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Fear. (01/2022)

"We always avoid making sacrifices any way we can."

Interview: Noëmi Kern

During the pandemic, we reigned in our lives for the common good. But we still insist on our dream beach vacations, although they are bad for the environment. Georg von Schnurbein explains the difference – why we do good and why a degree of egotism is required.

Georg von Schnurbein
Professor Georg von Schnurbein (Photo: Andreas Zimmermann)

UNI NOVA: Georg von Schnurbein, when is the last time you did someone a favor?

GEORG VON SCHNURBEIN: Probably this week. We are always doing favors for people. Our society wouldn’t function if we were to do only those tasks that were required of us.

UNI NOVA: Society would collapse?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Yes. That is a critical part of what makes us human: the fact that we are social beings capable of thinking beyond our nuclear family, our tribe. That is what gives us the ability to build complex structures such as societies or states in the first place. Ultimately, it is a trademark of civilization that I’m able to recognize the suffering of others and devise my own plan to ameliorate that suffering, although I would glean no immediate, personal benefit from my actions.

UNI NOVA: So, what do we gain from doing favors for others?

VON SCHNURBEIN: A favor is not something you see returns on right away. I don’t expect any immediate compensation, but I do expect that I will receive help in return should I need it at some point in the future. On a societal level, the term we use is generalized reciprocity. That means, for example, maybe I volunteer to spend time with older people at a nursing home, and in return, there are people whose job it is to clean the hiking trails I visit on the weekend.

UNI NOVA: So, I do expect a kind of remuneration for my actions.

VON SCHNURBEIN: These principles of reciprocity operate at a higher level. But if I have the feeling that I’m the only one helping out, I might begin to ask myself whether I really need to bother at all. Clubs work based on these reciprocal agreements: One member works as a volunteer coach for the youth group, so another member mans the hot dog stand at the annual party. Today, we often try to buy our way out of those agreements. People are willing to pay for sports classes, say at a gym, so they no longer have to spend time fulfilling the responsibilities associated with a club.

UNI NOVA: Societal values such as money, success and career do not go well with volunteerism. Time and energy are limited resources ...

VON SCHNURBEIN: But the research shows that the people who are most likely to volunteer are the ones who have the least time on their hands. It’s not just about time; it’s a question of attitude, too. Volunteering is both a luxury and a shared resource. It is a shared resource because nobody can prevent you from profiting from the volunteer work of others. And it is a luxury because a person needs to have a certain level of personal security and stability to engage in it. If a person is out of work, why would they work for free? Voluntary labor is also influenced by the environment.

UNI NOVA: How so?

VON SCHNURBEIN: More voluntary work is done in rural settings than in the city because people there are subject to more social pressure. I have to do my part, otherwise I might be putting myself at a disadvantage in my community. In the city, many of those questions are solved financially or regulated by the state. The flip side is that social ties are reported to be weaker in cities because people lack those points of contact. True altruism or reciprocity ultimately promotes societal cohesion because it forces us to consider the life situations of others in our community. And that has always been a first step in the right direction. Volunteering often puts people in contact with members of other social groups that they do not normally interact with, and that fosters cohesion in society as well.

UNI NOVA: Statistically, women perform more care work, more informal voluntary work and donate more money than men do. Are women better people?

VON SCHNURBEIN: The statistics are still largely based on data from generations that adhered more strongly to traditional gender roles. The increasing flexibility of these roles also has implications for voluntary labor. In the future, we might see a dramatic rise in government subsidies for care work, and this would reduce informal, voluntary work in the sector. But I absolutely believe that women have a greater tendency toward social engagement than men do, or that they find other ways to express that. Maybe part of it is socialization. But there is no reason to say that one is fundamentally better than the other.

UNI NOVA: Do young people and older people show equal levels of social engagement?

