In his 1987 book Hope Within History, Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that when people are in situations like that of the ancient Hebrews under Babylonian captivity, where an overwhelmingly powerful majority holds seemingly complete and brutal sway over an oppressed minority, the latter must have recourse to the “public processing of pain.” This strategy involves refusal to collude with the oppressor by hiding the consequences of oppression out of shame or “identification with the aggressor.” It means public lament; it means public display of those who have been wounded by the regime; it means mirroring, in every way possible, the features of oppression, so as to undermine the veneer of religious and civil legitimation masking the regime’s systemic brutality.
With The Altruistic Personality, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Oliner have sought to reveal the contours and character of an underside of the Holocaust that often remains suppressed. They have undertaken a penetrating study of the developmental social psychology of altruism. It is hard to avoid recognizing that this research project, and the book resulting from it, have motivational rootage that extends close to the hearts of the authors.
In the book’s introduction, Samuel Oliner tells part of his story. As a Polish-Jewish lad of twelve, in the summer of 1942, he witnessed the brutal liquidation of the Bobowa Ghetto. While he waited his turn to be thrust onto the trucks that had already taken most of his family to an unknown destination, his grandmother fiercely told him in Yiddish, “Run away so that you will stay alive!” His escape made him perhaps the only survivor of Bobowa. Through the adroit kindness of a Polish peasant woman with whom his father had done business, he took a new identity, learned enough catechism to “pass,” and was guided to a small farm where he could be a helper to a childless couple. He survived. The only other members of his family who survived were a cousin and his wife, who had been hidden for three years by a Polish peasant family. These folk shared their meager food and showed them all manner of kindness. Oliner remembered the kindness of Balwina, the peasant farm woman, and the family who sheltered his cousin.
The Oliners have carried out a careful, multidimensional inquiry into the origins and motives of “rescuers” — non-Jews who, at risk to themselves and their families, and for no gain or reward, tried to provide aid, comfort, and protection to Jews threatened by the terror of the Nazi “final solution.” Their study examines rescue activities in each of the countries of Europe that experienced occupation by the Germans. Part of the book’s immense value is the historical chapter by Lawrence Baron that marshals the particular patterns of collaboration with and resistance to Nazi policies in France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, and, to a lesser degree, in Denmark, Sweden, and the former Baltic republics. That history, coupled with the generous use of interview narrative from rescuers, the rescued, and non-rescuers throughout the book, more than offsets any fear that the Oliners’ project, by focusing on rescue activities, might diminish the horror of the Holocaust. On the contrary, the quiet reportage of their interview materials consistently discloses the permeating perverseness of the assault on European Jewry, with its accompanying texture of terror. Their probing examination of rescuers in the midst of that structured terror, and in the midst of a present world where cynicism and despair mark our accounts of human nature, amounts to a stimulating and much-needed “public processing of goodness.”
The title The Altruistic Personality is meant to recall for readers a book written forty years ago with the title The Authoritarian Personality. In that study, a group of European and North American scholars sought to probe the developmental social psychology of totalitarian oppressiveness and to delineate the personality characteristics of those who would be its framers and implementers. The Oliners, by marshaling an international team of interviewers and translators, have sought to balance that influential study with their account of altruism. In part, the purpose of the book is to tell the story of rescuers. It aims to lift up in witness a recognition that while the war and events leading up to it clearly revealed the worst of human potential, among some ordinary people it also brought forth the very best of which men and women are capable.
But there is more. Major philosophical, theological, and psychological sources of western culture have portrayed human beings as perverse and self-centered creatures. Humans are looked upon as survivors of a prehistoric “fall” — a fall from grace and a fall from undistorted human communication and interaction. Psychologically, persons have been presented as living in the tension between a basic desire for pleasure and self-gratification and the alien requirements of a human culture born of defensiveness and enforced by constraint. Rescuers provide rare but significant models of a kind of care for the neighbor and the stranger that cuts across the grain of these assumptions about human selfishness and aggression. Finally, the Oliners’ interest is intensely practical. By investigating the patterns of socialization and education experienced by rescuers, they hope to find support for approaches to child-rearing and nurture that will increase the chance of producing rescuers. As part of our efforts to reshape education for a global citizenship, we need to make comprehensive changes in homes, religious communities, schools, and public life. It is at this level that the Oliners’ book is most suggestive.
