Book Review: The Hand of Compassion

By Jason Marsh | March 1, 2005 | 0 comments

by Kristen Renwick Monroe
Princeton University Press, 2004, 392 pages

The Hand of Compassion is the latest of several books to use the Holocaust as a basis for studying altruism and compassion. Strange as this may seem, Nazi Germany provides researchers with a perverse control group, where evil and apathy were the norm. People who could demonstrate compassion even in the midst of such pervasive cruelty must truly possess an altruistic personality, surmises Hand of Compassion author Kristen Renwick Monroe, and so understanding their psychology could help shed light on “the impetus behind moral action” in general.

Building on her conclusions from a previous book, The Heart of Altruism, Monroe argues that altruism results from a person’s particular way of seeing the world, which she calls “the altruistic perspective.” To provide as clear a window as possible into that worldview, Monroe has focused her new book on just five individuals who rescued others during the Holocaust, and she has presented the transcripts of her interviews with them in nearly unedited form. Rather than seeking a definitive answer as to what made these people commit such exceptionally compassionate acts, Monroe wants to provide as full an account of her subjects’ life stories as possible—complete with contradictions, tangents, and digressions—and allow readers to draw their own conclusions, then compare these conclusions with her own analysis.

There is something exceptionally powerful and edifying about reading these heroic individuals’ stories in their own, unedited words. But the interviewees have a tendency to interrupt themselves, and all the breaks in narrative flow can try the reader’s patience. With a little more editing, Monroe might have preserved the book’s sense of intimacy while also making the stories more consistently readable and engaging.

Ultimately, though, because such full accounts help the reader see the world through the eyes of Monroe’s subjects, the format helps support the author’s main point. For the rescuers, their decisions to help others seem not to have been decisions at all. Instead, their actions appear to have been an outgrowth of their strong moral identities—how they saw themselves and their relationships to other people, strangers and acquaintances alike. “It was not a decision,” said one of the interviewees, Otto Springer. “It was just part of my character. Something I felt.”

Monroe argues persuasively that altruists distinguish themselves by their ability to see all people as human beings no different from themselves, and she provides a compelling glimpse into the “altruistic perspective.” Nonetheless, her book leaves readers questioning why so few people maintained the altruistic perspective during the Holocaust, and wondering how we can apply her insights toward raising more altruists in the future.

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About The Author

Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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