WSJ’s Best of the Web on “a simple yet versatile idea that could revolutionize scientific and social thought.” From a paper by Oakland University’s Professor Barbara Oakly entitled Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism.
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.
“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.