Tāmaki Innovation Campus

Doing the right thing?

Svetlana Feigin, a Psychology PhD student at the Tamaki Campus.
Svetlana Feigin says her three year project kept her attention high all the way through.

From mercy killings to animal liberators; the subject of altruistic offending has captured, fascinated and changed Svetlana Feigin’s life. It has also formed the basis of her PhD at Tāmaki Innovation Campus in the Faculty of Science.

The idea arose from a conversation with supervisor Professor Glynn Owens, who had looked at the subject early on in his own career and suggested Svetlana pick it up. “The more I thought about it, the more I just fell in love with the idea,” she says.

Her research took her across the gamut of altruistic offending - illegal acts committed out of selfless motivation - such as assisted suicides or euthanasia. All of her subjects had faced legal consequences for their acts and this aspect caught her attention.

“There had been nothing done on altruistic offending, and so in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t exist. Motivation plays a big role in crime - the selfish versus the unselfish and lack of remorse.”

“Altruistic offending and its lack of remorse has significant impact on something like sentencing, where a person could not admit to remorse for actions they felt philosophically and morally correct, even though it may have led to mitigation in sentencing.

“It was clear from my studies that people who had offended in a legal sense, say, by assisting in a suicide of a loved one, had come to that point from the purest of motives and had no remorse about their actions. That was, in the main, not because they had eased or stopped the suffering but because they had followed the wishes of their loved one. In their eyes, they were motivated strongly by the concept that it was the right thing to do.”

All seven participants in her study reported their lives had changed as a result of their actions. Svetlana hopes that her research will continue to highlight the issue. “It would be wonderful if it had an impact on the law but it would be just as valuable if it can snowball the debate. It would appear there is a distinct motivation and difference in altruistic offending.”

Although starting with human to human altruistic offending, the subject led her to question whether it could cross species. That in turn led to adding animal liberators to her research, despite it being a spontaneous twist and change in direction.

In both cases - assisted euthanasia and animal rights - there was a clear message that offenders felt strongly that they were doing the right thing on behalf of another, no matter what ‘the system’ said.

Svetlana says the three year project, now in its final months, kept her attention high all the way through. It also impacted on her life, both emotionally and practically, with an increased awareness in the inherent human and animal rights violations across the spectrum of New Zealand society.

It raised her concerns for animal rights, and she helped form the University of Auckland animal rights group to educate and spread awareness of issues relating to animal rights such as reducing the number of animals used, and re-used, in research and testing at the University.

She is also involved in spreading information on cruelty-free practices with the aim of raising the profile amongst students.

Writing up her research took an emotional toll. She rationalises this as having approached the research with an open mind and ensuring objectivity during the interviewing phases. However, transcribing and listening to people telling and re-telling their experiences, became both challenging and upsetting.

Svetlana’s next challenge will likely see her write a book, combining her PhD learnings with personal experience. Her short-term goal is to stay in research with the prospect of another degree not discounted, nor potential work at the Department of Corrections.

This article was first published in the July 2014 Tāmaki Update