In the case of empathy or sympathy, can there be too-much-of-a-good-thing?
If psychopaths, by the common definition lack empathy for other people can there be people who have too much empathy or sympathy for others?If psychopaths exploit others ruthlessly, super-empaths would make self-sacrifice a fetish.
Researchers call these people with the ill-chosen term: “anti-psychopaths.” But, if a psychopath is all take and no give, these people might well become the perfect enablers for psychopaths… being all give and no take.
They might allow themselves to be used and abused, at times to a frightening extent, because they want to be more giving than anyone else.
Melissa Dahl reports on some new research in New York Magazine:
New research she just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests an answer: If the dark, scary end of the caring continuum is inhabited by psychopaths, way down at the other end is a group of what she calls “anti-psychopaths” — ultra-do-gooders who are extraordinarily compassionate, prosocial, and empathetic.
[Georgetown psychologist Abigail] Marsh wanted to study the characteristics of these sorts of people, so she sought so-called “altruistic kidney donors” who offer up a kidney to anyone who needs it (as opposed to those who donate a kidney to a friend or loved one), figuring they would fit the bill.
Altruistic kidney donors fit into a debate that has long been raging among psychologists and others who study human nature: Does true altruism — good deeds for the sake of good deeds — really exist? And if so, how did it evolve? “In theory, you’d have a species where nobody wants to help anybody else,” said Marsh. “And the fact that humans do is, I think, really amazing and not well understood ... So these kidney donors, they’ve done something I call extraordinary altruism, because it’s extremely unusual — it’s something most people would not do. It’s a pretty major decision to undertake, especially for a stranger.”
Altruistic kidney donors voluntarily sign up for an invasive surgery, which results in the removal of a perfectly healthy organ, all because a complete stranger (whom they’ll never meet) needs it. And, as you might guess, these donors are very rare — there are fewer than 1,400 in the U.S., Marsh said — but they help meet a huge need for donor kidneys in the U.S. (Kidney disease is among the top ten causes of death for both men and women in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.)
How do we explain super-empaths? Perhaps they want to be role models who will lead the world toward a more moral future. They might believe that they are sacrificing something of value in order to be the antidote to selfishness and psychopathy.
Researchers believe that super-empaths are genuine altruists. They give more than most; they are kinder and nicer than most… surely this cannot be seen as pathological behavior.
Unless, of course, they are more prone to sacrifice themselves for strangers than they are for their friends and family.
Obviously, no one is going to fault anyone for giving up a kidney to a stranger. A sacrifice that saves a life must certainly count as the ultimate in benevolence.
But is it really true to say that these extreme altruists gain no benefit from their sacrifice? Don’t they get to revel in their moral superiority? Even if the recipient of the kidney does not know who gave it to him, the friends and family of the super empath certainly do.
The psychologists note, however, that extreme altruists are very humble about their capacity for empathy.
Dahl describes them:
The world’s nicest people, in other words, don’t even grasp how nice they really are. Which, if you think about it, makes them even nicer.
It might be the case that they are competing to see who is the nicest. If so, researchers have crowned them the kings of our moral universe. Unless, of course, they are being exploited for the benefit of others.
But then, questions arise.
How do we know whether the person who offers the kidney to a stranger likes to feel that other people are in his debt, that they owe him something… like their lives? Does he believe that if he himself is in dire need, a stranger will rescue him? Perhaps he believes that his goodness will reduce his time in Purgatory.
And yet, can you ever really eliminate the element of reciprocal exchange? Even if your true reward will be delivered in the afterlife, you are still making an exchange.
Moral beings reciprocate favors. If you have received a gift from a stranger you will be more likely to return the favor… not necessarily to the stranger… but to someone else.
Perhaps self-sacrificing altruists want to provoke a cycle of virtue, thus to make the world a kinder, gentler place.
But, Steven Pinker explained, people often do good deeds without any expectation of their being reciprocated:
Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment down the line. We all know of unrequited good deeds, like tipping a waitress in a city you will never visit again and falling on a grenade to save platoon mates. These bursts of goodness are not as anomalous to a biologist as they might appear.
One might suggest here that tipping the waitress is a payment for services rendered. Being part of an exchange, it involves reciprocity. The tipper has been rewarded before the fact. As for falling on a grenade to save your platoon mates, one might believe that the return on investment will be enjoyed by others, by friends, family and even country.
Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship.
When someone asks you for a favor, you normally grant it. I would quibble a bit over whether your actions are motivated by sympathy, rather than, say, generosity, but if you refuse to do someone a favor you are saying that you are not a friend.
Obviously, if someone does you a favor you are obliged to return it. If you fail to do so, Pinker suggests, you have accepted the first favor on false premises and stand exposed as a cheat.
Participation in such exchanges defines your moral being. Failure to uphold such responsibilities shows you to be suffering from a character defect.
But, isn’t there a problem in the example chosen. Doesn’t the choice of people who are willing to give a kidney to a stranger load the dice? Would these extreme altruists be more or less altruistic if they had received payment for the kidney? Are those who give up a kidney for a relative or a friend be less altruistic, because somewhat more interested than those who donate to a stranger? If someone gives a kidney to a stranger who belongs to his community, isn’t there something of a social link between the donor and the recipient?
From here the concept becomes even more complicated. We will not be able to solve the complexities here, but we should be aware of the difficulties in conceptualizing the issue, difficulties that the example of kidney donors obscures.
For example, sociologist Emile Durkheim identified a class of people who commit suicide for altruistic reasons. Some of them kill themselves because they feel that they only cause trouble and want to do one good thing for other people. Others, like military leaders, take their own lives as a way of taking responsibility for defeat. Presumably, they are relieving their troops of the responsibility for failure.
And then there are cases where abused spouses who stay in their marriages because they want to continue to provide a stable home life for their children.
Are they making an altruistic sacrifice for their children? Do they expect to be rewarded in kind or is the well-being of their children a sufficient reward?
What about people who suffer abuse because they want to please a partner who enjoys abusing people. Are they still being abused? Would we say that they are being nice? Do they think of themselves as being nice or being accommodating? Or are they so desperate that they will put up with anything in order to sustain a semblance of a relationship?
And then there are those who make what appear to be altruistic sacrifices when the sacrifices effectively cost them nothing.
A billionaire who gives a few million dollars to charity is not really making a sacrifice. The money will not in any way cause him to change his life style. Is he being altruistic if he is not sacrificing anything of value to him? Or is he just showing off?