the woman and child are freed.
There is a kind of perfection in this story. It is both heroism and exemplary self-renunciation (at a time and in a culture that was much less forgiving of extramarital sex than our own). It is extraordinary intelligence to conceive the only possible route to saving the child. It is the combination of epic virtues that reminds us of Odysseus. It is the celebration of a brazen lie that saves a child from genocidal murder and hurts no one but the liar. It tells us how spectacular a human being can be.
It is the perfect combination of heroism and self-denying altruism.
Heroism, by itself, is tremendously inspiring. Three of my favorite movies are Gladiator, The Last Samurai, and 300, all of which depict the privileging of principle over self-preservation, of men freely embracing death rather than dishonor, and it is beautiful in each case. But heroism of this inspiring sort is different than self-denying altruism. The Spartans in 300 were conscious of their heroism, and mindful that they would be writ large in legend. That does not detract from their heroism. But it distinguishes heroes who do something heroic, typically anonymously, and abase themselves.
Samuel Oliner has devoted his life to understanding what puts people into one of four camps: victimizer, victim, bystander, and rescuer. The vast majority of us are bystanders, as was the case in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. Why would some Gentiles nevertheless help Jews at risk to their lives and the lives of their families?
One of his books, The Altruistic Personality, co-authored with his wife Pearl, sets forth, modestly, as befits any study of human motivation, the thesis that rescuers simply could not do otherwise. Education level was not a factor. Intellect was not a factor. Socioeconomic status was not factor. Political ideology was not a factor. Church attendance was not a factor. Religious affiliation was not a factor.
Conspicuous as a factor was an unthinking instinct for the difference between right and wrong, developed in a childhood where right and wrong and empathy and justice were real.
Rescuers say it was “the thing to do,” “the thing which any feeling person would have done.” “What else could I do?”
This unthinking instinct does not explain all rescuer behavior, but it illuminates. These were not cost-benefit analyzers — else they wouldn’t have analyzed their self-interest the way they did, at mortal peril. Or, importantly, maybe they were in some cases cost-benefit analyzers, but knew the right thing to do when they confronted it.
We do not typically confront, in our comfortable culture, a choice as profound as World War II rescuers did. But the difference between right and wrong remains real — and a difference that parents can teach well or ill.
Let us suppose that right and wrong are relative, that we’re ultimately guided by whatever moral compass naturally evolves within us, and not by any other authority. As it develops, growing up as a child with a strong sense of right and wrong makes you far more likely to do the right thing when it counts, when it matters to the life of another human being.