Pathological Altruism

This article at the features a book written by an engineering professor at my former university. Here’s some excerpts from the article;

Oakley defines pathological altruism as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, “an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.”

“Empathy,” Oakley notes, “is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others.” It also can produce bad public policy:

Ostensibly well-meaning governmental policy promoted home ownership, a beneficial goal that stabilizes families and communities. The government-sponsored enterprises Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allowed less-than-qualified individuals to receive housing loans and encouraged more-qualified borrowers to overextend themselves. Typical risk–reward considerations were marginalized because of implicit government support. The government used these agencies to promote social goals without acknowledging the risk or cost. When economic conditions faltered, many lost their homes or found themselves with properties worth far less than they originally had paid. Government policy then shifted . . . the cost of this “altruism” to the public, to pay off the too-big-to-fail banks then holding securitized subprime loans. . . . Altruistic intentions played a critical role in the development and unfolding of the housing bubble in the United States.

Pathological altruism is at the root of the liberal left’s crisis of authority, which we discussed in our May 20 column. The left derives its sense of moral authority from the supposition that its intentions are altruistic and its opponents’ are selfish. That sense of moral superiority makes it easy to justify immoral behavior, like slandering critics of President Obama as racist–or using the power of the Internal Revenue Service to suppress them. It seems entirely plausible that the Internal Revenue Service officials who targeted and harassed conservative groups thought they were doing their patriotic duty. If so, what a perfect example of pathological altruism.

Oakley concludes by noting that “during the twentieth century, tens of millions [of] individuals were killed under despotic regimes that rose to power through appeals to altruism.” An understanding that altruism can produce great evil as well as good is crucial to the defense of human freedom and dignity.

The rest of the article is worth a read as it isn’t much longer than what I shared here but it does complete the picture better.

I’ll be looking for the good professors book, Pathological Altruism, in my local library soon.


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Posted on June 17, 2013, in enjoy life, Great Person of the Week, Hope for America, Problems to Ponder, The Life of Man and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I have to question whether altruism is even the proper term when they’re typically talking about generosity with other people’s money rather than their own.

    • Good point. But I think that when you get down to it, that’s a valid sub-point to make. At least as it pertains to the political aspect as the saying goes it’s easy to spend other peoples money.

      Still the main point is that anyone can make claims to altruism, just like anyone can convince themselves of their moral superiority. No doubt the worst tyrants in history all thought they were doing things for everyones best interests. I guess i’d say its not about whether or not someone is being altruistic so much as it is about why their being altruistic, which then brings us back to your question of ‘is it then even altruism’.

      • “I guess i’d say its not about whether or not someone is being altruistic so much as it is about why their being altruistic, which then brings us back to your question of ‘is it then even altruism’.”

        Exactly. From my perspective, if they want to live in a commune and share everything have at it. Unsurprisingly, those “altruistic” types tend to get less altruistic the fewer people they have to sponge money from to subsidize that great “altruism”.

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