Pathological Altruism

College professor Barbara Oakley has written a paper that gives a solid, academic form to an idea that I think a lot of people had but never verbalized. She describes what she calls “pathological altruism.” James Taranto sums it up on

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. 

As the latter example suggests, the idea of “codependency” is a subset of pathological altruism. “Feelings of empathic caring . . . appear to lie at the core of . . . codependent behavior,” Oakley notes. People in codependent relationships genuinely care for each other, but that empathy leads them to do destructive things. 

Yet according to Oakley, “the vital topic of codependency has received almost no hard-science research focus, leaving ‘research’ to those with limited or no scientific research qualifications.” That is to say, it is largely the domain of pop psychology. “It is reasonable to wonder if the lack of scientific research involving codependency may relate to the fact that there is a strong academic bias against studying possible negative outcomes of empathy.”

Yes, because pointing out possible negative outcomes of altruism could cause disproportionate harm to a particular political philosophy. A philosophy that is embraced by a lot of the politicians who are most interested in giving grants to academics who study things like empathy. More from Taranto:

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 government does not, and cannot, love you. In attempting to demonstrate their clumsy version of love, they more often then not end up crushing the object of their affection, along with a lot of innocent bystanders.

One thought on “Pathological Altruism

  1. Objectivists refer to COMTEAN altruism: the destructive belief that an action’s virtue is measured not by its results but by its degree of selflessness. This is the “altruism” that Ayn Rand considered so poisonous, and rightfully so.

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