Altruism in times of war

Michal Trčka

Michal Trčka


Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, we have witnessed unprecedented solidarity with the war refugees fleeing the invaded country. This solidarity is also being shown by Czech society, which only a few years ago was ranked alongside countries that feared the influx of refugees from Syria and rejected even defenceless children. How long will this empathetic attitude last with the majority of the Czech public?

Migration crisis 02: Refugees, welcome!

Since the first days of the invasion, Czech Railways trains and cars, as well as trucks with humanitarian aid, have been heading from the Czech Republic to the west and east of Ukraine. Czech universities are offering assistance to Ukrainian students, academics and scientists. In the first few weeks after the start of the Russian invasion, donors provided CZK 1.5 billion to People in Need. A consortium of NGOs working with migration is organising various forms of assistance from accommodation to administrative to psychological help.

Compared to the migration crisis of the first millennium, when multitudes of people from war-torn but also drought-ravaged Syria were heading to Europe, we are clearly witnessing a different approach to receiving refugees. This situation is all the more evident among the Czech public, which a few years ago feared not only alleged terrorists hidden among the refugees, but perhaps even more so the cultural transformation of European society.

It is not surprising that the approach is different this time, as we have a lot of experience with Ukrainian migration. After 1989, it is generally true that the increasing demand for labour has been a strong incentive for immigration to the Czech Republic. According to the Czech Statistical Office, the largest number of foreigners in terms of nationality come from Ukraine, with the most frequent applicants for long-term residence permits again being Ukrainian nationals. Ukrainian workers can be found employed in the construction and manufacturing industries, as well as in the healthcare sector.

This context is, I think, one of the reasons why opinion polls (such as a recent Median poll) show that more than two-thirds (69%) of respondents support the admission of all people who will flee the war conflict from Ukraine. But how long will this attitude last for the Czechs? Do we carry in our human genes the ability to help members of groups other than our own?

The eternal struggle of altruism and selfishness

Why do we help refugees, where does this kind of altruism come from? Why is it that helping strangers wins out over selfish interests? If you ask most people the question of whether our biological makeup is dominated more by altruism or selfishness, I believe the answer is selfishness will be the overwhelming winner.

Some may think of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, or ask themselves why helping strangers might be useful from an evolutionary perspective. According to the hypothesis of kin selection, we prefer to help our loved ones in order to provide the conditions for the most successful reproduction of our own genetic information, as well as that of our loved ones. In short, this makes us feel more obligated to family members than to strangers.

But on the other hand, there are other mechanisms encoded in our genes. In fact, just as Dawkins does, other representatives of evolutionary biology argue otherwise. Genes may be selfish, but at the level of whole organisms we have ample evidence that altruism and cooperation pay off.

In the book The Kindness of Strangers, we read about the hypothesis of reciprocal altruism, which says that helping strangers also pays off in the long run because we never know when we might need it from them. According to game theory, many phenomena throughout the animal kingdom can be predicted in this way, even the behaviour of schools of fish. The basic lesson is that the most advantageous strategy in this regard is one in which I try to make myself prosper, but at the same time respond to the strategies of others so that they will prosper as well.

How long will solidarity last

It’s just that within our strategies we calculate all the gains and losses, compare them with each other, and then choose the resulting form of action. So what if the losses are judged to be too high? I think the answer to how long solidarity lasts for the majority of the Czech public can be found in research that has looked at why we were not in solidarity during the refugee crisis in 2015.

Although the situation is different in that we have long experience with Ukrainian migration, we are not afraid of cultural differences, the media is presenting refugees this time in a way that evokes emotions of compassion and subsequent kindness, some of the same fears are already slowly surfacing. It is the fear of social issues. Housing and energy prices are going up, the impact of the war will at least slow down economic growth, we will have to give up the welfare we have enjoyed so far, and there is a question mark in the air: how will the labour market react?

According to research by the non-profit organisation Glopolis, why are refugees stirring our emotions? “the migration debate is often not just about migration, but about what bothers people more (such as potentially precarious work, rapid change, etc.) – that is, the deaf issues that are underlined by the perceived inability of the state and elites to address deeper problems and where the real limits of solidarity and openness lie.” Among the deeper issues that lurked in the fears of those who refused to accept refugees from Syria, fears of terrorism and cultural differences, in addition to fears of terrorism and cultural differences, have also surfaced in the case of this migration crisis. These include fears of limited options, i.e. of disproportionate numbers of refugees, or that the money provided to host them will be lacking elsewhere. Both in this research and today, it is the economic fears of the unsustainability of the situation and the dystopian version of the future of an overstretched European welfare state that are at stake.

That this is not an entirely misguided consideration is already demonstrated, I think, by the Median survey for Czech Radio mentioned above. According to its results, the citizens of the Czech Republic are very worried about the negative impact of the Ukrainian conflict on their lives. In addition to fear of war, fear of price increases is prevalent. “88% of Czechs fear that the conflict on the Ukrainian-Russian border will negatively affect the life of people in our country. … The biggest concern is the cost of living (92%).” Let us hope, then, that our desire for prosperity does not prevail over the solidarity involved in providing for the very basic needs of life for people fleeing war.

Translated from the Czech original.

Michal Trčka is a lecturer at Technical University of Liberec (TUL) where he teaches applied ethics.

published: 4. 4. 2022