What Makes Us Help Others

On 10th March 1748, John Newton, a 22-year-old English seaman who had worked in the slave trade, was travelling home on a merchant ship. He had had a series of misadventures, including being captured and enslaved in Sierra Leone. On that very day, a violent storm struck just off the coast of Donegal, Ireland. A hole in the side of the ship was ripped open by rocks and it seemed unlikely that the vessel would make it safely to shore. Newton prayed and committed to devote his life to Christianity if the ship was spared and he survived. According to the story, at that moment the ship’s cargo shifted, covering the hole and allowing the ship to limp to port.

Newton kept his promise, eventually becoming an Anglican priest. Most famous perhaps for composing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the former slave trader dedicated himself to ending the slave trade. In 1787, he joined efforts with others to found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Together with Josiah Wedgwood, an industrialist, he created a logo for the campaign that inspired empathy and connected with the horrifying inhumanity of slavery. They created what is often regarded as the world’s first infographic: a cutaway map of the Brookes slave ship, showing how slaves were stacked and chained. They posted these images in taverns and pubs throughout Europe. (See image below.)


[The cutaway map of a slave ship, created in 1787. (Image courtesy of the British Library)]

In 1807, Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which banned British ships from engaging in the slave trade. The men’s efforts are widely regarded as one of the first social justice campaigns.

Social service organisations collectively spend millions each year on communications that focus on informing people. We are required to do better, because challenges such as poverty, homelessness, and racial and gender inequity have endured in the face of lasting and robustly funded efforts.

We often help others. In most cases we help friends, family or colleagues. However, in some situations, we also help people with whom we have no connection whatsoever; when we donate our change to a homeless person or we offer some of our monthly salary to a humanitarian organisation. There are even times when people put their own lives at risk to save strangers.

Helping people who we have never met before does not bring us any obvious direct or indirect benefit. It appears, on the surface, to go against the classic academic assumption that helping behaviours evolved because they provided benefits to the person helping – “If I help my friend today they will help me tomorrow.” I believe that helping behaviour is not driven by social preferences for minimising inequalities but rather by moral preferences for doing the right thing.

Today our children brought in an abundance of food for our Harvest Festival. It is an important time of the year to celebrate and give thanks for the food that is available to us. I spoke to the children about harvesting ourselves, seeing the potential in ourselves in order to help others. Kindness was central in the message I gave to the children, because when people really need help it is the kindness of others that supports them. Their kindness and generosity in the food that they donated this morning was overwhelming, but just as important for children to understand is the impact that an offering of time has on another.

The gift of time is often more valuable to the receiver and more satisfying for the giver than the gift of money. We do not all have the same amount of money, but we do all have time on our hands, in differing amounts, and can give some of this time to help others—whether that means we devote our lifetimes to service like John Newton, or just give a few hours each day or a few days a year.

Thank you all once again for supporting our Harvest Festival and for making a difference.