Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Inspiring Altruism


by Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant 

In May, Bruce Stiftel, a former professor of mine in Georgia Tech’s City and Regional Planning department, wrote a message for new urban planners in the form of a blog post for Planetizen. The message was about altruism: about the importance of altruism in producing public goods and about how we, as urban planners, can convince people to act altruistically. 


The question of how to get a diverse group of community stakeholders to put aside their NIMBY-ism and their own self-interest in order to come together to make their community a better place is one shared by pretty much everyone in professional economic development. Stiftel answers the question by saying that through our designs, which show what is possible for a community, and through our analyses, which show trends that should be avoided and ways to bring about a better future, we can show how common goals can raise the community up. 

He is absolutely right that altruism is extremely important in the production of public goods. But, I found his answer lacking. Convincing people to act altruistically is no easy task. Design boards and reams of data analysis aren’t often all that persuasive. 

The question, though, is a good one. And, it has been knocking around in my brain for the past few months, where it has been bumping up against all sorts of other things. I read a book last year that argued that empathy is endangered and a couple of articles (here and here) that talked about reasons why we should still study the “useless” humanities in the STEM age (spoiler: they help develop empathy and an appreciation for people outside yourself). 

The motivation for acting altruistically usually comes from empathetic concern and appreciation for others. And, no matter how good your design boards or your data analysis, you can’t convince people to have empathy. It’s not the sort of thing you can be argued into with reasons; it’s a capacity that has to be developed. 

When I read this article in The Atlantic last week that talks about how students are abandoning the humanities in record numbers because they think STEM majors will improve their chances on the job market, all of these things that had been bumping up against each other in my brain came together into a question of my own. 

Have we shot ourselves in the foot with all of our emphasis on STEM? Have we, by pushing the importance of STEM education, sent the message that other disciplines—especially the humane ones—aren’t important? And, have we, thereby, inadvertently made our own jobs, which require us to inspire people to call upon their capacity for empathy and act altruistically in order to make their communities better places, harder?