Altruism and Acts of Humanity. 20 years of Humanitarian Education


Is all human behavior based on self-interest? Many social and biological theories argue that this is the case. But such a perspective fails to explain altruism, both every day acts of human kindness and the many heroic acts committed by people willing to risk their lives to help others. What are the roots of altruism and what drives people to risk their own lives to protect others?

Based on twenty years of empirical work, Professor Kristen Monroe, founder and director of the University of California at Irvine Ethics Center, will engage participants in an unorthodox explanation of such acts of humanity: identity. According to Monroe’s work, identity sets and constrains our choices, both cognitively and ethically. In other words, the fact that a person helps or does not help another will depend on how this person defines him/herself. Monroe argues that it is this perspective on altruism that is critical in understanding how we see and interact with others in need. Where the rest of us see a stranger, an altruist sees a fellow human being, and thus relates to strangers as members of a common community, worthy of humane treatment.

Two leaders in humanitarian action will then bring their perspectives on whether and how altruism is embodied in their respective organisations and how this impacts their practice. The discussion, moderated by Doris Schopper, CERAH Director, includes Yves Daccord, Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Reveka Papadopoulou, President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Ambassador Valentin Zellweger, Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in Geneva, will conclude the conference.

A joint center of the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, CERAH is a unique and innovative academic platform for humanitarian action. For the past twenty years, the Centre has contributed to the development of critical thinking and analysis to improve the quality of humanitarian response, through both education and research.

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