The term altruism is attributed to the nineteenth century French sociologist August Comte and received wide dissemination through the writings of Herbert Spencer in the latter half of that century. Deriving from the Latin alter, “other”—it refers to an orientation to the good of others rather than principally or exclusively to one’s own good, as in egoism. The term entered into twentieth- social science through the writings of Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin in the 1940s. In the 1960s discussions of altruism among social scientists became widespread, not coincidentally, the Oliners suggest, with the emergence of the scientific study of morality in the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg.
For Comte altruism denoted “devotion to the welfare of others, based in selflessness.” The Oliners cite the definition given in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary : “uncalculated consideration of, regard for, or devotion to other’s interests . . . ” These formulations suggest that motives of self-interest must be separated from altruistic acts. Traditions from Plato’s Thrasymachus to Machiavelli and Hobbes radically question whether such a separation is possible. Their accounts of human nature see persons as aggressive, competitive, and self-interested. Claims to altruism, from this perspective, are either self-deceived or mendacious. Virtue—or the appearance of virtue—is pursued because in some sense it finally serves one’s self-interest. Though less openly cynical, thinkers such as Helvetius, Plato, Marx, and Freud find it hard to account theoretically for people’s acting on any higher motive than enlightened self-interest.
For purposes of their study the Oliners cut through the range of nuanced characterizations of altruism to arrive at the following operational definition: “We characterize a behavior as altruistic when (1) it is directed towards helping another, (2) it involves a high risk or sacrifice to the actor, (3) it is accompanied by no external reward, and (4) it is voluntary.” They go on to say, “Rescue behavior in the context of the Holocaust meets these criteria. The behavior was clearly directed toward helping; it was very high risk, threatening life itself; it was accompanied by no external reward, according to the rescued survivors’ . . . testimony; and it was certainly voluntary—no external coercions required it.”
Yad Vashem is Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Part of its charge is to honor those who risked their lives to rescue Jews. Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous has a commission of eighteen members with the task of determining who shall be designated as a rescuer. They base their consideration on evidence submitted by rescued survivors (or their friends or relatives), as well as ancillary documentation and personal interviews. At the time the Oliners began their study (1982) Yad Vashem had identified some 5,500 such rescuers. Now the figure is roughly 6,000. This figure may represent as much as one-tenth or as little as one-one-hundredth of the actual rescuers in Europe during the war years. Ninety-five percent of the 406 rescuers the Oliners and their team interviewed are Yad Vashem designees. The additional 5 percent are persons they identified by virtue of their interviews with rescued survivors, using criteria similar to those followed by Yad Vashem.
In addition to the rescuers the Oliner team interviewed 126 non-rescuers and 150 survivors. Of the non-rescuers, 53 were involved in resistance movements, or had helped Jews, or sometimes had done both. They were called “actives.” The remaining 72 non-rescuers said that they had done nothing out of the ordinary, either to help people or resist the Nazis. They, accordingly, were called “bystanders.”
The interview format used by the Oliner team had over 450 items and consisted of six main parts: a) characteristics of the family household in which respondents lived in their early years, including relationships among family members; b) parental education, occupation, politics, and religiosity, as well as parental values, attitudes, and disciplinary approaches; c) respondent’s childhood and adolescent years-education, religiosity, and friendship patterns, as well as self-described personality characteristics; d) the five-year period just prior to the war—marital status, occupation, work colleagues, politics, religiosity, sense of community, and psychological closeness to various groups of people; if married, similar questions were asked about the spouse; e) the immediate prewar and war years, including employment, attitudes toward Nazis, whether Jews lived in the neighborhood, and awareness of Nazi intentions toward Jews; all were asked to describe their wartime lives and activities, whom they helped, and organizations they belonged to; f) the years after the war, including the present—relations with children and personal and community—helping activities in the last year; this section included forty-two personality items comprising four psychological scales.
