Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pathological Altruism - When Does Caring Go Too Far?: A Lecture with Barbara Oakley

On Sunday April 17th I attended a lecture in the Feed Your Brain series at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood. Dr. Barbara Oakley was speaking about her soon-to-be-release book titled "Pathological Altruism", clearly a topic that would be of interest to me. I plan to read her book, which I suspect will be quite good, but I took issue with her talk.

I expected to lecture to be filled with examples of people who do good to the point of hurting themselves: seniors who give away their entire savings to do "God's work"; parents' whose lives are consumed trying to "save" a child who won't get a job; animal rescuers who see too many dogs without homes, and so adopt them all, but provide good care to none. Instead, the lecture contained examples of people who feel concern for another based on bad information. The opening example she used was the story of a woman who has been horrifically tortured by her husband and then killed him in self-defense. Once Dr Oakley delved deeper into the story, we discovered that the woman had not been abused at all, was having an affair, and planned her husband's murder over a long period of time. Dr. Oakley labeled our initial pity for the woman as "pathological altruism."

To me, there was nothing pathological about the audience's feelings. It is normal and healthy to feel for a victim. Once we learned that she was not, in fact, a victim, the audience withdrew their feelings for her. What is pathological about that? I support the main messages of her lecture: use rationality and skepticism before become emotionally invested in a person or a cause; empathy may not always be good and we should study it. But I thought her definition of what counted as pathological altruism was lacking. She defined it as someone who is empathetic to the detriment of themselves and/or others. So under her definition, someone who gives to a charity that later turns out to be a scam is a pathological altruist (her example). I disagree. I don't think it is enough to do harm out of empathy to warrant the "pathological" label. Rather, you have to know you are doing harm and continue to do it before you can call it pathological. I would add to her definition: someone who is empathetic to the detriment of themselves and/or others and has access to information that demonstrates the harm and chooses to continue the behavior. In my definition, the person who gives to a phony charity, but cuts off their gifts when the scam is revealed is not a pathological altruist. The person who continues to give even after the scam is revealed would be.

I'm sure some people see this blog as evidence of my own altruistic pathology. But I really have to disagree. I just had a $50 box of organic produce delivered to my front door. I'm sitting in my warm bed, on my foam mattress, under my expensive faux-feather comforter, typing on my relatively new MacBook, setting my iPhone4 to wake me so I can choose an outfit from my extensive wardrobe and go into my office job in the morning. I live a life of sheer luxury because I was lucky enough to be born white, to middle class parents, in an area with excellent public schools and health care. There is little reason to believe that I deserve this lifestyle more than a girl who, because of chance, was born black, to impoverished parents, in an area with no schools to teach her to read and no clinics to treat her debilitating illness or injury. I owe most of what I have to a lucky birth location.

I gave just over 1% of my lucky income to people living in unlucky poverty last year - what Peter Singer asks each of us to do to help eliminate world poverty. I don't see any kind of pathology in giving at least 1% toward a future in which birth location has little weight on success. But I do see pathology - a moral disease - in a society that has the means to do so much good for so many, but decides to spend almost every extra dollar on leisure and things.

Remember Singer's figure that for $125 billion we could cut world poverty in half, and American's spend $116 billion booze each year? That's moral pathology.

-Selfish Blogger


  1. I really appreciate your candor and have to agree my hit on pathological altruism is when we give below our own reserve. Having empathy and sympathy is not pathological altruism - it sounds like a little burn out on her part - but I haven't read the book and definitely struggle with maintaining balance as a healer so - I guess I could be fooling myself - but I don't think so. Altruism to the point of pathology is giving beyond ones reserve having empathy from a culturally relativism point of view is not pathological. I like your blog.


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