All Altruism is Pathological

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Following a link in a recent news story, I came upon an interesting notion that has been making the rounds in academia: pathological altruism. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal sums it up as follows:

[Barbara] 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." Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn't pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is.
This is an interesting idea, but it is already in trouble, since there can be many reasons outside the ethics of altruism for helping others, such as friends. More precision is needed for such work to realize its full potential, and Ayn Rand's clarity regarding the nature of altruism would be quite helpful in that regard:
What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice -- which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction -- which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: "No." Altruism says: "Yes."
One can see here that, while individual acts of altruism may or may not harm the recipient, they always harm the donor to some degree, and are always pathological in that sense.

While I am glad to the altruistic academic establishment waking up to the potential their creed has for destruction, I must add that, to mimic the style of academia, more work is needed.

-- CAV


Today: Corrected some typos. 


Steve D said...

I would argue that altruism is pathological in the moral sense, if there is such a thing as a moral disease.

However, you are quite right to point out that under normal circumstances helping a friend move is NOT altruism at least not based on Ayn Rand’s (nor Comte’s) definition. It is important to have a precise definition here. Comte calls it ‘living for the sake of others’ which is closer to Ayn Rand but still not there; for her it is ‘renouncing one’s self’ which one could do for the sake of religion, the environment, animals etc. rather than other people.

It is not clear from the article exactly how Oakley defines altruism but she seems to feel that any sort of helping in which one doesn’t get a concrete and/or immediate payback is altruism and by pathological altruism she may mean something closer to Comte or Rand. There is also the biological idea of ‘reciprocal altruism’ which would be helping your friend move in the hopes he might reciprocate at a later date rather than just being a good friend.

Gus Van Horn said...


My general impression is that academics and the general public are taking "altruism" quite vaguely, with the idea of "biological altruism" (which I think ought to be replaced or t least clarified any time it is used with the public) making it seem legitimate.

I'd need to think more about whether it is proper to refer to altruism as a moral disease. (I am inclined to think not.) And then, even if it were, the term could easily play into the hands of determinists of the alcoholism-as-a-disease variety.


Steve D said...

I agree. In a literal sense the term moral disease is an oxymoron since moral implies choice and disease implies the opposite. It could potentially be a useful metaphor (disease merely signifying a bad thing that spreads throughout the populace) but as you say, why give the evolutionary determinists any ammunition or space to feign misunderstanding.

For the same reason pathological altruism is probably also not a useful term.

Gus Van Horn said...

Indeed, and it's probably worse than useless since, by implying that "some" altruism isnt pathological, it prevents thinking about altruism too deeply.