The Oliners are quite mindful that their findings draw on accounts given of events and motives that depend on memories and self-interpretations that go back forty years or more. They have sought and used data from others, including persons rescued, to validate and test the memories of their respondents. They make the assumption that as regards major patterns of personality, persons show significant continuity over the life-span. They say, “Predispositions with regard to such matters as values, occupational interests, psychological well-being, neuroticism, extroversion, and openness to experience, as well as other self-reported personality traits, appear to change very little after the early twenties.”
Samuel Oliner is a sociologist. Pearl Oliner is an educational psychologist. They have taken great pains to make sure that their study meets the requirements of rigorous social-scientific method. They identify their theoretical orientation as social-psychological. As such, it assumes that “behavior is best explained as the result of an interaction between personal and external social, or situational factors . . . . Personal factors included personality characteristics and values. Situational factors are the immediate external environmental conditions over which the actor has no control but that nonetheless affect a decision.”
In the analysis of their data, the Oliners adopt a lucid and logical manner of proceeding. After a chapter in which they give the narratives of a number of heroic acts of rescue, they turn to a depiction of the social context of rescue. Here, using a rich selection of narrative fragments from their interviews, they depict vividly the difficulties rescuers faced in determining how to balance their obligations to family and friends with their commitments to the rescued. What level of risks would be acceptable for spouses and children who had no say in the matter, and often no knowledge of it? Who could be trusted to know and help, or to know and not blow the whistle? Who had to be kept in the dark for their own sake and for others whose lives might depend upon their keeping quiet? Should one carry cyanide pills, or give them to rescuees, in the event they might be caught and tortured for information? Once the deception, lies, trickery, and subterfuge began, how could it be kept in bounds? Where did it end?
Did people become rescuers because of their character or because opportunity confronted them? To clarify this issue the authors compare the involvements of rescuers with non-rescuers in relation to four situational variables: 1) information about Nazi policy toward Jews and comprehension of need; 2) the particular risks involved in providing help; 3) the material resources at their disposal; and 4) the presence of a precipitating event. Their interviews revealed that by the beginning of the war non-rescuers and rescuers alike were aware of the Nazi assaults on Jews and their probable intent. What distinguished rescuers, however, was an empathetic comprehension of this information, coupled with a sense of being personally addressed and responsible as regards the situations of victims. The risks of helping, the Oliners concluded, were no greater for non-rescuers than rescuers. The salient differences in material resources were principally the size and configuration of one’s home—whether it provided ample space and good hiding places for the rescued—and home ownership, which freed potential rescuers from the hazards of prying landlords. Interestingly, differences in material resources were minimal between rescuers and non-rescuers. The former ranged from the poorest of the poor to the very rich. The latter, however, tended to concentrate more in the middle classes. One-third of the rescuers initiated the helping relationship; 67 percent of them were approached and asked or confronted by a specific situation of need as the initiating event. We do not know how many non-rescuers were approached but did not respond willingly.
The core chapters of the Oliners’ book try to unravel and weigh the factors shaping the personality and character of rescuers, and their attitudes toward Jews. Here they also address the crucial question of what moved rescuers from concern and awareness to action. In these pages, we get some of their richest narratives and their most significant findings.
Johan, a Dutch boy of seventeen in 1941, evaded the German draft that assigned him to compulsory labor in Germany. After three months, when his hiding place with his aunt was threatened, he found refuge (through resistance connections) with a Dutch couple, Grandpa and Grandma Bakker, who were sheltering some eighty Jews on their property. He joined that community, becoming quite committed to its mission, despite its dangers. He could have found a less dangerous place to hide through underground contacts, but he made the decision to take his risks with the Bakkers and the Jews they were helping.
As the Oliners reconstructed the motivations for his commitments, they found that Johan’s values centered in patriotism, egalitarianism, and the religious examples of his grandfather and parents. He said he believed in law and order and the guarantee of freedom. He said, “The Germans robbed people of their freedom. And when they started taking the Jewish people, that really lit my fire. They took them like sheep, throwing them into trains. I couldn’t stand it any more. I really became full of hate because they took innocent people—especially when they took little kids . . . . They took innocent people and I wanted to help.”