VON SCHNURBEIN: The willingness to volunteer tends to manifest in waves throughout a person’s life. Research shows that those who volunteer when they are younger are likely to volunteer again later in life, even if they stop doing so periodically. So, it is important to get people involved in volunteering early on. But society is changing. There is greater mobility, more individualism, and the nature of voluntary work has changed. I wouldn’t say that we should expect a decline in volunteerism, but that that work will be more spontaneous and shorter-term – it will likely be more project-based. People no longer feel obligated to, say, be a cashier and stay in that same job for years on end. They are less tied to a particular organization than they are to a higher purpose. You can see that in the youth climate movement, for example. If one group isn’t radical enough, they switch to another one – or they switch for the opposite reason. That certainly presents a challenge to existing organizations.

UNI NOVA: Many people volunteered during the pandemic. What can we learn from that as a society?

VON SCHNURBEIN: During the 2015 refugee crisis, we saw how incredibly important voluntary labor is in managing crisis situations. There is a high level of mobilization. But that cannot be sustained over several months. At the same time, it is extremely important to know that we have that potential.

UNI NOVA: Does increased prosperity make us less dependent on the help of others?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Of course. If my grocery store has a delivery service, I don’t have to ask my neighbors whether they could do my shopping for me.

UNI NOVA: During the pandemic, we altered our behavior to serve the common good. Why don’t we do the same when it comes to climate protection?

VON SCHNURBEIN: The difference is that with climate protection, we do not see the same obvious, immediate effects of our own actions. If I know that my neighbor cannot leave home because of the pandemic, I go grocery shopping for her. I can solve the problem with relatively little effort. The effect is immediate. But when I sacrifice my own pleasure or sense of abundance for the climate, I do not see CO2 levels drop in real time. If I eat less meat, I do not see any fewer farm animals out in the pasture. Those efforts take place on a more abstract level. And that’s what makes it so difficult.

UNI NOVA: Can you explain what you mean by that?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Prosocial behavior is an activity. But the things we need to do to protect the climate involve making sacrifices with no reward or gratitude for our efforts. And we always avoid making sacrifices any way we can.

UNI NOVA: We prioritize our own happiness. That is selfish.

VON SCHNURBEIN: But in order to survive, I have to prioritize my own well-being, too. Today, we talk about mindfulness, selfcare and other things, but ultimately those practices are just the positive face of egotism. It means listening to my inner needs and checking in with myself. And I need to do that so I can make a positive impact on my environment. Love thy neighbor as thyself.

UNI NOVA: So, altruism requires a certain degree of self-interest?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Yes. It is not just about helping others; I have to focus on myself, too. Someone who volunteers but gets no sense of gratification from that work won’t do it for long. The basic assumption that people volunteer and donate solely for the sake of others is a false premise.

UNI NOVA: Are you saying that donations are not altruistic?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Altruism, in the classical sense, involves a sacrifice: Someone is giving something away and compromising their own well-being as a result. When I volunteer, I am donating my time, time I could have spent on something else, and thus restricting my own freedom. When we make a donation, we are always donating a surplus. So, in my view, donations cannot be considered purely altruistic. I consider them to be an expression of reciprocity: We donate because we know that there are people who need our help or issues that require our support. At the same time, we expect to receive support when we ourselves need help.

UNI NOVA: What causes do we donate to?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Traditionally, in Switzerland, development organizations receive a vast amount of our donations. Currently, we are donating far more for climate change or environmental protection than we were ten or twenty years ago. Of course, there are some perennial frontrunners, like children’s charities, cancer or, more recently, as I mentioned, environmental protection. That used to be maybe tenth on the list.

UNI NOVA: Aren’t donations just a way for us to buy ourselves a clean conscience?

VON SCHNURBEIN: Donating money is not the same as buying indulgences from the church, because I am doing it of my own free will and choosing what causes I wish to support – and I generally feel good about doing it. So, I wouldn't call it a “get out of jail free” card. Indeed, donations are one of the most important expressions of social engagement. For many people, making a donation gives them an opportunity to get involved in charitable causes. In Switzerland, 35 percent of the population is involved in volunteer work while 77 percent make charitable donations. If we wanted to further emphasize that point, we could say that in Switzerland, there are more people donating money to charity than voting in elections. Donations also reflect societal changes. Charitable organizations don’t wrench money out of our pockets to use for their personal whims and ideals; they ultimately respond to society’s demands.

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