I Need a Hero: Why Others’ Good Deeds Make Us Better People

Often this blog’s posts highlight bad moral behavior and attempt to explain it by referring you, dear readers, to one or more of our behavioral ethics videos. Repeatedly reading examples of bad behavior can be depressing, especially because there are so many in the news every day that we don’t even have time or bandwidth to address even a substantial fraction of them. It therefore seems an opportune time to write about people who have not only avoided doing bad things, but have acted heroically.

Rachel Maddow’s “Bag Man” podcast is a fascinating history lesson. It tells the story of the political demise of Vice President Spiro Agnew which preceded, but only barely, the downfall of President Nixon. The podcast reminds us of Agnew’s corruption (he collected bribes throughout his political life, including after he became vice president when he often accepted cash right in the White House), and provides evidence of his wrongdoing that was previously not publicly known. Maddow, host of her own show on left-leaning MSNBC, is trying to teach us history but also to signal the possible present-day applicability of this history lesson in that Agnew, who was as guilty as guilty could be, repeatedly and vehemently denied any wrongdoing, attacked the media relentlessly, and assailed the FBI and DOJ in ways that Maddow finds relevant to today’s headlines.

Our focus is on the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, George Beall. Three young attorneys in his office began investigating public corruption in Maryland, where Agnew had been governor. They had no idea when they began that the investigation would have anything to do with Agnew, but the evidence took them straight to him and it was overwhelming. Because George Beall’s brother was U.S. Senator Glenn Beall, and because they were Republicans like Nixon and Agnew, both Agnew and George H.W. Bush, then an official with the national Republican party, asked Senator Beall to tell his brother George that it was time to wrap the investigation up. President Nixon’s tapes record him saying that the case needed to be “fixed” before the public found out about it. Documents indicate that Senator Glenn Beall passed the messages on to his brother, but that George Beall simply ignored them and let his young assistants pursue the investigation as they saw fit. They did not learn until they were interviewed for the podcast 45 years later that their boss had shielded them from political pressure coming from the highest offices in the land and the most powerful people in their own political party.

George Beall is a hero, but he was risking only his political future, not his life. We recently revisited Phillip Hallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, about the little village of Le Chambon in southern France whose residents in World War II risks their lives for years to shelter thousands of refugees, mostly Jews, and help them escape. The village became known throughout Europe as the safest place for Jews to escape to. The village was largely Protestant, and much of the credit for leading the village’s actions goes to Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, the community’s spiritual leader. Trocmé was not a perfect man, but he spent much of his adult life courageously standing up for what he believed in (including nonviolence). He resisted extreme pressure from France’s political leaders, his church’s leaders, and the Nazis. And he was willing to risk his own life, as well as the lives of his family and his parishioners, in order to do the right thing. Trocmé was motivated by his religious beliefs. His wife, Magda, was not religious at all but nonetheless was the first person in the village to open her door to refugees. She helped simply because the people needed help. That was reason enough for her.

Reading such stories causes most of us to feel the moral emotion of elevation. We need a little elevation in this day and age. Not only does it make us feel good, it often prompts us to act prosocially ourselves.

We recommend our video on moral emotions, but also suggest that you consider watching our videos on the conformity bias. Research on the conformity bias indicates that people usually take their cues for moral behavior from those around them. While there is evidence that we often emulate others’ bad behavior, good behavior is catching also. Moore and Gino find that “the simple presence of another person making positive moral choices improves people’s behavior.” Fortunately, the heroic acts of Pastor Trocmé and his wife Magda were emulated by a critical mass of their fellow villagers. Studies of World War II rescuers in Europe indicate that, as in Le Chambon, rescuers tended to have more models in their close social circle who exhibited similar altruistic behavior than did people who did not rescue.

Naturally, people are more likely to risk their necks for folks like themselves, rather those who are different. The in-group/out-group bias is powerful. Oliner and Oliner, who studied rescues throughout Europe in World War II, found that although the rescuers were not Jewish themselves, “they saw the Jews in their community as not really different from themselves, even when they didn’t know them personally. With this understanding, the rescuers felt they had no choice but to take the enormous personal risk of sheltering the oppressed families.” (Damon & Colby) This was definitely the case in Le Chambon. When the Nazis or others asked Trocmé to point out the Jews who were widely known to be hiding in Le Chambon, he always replied: “We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men.” You might consider watching our video on in-group/out-group.

There’s a bit of the tangible & the abstract at work here as well. Oliner and Oliner found that “involvement in rescue activity frequently began with concern for a specific individual or individuals for whom compassion was felt—often individuals known previously. This initial involvement subsequently led to further contact and rescue activity and to a concern for justice that extended well beyond the bounds of the initial empathic concern.” (Remmel & Glenn) Thinking abstractly about 5,000 nameless and faceless Jews in another country is one thing. Coming face to face with two Jews on your doorstep is something else. It was for Magde Trocmé. She said: “Naturally, come in, and come in.”

“Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.” —Elizabeth Koenig-Kaufman, a former child refugee in Le Chambon

Sources:

William Damon & Anne Colby, The Power of Ideals: The Real Story of Moral Choice (2015).

Peter Grose, A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives in World War II (2015).

Philip Hallie, Les Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (1994).

Rachel Maddow, “Bag Man,” at https://www.msnbc.com/bagman.

Celia Moore & Francesca Gino, “Ethically Adrift: How Others Pull Our Moral Compass from True North, and How We Can Fix It,” 33 Research in Organizational Behavior 53 (2013)

Caroline Moorhead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (2015).

Sam Oliner & Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (1988).

Rheanna J. Remmel & Andrea L. Glenn, “Immorality in the Adult Brain,” in The Moral Brain: A Multidisciplinary Perspective 239, 294 (Jean Decety & Thalia Wheatley, Eds., 2015)

Simone Schnall, “A Sense of Cleanliness,” in Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction 215, 218 (John Brockman, ed., 2013).

Ethics Unwrapped, Moral Emotions, at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-emotions.

Ethics Unwrapped, Conformity Bias, at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.

Ethics Unwrapped, In-Group/Out-Group, at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group.

Ethics Unwrapped, Tangible & Abstract, at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/tangible-abstract.

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