Johan’s parents, whom he characterized as very religious people, taught and modeled for him moral principles that impressed him deeply. His mother, he said, taught him not to regard others as inferiors. “She would never look down on people. She would always appreciate what people were worth, and it didn’t matter whether they were poor or whatever.” His father, whom he regarded as a close friend and the most important person in his life, drove home the same moral teachings:
He taught me never to forget where you came from; to always appreciate anything from anybody. He impressed on me never to forget that when you work for yourself and have people under you, don’t look down on them. Be honest and straightforward. See other people as your friends. All people are people.
Johan also reports the influence of his grandfather, a devout Christian, whom he saw as “the most religious man I knew.” The grandfather “practiced what he preached” and took an active hand in visiting the sick and finding money to help poor people.
In commenting on Johan’s ethical principles, the Oliners lift up two strands that are central to their analysis of rescuers’ behavior: “ inclusiveness —a predisposition to regard all people as equals and to apply similar standards of right and wrong to them without regard to social status or ethnicity—and attachment —a belief in the value of personal relationships and caring for the needy.”
Bystanders, actives, and rescuers alike were galvanized by hatred for the Nazis. Bystanders, however, tended to be paralyzed by fear, hopelessness, and uncertainty. Survival of the self, and those closest to self, assumed paramount importance. Actives focused their hatred and anger in hostility to the oppressors, sabotaging their machinery, ambushing them if necessary and opportune, or engaging them in open battle. “More than a third (37 percent) of actives said their resistance was based on their hatred of Nazis. Far fewer rescuers (17 percent) focused on their hatred of Nazis as even one of their reasons for rescuing Jews.”
Rescuers’ attitudes of equality and empathy toward Jews did not always correlate with positive teachings from their families of origin. What separated rescuers from non-rescuers, however, was the absence of negative views and attitudes toward Jews. No rescuer, the Oliners found, reported hearing demonic qualities attributed to Jews in their homes. Non-rescuers did.
As in the case of Johan, religious influences played a significant role in many persons’ decisions to engage in carrying out rescue activities. Fifteen percent of rescuers claimed religious commitments as central in their motivation. Twenty-six percent of rescued persons believed religion was a central factor in their rescuers’ motivations. Here, however, the Oliners run into a problem of interpretation that their social-psychological method ill-equips them to resolve. They report that by the criteria of their studies the religious backgrounds of non-rescuers proved not to be dissimilar to those of rescuers: “The overwhelming majority in both groups (approximately 90 percent) said they were affiliated with religious institutions while growing up. The majority were Catholic (62 percent of rescuers, 72 percent of non-rescuers), the remainder were Protestant (32 percent and 23 percent respectively), or nonaffiliated. Approximately 45 percent of the respondents in both groups attended a parochial elementary school.” Based on these figures, they conclude that “at best, religiosity was only weakly related to rescue.”
They do note, however, that several differences distinguished rescuers from bystanders as regards their ways of being religious: 1) Bystanders were significantly less religious than rescuers in their early years; 2) The fathers of bystanders were significantly less religious than those of rescuers. And then, most crucially: “But rescuers did differ from others in their interpretation of religious teaching and religious commitment, which emphasized the common humanity of all people and therefore supported efforts to help Jews” (emphasis added). They illustrate what they mean with a series of quotes from interviews:
My background is Christian Reformed; Israel has a special meaning for me. We have warm feelings for Israel—but that means the whole human race. That is the main principal point.
I have always considered all people regardless of their nationality, ethnic origins, or race, religion, and so on. as members of one great family: mankind. This feeling has deep roots in Polish tradition, history, Christian teaching, and the attitudes of my parents and their predecessors.
They taught me about God and respect for human beings—to respect others.
Later I will argue that what the Oliners lack in their interpretation of religious differences between rescuers and non-rescuers is any perspective that can systematically identify qualitative differences in their respondents’ appropriation of their religious traditions. A similar lack, I will argue, gives rise to confusion in their accounts of attachment and ethical motivations. Likewise it confuses their discussion of rescuers as exhibiting “extensivity”—a breadth of inclusiveness of all persons as deserving respect, equity, and care—and non-rescuers as being characterized by “constriction”—a restriction of equity and respect to one’s familial, ethnic, or tribal grouping. I will come back to these matters in a moment.
