The urge to do good – divinely inspired?

Tuesday’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti has brought out the best in most people (although statements from both Pat Roberston and Rush Limbaugh show it brought out the worst in some). This urge to do good – something we always see in the aftermath of disasters – has me wondering what, exactly, is behind it.

Now, I’m not talking about the “We’re not really that bad” donations from the formerly bailed-out banks, nor the “Maybe we can make a little money off this” efforts by Web sites advertising that if you buy their product, they’ll donate some of the profit to the Haitian cause.

I’m mostly talking about the folks who called radio news talk shows Wednesday, their voices cracking, saying they wanted to go to Haiti, not just send money, that they felt the need to go help RIGHT NOW. They were told to send money because they would only be in the way of the already-there, already-trained relief and rescue workers and medical personnel. (Not to mention the fact that the people there don’t have water and why add your thirsty gullet to the demand?)

No, I’m talking about the common folk who are hosting “Haiti relief” dinners at their homes to collect water and the school children collecting pennies and nickels and the volunteers who are already there and stay to help when the urge surely must be to get the heck out of Dodge. Or even, perhaps, the celebrities starting telethons. What makes those people want to do good? Why do humans have empathy? What evolutionary purpose would it possibly serve if evolution is based primarily on the survival of the fittest? Why wouldn’t people in a poor country just turn on each other in disaster instead of primarily helping each other dig out the dead in hopes of finding the living?

Hauling out a load of someone's destroyed life in New Orleans
Hauling out a load of someone's destroyed life in New Orleans

A year after Hurricane Katrina, myself and two other adults took a group of nine 16 to 19 year olds to New Orleans’ devastated Ninth Ward to gut two houses so those homes could be re-habitated by their displaced owners. It was like visiting a ghost town down there in the Lower Ninth, and the only other people we saw were groups like us – youth from various churches across the country who drove hundreds of miles in vans crowded with sweaty teenage flesh to spend a week or two up to their knees in rotten wood, roaches and mildew in the hopes of helping a stranger have a home again.

One evening, so sore from work I could only lift one arm, I called a friend and told him what was happening. I vented about how, a year after the hurricane, the worst-hit part of the city still looked as though Katrina had just hit. I told him what we’d been doing and described how the kids were so exhausted after work that after they “showered” in the water from a hose and changed close, they instantly fell asleep in the living room of the house where we stayed like an exhausted litter of puppies, deaf to the raucous kitchen work of a group of older black women who came to feed them gumbo and jambalya and Kings Cake. sleeping

It was ridiculously hard work, I said, but no one was complaining, which, to me, felt somewhat like a miracle. “You’re such a better person than me,” he said, adding that maybe I did good because I’m Catholic.

While its true my faith calls me to acts of mercy, I don’t think that is what made me go to NOLA. Although it cannot be denied that in times of disasters religious folk do seem to show up with water, bandages and homemade pie, I don’t think I went to New Orleans because I heard God’s voice telling me this was the right thing to do. The teens with me didn’t go because they thought God would be mad if they didn’t. We did it because we felt, deep inside, this urge TO GO HELP.

Does that urge only come from God? If you are not religious, do you have that urge to help? If so, how do you help out in your community and to what do you attribute that desire? Post your answers in the comments section. And for further study on the Haiti issue, there’s a pretty decent look at Haiti’s complicated history, at this Wiki, and if you want to know how much the U.S. gives to Haiti in a normal year (the unspoken we-already-do-enough thought behind the ignorant, hateful statements of Limbaugh and Robertson), Nicholas Kistoff has a nice post about that in his On The Ground blog over here.

6 Replies to “The urge to do good – divinely inspired?”

  1. I hope the desire to help your fellow man (and woman) is innate in us human beings, based on feelings of sympathy, empathy, and compassion for others’ suffering and bad fortune. Not sure it’s due to any religion, but certainly faith-based groups do urge people to care and to act upon that caring.  Your kindness and assistance in the wake of Katrina was admirable, Renee.


  2. Because the “fitness” of “survival of the fittest” is not simply individual strength, speed, or cunning; it also includes ability to co-operate with other similar individuals. Such effects roughly correspond to the covariance term in the Price equation. Being able to be part of a co-operative group can be an enhancement to fitness. Continuing from the work of Trivers and others in the early 1970s, the evolutionary origins of altruism have become fairly well developed in the professional literature.

    Or in other words: “survival of the fittest” is an oversimplification, suitable for elementary school introduction, but not conveying the nuances of modern understanding that these days the high school or college level ought to include.


  3. Where does the urge to do evil come from – surely from God ?
    At least that statement makes as much sense as saying the the urge to do good comes from God – it is just non-rational cheer-leading for a particular religion.
    Of course once someone objects, then theologians have to scurry around explaining why God is the “good” insprer and something or someone else is the “evil” inspirer, always a daunting task in a monotheistic religion.
    The favorite is to invent Satan, and blame “evil” on him, which is of course the theology of Pat Robertson.


  4. “If you are not religious, do you have that urge to help?”  Sure.  I use my work skills in a volunteer capacity at least a couple weeks a year in Central America and the Southwest.  I certainly do a lot of local work on a volunteer basis also.  Some of this is associated with my profession, some of it is things like car washes, etc.

    From my POV, it is only within the context of belief that in the absence of a god there is no morality that we even have to ask this question why we are motivated to help others.    Similarly, I believe it also true that it is only within the context of an system based on competition rather than cooperation that we have to ask ourselves why we would/should help others.  I believe, as stated above, that the survival of the species is essentially based on cooperation.  We are social animals and products of our material conditions. 

    True, I do receive many non-tangible personal benefits from my volunteering.  I travel and meet peoples in a non-tourist way.  I learn about other cultures and see places I wouldn’t otherwise visit.  I make new friends.  I certainly find the work rewarding; far more so than the work I do for pay.  And, for me, I also believe that those peoples I meet and work with have greater revolutionary potential than the American working class.   


  5. I believe the desire to do good comes directly from God, who is the source of all goodness. We might not hear His voice all the time, but yes, that nudge to go help is definitely God inspired, whether or not we want to acknowledge that. And yes, there is an evil, opposing force that would compel us to do otherwise. We were given free will to choose which way we want to go…light or dark, good or bad, life or death. I really do believe it’s that simple, though it plays out in varied ways. Blessings, Renee.


  6. Thought of your blog tonight when I was reading an article in the NYTimes online. The statement was:
    “Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex….The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.”
    Here’s the link:


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