Pathological Altruism

The Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto recently linked to an academic psychologist’s report on the phenomenon of “pathological altruism”—a tentative recognition that the morality of altruism might not be as benevolent as it claims.

For an Objectivist, this is a fat, slow pitch over the middle, so I took a swing at it. This is exactly the sort of piece I would normally publish in The Tracinski Letter, but Taranto had given it prominent enough attention that I thought I should publish my response in my RCP newsletter. For the benefit of those who don’t get both newsletters, here is the link.

The part that is probably most interesting to my subscribers is how this explained to me, for the first time, why the works and ideas of Ayn Rand are indispensable to conservatives and will always have a place in the ideological canon of the right—whether they like it or not.

Then there is the fact that an academic psychologist is suggesting that the “pathological” consequences of altruism are real and are worthy of more study. I hope this idea catches on. Who knows, maybe when they finish the translation they will realize it’s a cookbook.

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132 Responses to Pathological Altruism

  1. R. S. Getman July 5, 2013 at 11:12 AM #

    I embrace your general optimism, but the conservatives won’t retreat from altruism so easily. As you wrote: “”Taranto concludes that “an understanding that altruism can produce great evil as well as good is crucial to the defense of human freedom and dignity.”‘” Note: “as well as good”. If that academic’s theory gained traction, I could just see some of their “intellectuals” come up with a concept such as “conservative altruism”: be altruistic but just be more careful not to do harm. I believe (no psychologizing required or intended) that altruists and their fellow-travelers are psychologically wedded to it. The way they live their lives soaks them in guilt, and lip service to altruism seems a safe and easy balm, though it doesn’t actually work. And any “Peter Keating” (of which there are many, sadly) among the altruists and fellow-travelers, will cling desperately to that creed to the last. And because the majority of today’s conservatives start from religion – altruism’s headquarters – that’s yet another obstacle.

    Moreover, as far as I read your column, there’s no concession that altruism isn’t “benevolent”, let alone malevolent, but only that it sometimes wreaks harm unintentionally. Although she calls it “pathological” altruism, as you noted, she carefully specifies that the altruist did not intend harm. That’s another reason that I suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that the conservatives would simply promulgate careful “conservative altruism”.

    By the way, I would be interested if you could explain more fully “how _this_ explained to me, for the first time, why the works and ideas of Ayn Rand are indispensable to conservatives and will always have a place in the ideological canon of the right”. I don’t see how this academic’s idea is so revelatory, or different from what Bastiat and Hazlitt should have taught conservatives long ago.

  2. Matt B. July 29, 2013 at 3:59 PM #

    Quote, ” but the conservatives won’t retreat from altruism so easily.”

    No, like the Marxists, they’ll insist they can “run it better with THEIR folks in charge”.

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