In assessing the ethical values held by their respondents, the Oliners addressed the question of the role of patriotism. “Like religion,” they say, “the meaning of patriotism has varied depending on individual interpretation. Conventional notions of patriotism had little to do with rescue.” Actives claimed patriotic motives for their direct engagement with the enemy. Appeals to patriotism as a basis for rescue were more subtle. They had to do with commitment to principles that were seen to be part of the ethos of their countries, or the values on which they were founded. “In the view of more rescuers, patriotism appeared to encompass national acceptance of pluralistic and diverse groups in relationships of equality rather than mere tolerance.”
In analyzing the “core values” of rescuers and non-rescuers, the Oliners found the following: 1) “In recalling the values they learned from their parents, rescuers emphasized values relating to self significantly less frequently than non-rescuers”; 2) Rescuers gave evidence of being less materialistic in orientation than non-rescuers; 3) Parents of rescuers and non-rescuers seemed to have been equally concerned with social convention—the fulfillment of prescribed social roles and norms; 4) But one very striking difference between the parental cultures of rescuers and non-rescuers emerged; “The parents of rescuers . . . were significantly less likely to emphasize obedience . . . . Obedience is the hallmark of non-equals; obedience as an end unto itself facilitates adaptation to any type of authority—whether merited or demanded.”
At the center of rescuers’ explanations of their actions lay the values of equity and care. “For the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of rescuers, helping Jews was motivated by concerns of equity and care.” The Oliners add: “Since it is not unusual for individuals who perform helpful deeds to attribute positive motives to themselves, particularly when the costs are high, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority (83 percent) of rescued survivors also believed that their rescuers were so motivated.” Equity the Oliners associate with the Kantian tradition of fair exchange based on principles of justice. Appeals to equity are impersonal and concerned with individual rights and the welfare of society as a whole. Care, on the other hand, is concerned with the welfare of persons without a calculating attention to fairness. “Care,” they point out, “can only be given by a human face.” Words and phrases characterizing care—the need to be helpful, hospitable, concerned, and loving—were voiced significantly more often by rescuers than non-rescuers as they recalled the values they learned from the persons they valued most. “Generosity and expansiveness, rather than fairness and reciprocity, were significantly more important to rescuers’ than to non-rescuers’ parents.” And again: “For most rescuers and rescued survivors the language of care dominated. Pity, compassion, concern, affection made up the vocabulary [that] 76 percent of rescuers and 67 percent of rescued survivors used at least once to express their reasons.”
This part of the Oliners’ analysis recalls the influence of Carol Gilligan’s writings in the 1980s. Her position emerged out of the dialogue with Lawrence Kohlberg, whose research and theory on the development of moral reasoning builds toward post-conventional stages grounded in the Kantian ethical tradition of rights, duties, and obligations. Gilligan based her research on women’s approaches to situations of moral choice. She reclaims a long tradition in philosophical and theological ethics that she calls the ethics of “responsibility.” The hallmark of this latter approach is care —care for each person involved in a controversy or crisis, but also care for the interdependent network of relations in which persons interact. When the Oliners affirm that the language of care—of compassion, hospitality, and helpfulness—is overwhelmingly employed to express their motives, they clearly imply that face-to-face compassion is a far more salient motive for sacrificial and heroic moral altruism than abstract principles of equity and justice.
As was the case in their discussion of religiosity, in this matter of the ethics of care. I believe our authors fall into confusion. Again, the confusion arises from the failure to make qualitative distinctions regarding the degree of reflectiveness, the reliance upon principles, and the balance of internal and external influences upon behavior. More about this in a moment.
Some of the most compelling findings of this book are to be found in its exploration of the approaches to parenting experienced by rescuers, as a group, in contrast to non-rescuers. The central issue focuses on parental discipline. Recall the earlier point that parents of rescuers laid far less emphasis on obedience as an end in itself than those of non-rescuers. The Oliners begin with the premise, established in research, that punitive strategies in parenting correlate with anger and aggressiveness in the behavior of children so disciplined. Conversely, parents whose disciplinary techniques are benevolent, particularly those who rely on reasoning, are more likely to rear kind, generous children. In the latter approach, children are led to understand others cognitively through perspective-taking, thus developing a reflective empathy.
