In a new paper, “Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism,” Barbara Oakley of Oakland University argues that scientists and social observers have mostly ignored the harm that can come from altruism. Though “the profound benefits of altruism in modern society are self-evident,” Oakley observes, the “potential hurtful aspects of altruism have gone largely unrecognized in scientific inquiry.”

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Aiming to lay the groundwork for such inquiry, Oakley focuses on what she calls “pathological altruism” — “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” As for whether such behavior is “intended,” Oakley believes it can emerge from “a mix of accidental, subconscious, or deliberate causes,” though it can be more clearly identified by whether an external observer would conclude that the harm was “reasonably foreseeable.”

In other words, the pathologically altruistic have a sort of tunnel vision, a way of looking at the world around them that lends toward destructive self-sacrifice. Some already know it, others simply should.

Oakley explains:

A working definition of a pathological altruist then might be a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts but who (in a fashion that can be reasonably anticipated) harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help; or a person who, in the course of helping one person or group, inflicts reasonably foreseeable harm to others beyond the person or group being helped; or a person who in reasonably anticipatory way becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions. The attempted altruism, in other words, results in objectively foreseeable and unreasonable harm to the self, to the target of the altruism, or to others beyond the target.

Examples at an interpersonal level include the codependent wife murdered by the husband she has refused to leave, or the overly attentive “helicopter” father who threatens to sue instructors that give well-deserved bad grades, or the mother who attempts to protect her son by refusing to vaccinate him and who consequently fuels a loss of herd immunity underpinning a local whooping cough epidemic in which an infant dies. Very different personalities can become entangled in pathologies of altruism, ranging from the sensitive hyperempath, to the normal person, to the utterly self-absorbed narcissist. These differing personalities share genuinely good intentions that play out in detrimental ways.

Oakley proceeds to provide a basic framework for moving toward “a more mature, scientifically informed understanding of altruism and cooperative behavior,” and her recommendations for scientific pursuit are intriguing.

But as far as what she recommends for the rest of us, she encourages us to utilize “the sieve of rational analysis”:

The bottom line is that the heartfelt, emotional basis of our good intentions can mislead us about what is truly helpful for others. Altruistic intentions must be run through the sieve of rational analysis; all too often, the best long-term action to help others, at both personal and public scales, is not immediately or intuitively obvious, not what temporarily makes us feel good, and not what is being promoted by other individuals, with their own potentially self-serving interests. Indeed, truly altruistic actions may sometimes appear cruel or harmful, the equivalent of saying “no” to the student who demands a higher grade or to the addict who needs another hit. However, the social consequences of appearing cruel in a culture that places high value on kindness, empathy, and altruism can lead us to misplaced “helpful” behavior and result in self-deception regarding the consequences of our actions.

Of course, critiques about the limits of “good intentions” are not altogether new. Particularly when it comes to politics and economics, skeptics of centralized power routinely note that although quick-and-easy pseudo-solutions may “feel” nice or give us a prompt boost of short-term satisfaction, tinkering too aggressively with the here and now to the neglect of the not yet is bound to lead to plenty of “reasonably foreseeable” harm. As Frédéric Bastiat observed, the ability to take into account the “effects that must be foreseen” is what separates the good economist from the bad.

On this, Christians should pay close attention, for in addition to utilizing Oakley’s “sieve of rational analysis” and taking into account the unpredictability and mystery of Bastiat’s “unseen,” we are called first and foremost to lean on wisdom of a higher variety. Though our altruism and self-sacrifice should be reasoned and discerning of the natural order, it should also be subservient to the call of Christ and obedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit, involving prayerful and thoughtful deliberation over how God would have us serve those around us.

Particularly if we are claiming to take our cues from the Gospel, Matthew 25 or otherwise, any harm caused by our altruistic actions should be immediately funneled back through an introspective analysis that asks, “Does the destruction my sacrifice has caused glorify God?”

If we are ignoring this question altogether, embracing the message while ignoring his method, can our “good intentions” really be good in any meaningful sense?

Oakley rightly observes that the line between altruism and pathological altruism is a bit blurry. The degree to which various negative outcomes are “reasonably foreseeable” will vary from thing to thing and person to person. But such blurriness isn’t an excuse to be lax in our thinking and behavior. It’s an obstacle that Christians are called to overcome, one that should inspire us toward attentive observation of  the world around us and an ever closer, ever discerning communion with the Holy One.

Read Oakley’s paper here.

(HT James Taranto)