Like its distinguished forebear, pathological narcissism, pathological altruism is defined by a me-first attitude toward the charitable acts.
In defining the concept Professor Barbara Oakley took a step beyond the adage: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” She wanted to expose the state of mind of people whose altruism ends up hurting those it is trying to help. (Via James Taranto)
In some cases pathological altruism refers to people who should have known that their largesse would do more harm than good. If an “external observer” would have known that harm was “reasonably foreseeable” the altruism is pathological.
I don’t need to tell you that the notion of a foreseeable outcome is difficult to pin down. One person’s prediction of failure is often another person’s reason to persevere. Presumably, one would have some objective evidence for the failure of an altruistic project, so “reasonably foreseeable” must refer ultimately to track record.
It is easier to define the concept when we look at cases where well-intentioned good deeds produce a calamity and the altruist refuses to take responsibility for the outcome.
Given the choice between shouldering responsibility and shifting the blame, the pathological altruist falls back on his moral sentiment. If he feels good about helping, consequences are not his problem.
The bottom line is that the heartfelt, emotional basis of our good intentions can mislead us about what is truly helpful for others. Altruistic intentions must be run through the sieve of rational analysis; all too often, the best long-term action to help others, at both personal and public scales, is not immediately or intuitively obvious, not what temporarily makes us feel good, and not what is being promoted by other individuals, with their own potentially self-serving interests. Indeed, truly altruistic actions may sometimes appear cruel or harmful, the equivalent of saying “no” to the student who demands a higher grade or to the addict who needs another hit. However, the social consequences of appearing cruel in a culture that places high value on kindness, empathy, and altruism can lead us to misplaced “helpful” behavior and result in self-deception regarding the consequences of our actions.
In terms of public policy, pathological altruism can produce horrors.
When Mao Zedong introduced his Great Leap Forward in 1959, his goal was to modernize and industrialize China quickly. The net effect of his policy was a famine that killed tens of millions of people. Being a pathological altruist, Mao refused to believe that his policies had anything to do with the calamity. He blamed counterrevolutionaries and launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to purge China and the Communist Party of retrograde influences.
Surely, Mao did not intend to starve so many people; therefore, he seems to have imagined that he was not responsible for the famine.
Like the pathological narcissist, the pathological altruist has no real interest in other people. He does not examine the consequences of his actions, but prefers his self-righteous moral superiority.
In other words, the altruism and empathy we feel often isn’t really about the person or group ostensibly being helped but instead often are about us. Sometimes they relate to the pain we might feel at being ostracized or shunned for thinking or acting differently. Or they relate to building our reputation—we wish to be publicly perceived as being altruistic, whether or not our efforts are truly altruistic, so that we can receive the reputational beneﬁts of indirect reciprocity.
However much we would like to see pathological altruism find its rightful place in the next version of the DSM, it is an ethical failing more than a psychiatric condition.
Obviously, much altruism is anything but pathological. If your good deeds produce good results; if they have a constructive influence on those less fortunate… you are behaving ethically.
Thus, the value of the altruism depends on the ability to judge the results objectively.
Pathological altruism is not limited to individuals. Oakley points out that American public policy may well be infested with it:
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.
Clearly, our therapy culture is stoking pathological altruism. By placing more value on how you feel than about whether you are effective, it is creating the conditions where people are encouraged to blind themselves to the consequences of their actions.
Oakley sees the hand of the therapy culture at work through its glorification of empathy. Since psychopaths seem to lack empathy, the therapy culture has concluded that your capacity for empathy is the only thing standing between you and state prison.
I have often pointed out that empathy will make you a less effective competitor. Oakley adds that empathy is problematic in many other ways.
In her words:
Empathy 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 Oxytocin, the “goody-goody hormone” that underlies maternal bonding and many aspects of empathy, also increases both envy and gloating. Empathy also can be used by the self-serving, including psychopaths, to deduce how to further their own ends . Being emotionally close to someone who is selﬁsh or dishonest has been found to lead people to becoming more selﬁsh and dishonest themselves. Allegiance bias causes forensic scientists to call their ﬁndings for the team they believe has hired them . [Indeed, the reliability of all types of forensic science evidence, including ostensibly objective techniques such as DNA typing and ﬁngerprint analysis, has been called to question .] Judges, almost all of whom are lawyers, favor the legal system in their decisions; this bias has far-reaching and deleterious effects on American law.
One might reasonably conclude that therapists have often ignored bad treatment results because they have been secure in their knowledge that they intend the best for their patients.
If they intend the best and their work does not produce good results, the fault cannot possibly be theirs.