When the authors reviewed reports of respondents’ parental disciplinary styles, they found: 1) Significantly fewer rescuers recalled any controls imposed upon them; 2) Parents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning. Fewer rescuers than non-rescuers reported being slapped, spanked, kicked, and beaten or having their hair pulled by parents; 3) Many more non-rescuers than rescuers perceived punishment as gratuitous—a cathartic release of aggressiveness by parents; and 4) Rescuers most frequently used the word explained to describe parental approaches to correction and discipline. About “explaining” and the reasoning it involves the Oliners write:
Reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others. It is based on a presumption of error rather than a presumption of evil intent. It implies that had children but known better or understood more, they would not have acted in an inappropriate way. It is a mark of esteem for the listener; and indication of faith in his or her ability to comprehend, develop, and improve.
The authors’ elaboration of these points and their significance deserves to be quoted at length. For our society, with its rampant child neglect and abuse, and its shame-based patterns of addiction, the following insights alone are worth the price of this book:
Parents have power over children; they are not only physically stronger but also have access to material resources they can bestow or withhold. Societal norms generally support their superior position, affirming their rights to humiliate or insult and simultaneously condemn children who might retaliate. When adults voluntarily abdicate the use of power in favor of explanation, they are modeling appropriate behavior toward the weak on the part of the powerful. Faced with powerless others, children so raised in turn have at their disposal an internal “script”—a store of recollections, dialogues, and activities ready to be activated. They need not depend on innovation or improvisation but rather simply retrieve what is already imprinted on their memories. In such circumstances, too, children are more likely to internalize their parents’ standards. Rescuers were significantly more likely to perceive themselves as having personal integrity. They not only saw themselves as more caring and responsible but also as more honest and helpful than non-rescuers.
Though they countenance no simple correlation of good parenting and warm bonding in households with rescuing behavior, and their opposite with non-rescue, the Oliners do make clear how crucial parental modeling and the patterns of parent-child interaction are in the formation of persons’ approaches to the use of their power to help those in danger, oppression, or need.
What moves people from concern to action? Their analysis led the Oliners to recognize three major types of motivation for rescue activity and its risks. The first type, which includes 37 percent of rescuers, they identify as the empathetic orientation. Here the response to need emerges out of direct connection with the distressed other. Compassion, sympathy, and pity are its characteristic expression. The reactions of this group usually include both emotional and cognitive dimensions. These persons, it seems, are the prototypes of the “ethics of care.”
The second and largest group (52 percent) are described as the normocentric orientation Persons of this type acted out of feelings of obligation in relation to a social reference group with whom the actors identified and whose explicit and implicit rules they felt obliged to obey. Here the social group, rather than the claims of the victim, motivate the behavior. Feelings of obligation or duty in this group are frequently coupled with anticipation of feelings of guilt or shame if one fails to act.
The third and smallest group (11 percent) are identified as the principled orientation. Persons in this group had indirect relations to victims, mediated through overarching axioms or principles, largely autonomously derived. People with this orientation interpreted the persecution of Jews as a violation of moral principles, and the main goal of their rescue behavior was to reaffirm and act on these principles. The Oliners found, in this group, persons who relied both upon principles of justice and equity, on the one hand, and upon principles of care, on the other.
This review of the Oliners’ typology of motivations for rescue activity becomes the occasion to focus the criticisms I offered at earlier points in this essay. At several junctures I have pointed to the absence of any framework by which the Oliners can distinguish qualitative differences in the ways persons are religious, the ways they make sense of the claims of care, and the ways they interpret what is their duty or obligation. Early in the book, the authors differentiate themselves from the work on moral motivation and choice of Lawrence Kohlberg. They view Kohlberg as too narrowly cognitive in orientation, and as being wedded to the Kantian ethical tradition. Implicitly, they align themselves with the tradition of the ethics of responsibility and care, with its related connections to the ethics of character. I maintain that they did not have to exclude the valuable typology that Kohlberg offers us in order to affirm the importance of the ethics of care and character. And in turning away from Kohlberg, they create a typology that fails to make some very important distinctions to which the authors themselves have called our attention in the book. Let me explain.
