Oakley on Pathological Altruism

Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a brilliant article on “pathological altruism.” People often act out of a desire to help others, but this by no means ensures that what they do will have good consequences, whether for the intended beneficiaries or for others. Sometimes these bad consequences cannot reasonably be foreseen; but all too often action proceeds in blithe disregard of them. It is this sort of misguided action that Oakley characterizes as pathological.

Several of her examples deal with public policy and are likely to be of great interest to readers of this blog. The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans aimed to promote better access to housing for those unable to meet prevailing standards to obtain mortgages. This misguided attempt to assist the disadvantaged helped to bring on a severe financial crisis. Foreign aid to Africa has served to entrench tyrants in power. More generally, various altruistic measures have led to a massive government deficit with dire consequences to come.

Oakley also gives examples of the baneful effects of pathological altruism in personal conduct. These effects are not confined to the intended beneficiaries or to third parties; the altruist may also in certain cases suffer personality damage. Oakley’s discussion of these various effects  is informed by an extensive knowledge of the literature of evolutionary psychology and other relevant disciplines. She calls for more research on pathological altruism but suggests that such research will confront obstacles. Researchers tend to be sympathetic to altruistically motivated conduct, even if it has bad effects,and as a result studies that challenge such conduct tend to be viewed with disfavor. People who criticize accepted ideas tend to have great difficulty in gaining an audience for their views. This suppression of research into the malign effects of altruism is itself an expression of pathological altruism. Oakley calls for a new research paradigm that will put an end to the harmful taboos that constrain the study of altruism.

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