By lumping all persons who act out of a sense of duty and obligation derived from membership in a reference group together in their normocentric orientation, the authors fail to distinguish those who act from the standpoint of a reflective and self-chosen set of commitments (i.e., in accord with a reasoning approach) from those whose membership is a matter of fate and socialization (i.e., out of a fear of group exclusion, disappointment, or exclusion). They fail to distinguish those who meet the expectations of valued others because their sense of self and identity is totally dependent upon that membership from those who express their selfhood and identity through the choice to affiliate with a group and to adopt its norms. They fail to distinguish two types of religious persons who may be part of this group: the first, who depend completely upon the literal interpretation of Scripture and tradition by an authoritarian pastor, and second, those who undertake rescue activity as the command of God, based upon a thoughtful and self-ratified interpretation of the ethical imperatives of the gospel. It is tempting to construe all persons in the normocentric type into something like Kohlberg’s conventional stages. I hope that the distinctions to which I have pointed help the reader to see why that would be a mistake, and why we need a framework for sorting out these finer-grained but essential differences in the operations of knowing and valuing underlying persons’ selfhood, membership, interpretations, and motivations.
Similar ambiguities surround the Oliners’ identification of the empathetic orientation. We do not know whether the “other” who moves one to empathetic identification and action is a single person, in every instance, or may arise from the recognition of a class of such persons. We do not know whether persons in this group, while moved by the presence and claims of individuals with whom they are in face-to-face relations, may, on another level, be oblivious to and unmoved by more impersonal social structures and practices that consistently put and keep persons in situations of oppression and deprivation. In short, we do not know whether we are dealing again with something like Kohlberg’s conventional stages, but this time focused on care rather than duty, or whether we would find a wide variety of interpretations based on varying degrees and levels of social perspective-taking, leading to compassionate response at and beyond the level of face-to-face concern.
Only with regard to the Oliners’ third type, the principled orientation, do we get attention to the level of reflectivity and autonomy exercised by persons choosing rescue activity as an expression of their duty in relation to the demands of equity and justice, or their duty in relation to the imperative to care. These persons one is tempted to see as representatives of Kohlberg’s post-conventional or principled level of moral understanding and action. Here again, however, confusions arise. It is intriguing that the two examples our authors offer of this orientation—one focused on the ethics of justice, the other on the ethics of care—have in common a strong rootage in religious traditions that provide an indispensable context, source, and grounding of courage for their acting on their ethical principles. The distinction the Oliners made between the appropriation of religious traditions by non-rescuers and rescuers comes to mind here: The rescuers tended to understand the inclusiveness and extensiveness of injunctions to love to extend to all persons and groups. Yet the authors’ final typology does not allow for the recognition of the salience of religious faith so understood.
Many of these confusions, in an otherwise remarkable and valuable work, could be clarified by complementing their present modes of analysis with constructive developmental-stage theories of ego, moral, and faith development. I have in mind the work of Robert Kegan ( The Evolving Self , 1982), Lawrence Kohlberg ( The Psychology of Moral Development , 3 vols., 1980s), and my own work on faith development ( Stages of Faith , 1981). A rich extension and valuable use of the Oliners’ data would be to submit their interviews to analysis and interpretation from these constructive developmental standpoints. The results could strengthen an already remarkably rich interpretative contribution. And they would extend practically our ability to carry through to action a central passion of the Oliners: that of influencing the shape of education, families and parenting, religious formation—and of public policy—so as systematically to strengthen the probabilities of nurturing more persons who embody and act from the qualities of character and compassion exhibited by rescuers.
James W. Fowler is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development at the School of Theology of Emory University. He directs the Center for Research in Faith and Moral Development and is best known for his Stages of Faith and many books and articles related to the area of faith development. From 1994 to 2005, he served as the first full-time director of the Center for Ethics at Emory.