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« Mallory and Irvine: Should we solve Everest's mystery? (Norman Costa) | Main | India launches Aakash tablet computer priced at $35 (Norman Costa) »

October 04, 2011


@ Sujatha:

Thanks. This a very interesting article, if unsettling and a little strange. My very first reaction was that the word 'altruism' does not belong here. It's like labeling Mafia Don, John Gotti, as pathologically good because he gave block parties with fireworks in his neighborhood. For Gotti, his goodness did not go awry.

The article mentions a Dr. Oakley who analyzes the problem from an engineering perspective, specifically the laws of thermodynamics. What you add here gets taken away from there, and vice versa. Anytime one tries to describe human interactions according to the laws of thermodynamics, you can stop reading and throw it out. The idea of inevitable greater entropy only applies to open systems that keep running down. Until our sun dies, energy is being added, constantly, to our planetary system. It is a bad concept to apply to human behavior and interactions.

There is evidence supporting a genetic basis for altruism in some of the great primates. There appear to be neurological structures that control altruism. I first came across the research a few years ago, but not followed ensuing publications.

I think there is genuine altruism that yields unfortunate consequences. The destruction of indigenous cultures, languages, social order, and family structures during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and Australia are perfect examples. The total replacement of indigenous civilizations with Christianity and Western culture was implemented with the highest of motives. Altruism, itself, was not pathological. The limitations of evolving religious, political, and cultural thought produced pathologies of its own.

Canada and Australia demonstrated altruism, and a number of other virtues, when they returned land, resources, and cultural prerogatives to indigenous peoples in recent years. They added a great big national apology to the indigenous populations. Others with more knowledge than I will have to comment on the 'altruism' of 'the White man's burden.'

As with any human endeavor or process, motivations are always complex. Altruism may be accompanied by a variety of motives that are not as lofty as altruism. Does that diminish altruism? Also, there are the recalcitrants who chide you for being altruistic, and say, with great accusation, that you only do it because it makes you feel good. The real pathology is defining the personal satisfaction that accompanies altruism with self interest and selfishness.

Pathological journalism, I'd call it. And get this, Norm: I stopped reading at precisely the point you indicated. I thought Angier was a reputable pop science journalist. I guess not. I believe there may be no such thing.

Just as altruism has unintended consequences, so does selfishness. Really, though, I don't think altruism can be reduced to a discrete instance of its exercise. Nor do I believe it must necessarily be viewed as a particularly "lofty" enterprise. It's just a more sensible way to engage with the world than pretending one's focus is one's own "self interests," as if those were always clear and always so forever. They, too, are complex.

The altruism of physicians is indeed a bad example. For it not to be, we would need not to require a socioeconomic mechanism (of status, ego-stroking, and reputation) rigged to encourage them to do their work.

If the neurological basis of what we term altruism is examined, it would be evident that there is indeed a quid pro quo involved.
The giving does benefit the giver as well as the receiver. This is another of those philosphical conundrums. For instance, is it possible, for instance, to be truly disinterested in the results of action (from the famous exhortation in the Bhagavad Gita), when one must desire the state of disinterestedness to achieve that state.
Similarly, to be truly altruistic, there must be no benefit whatsoever to the giver, not even the satisfaction of having done good. But how then to trigger such altruistic behavior by the person, if no such reward system works in his/her brain?

Norman: The destruction of indigenous cultures by missionaries was admittedly done in the name of 'saving the heathen from hellfire'. But it bears a clear parallel to the cure-obsessed physician, rushing to impose one's concept of 'good' regardless of the human cost incurred.

Dean: I suppose we could use a less strict definition of what constitutes altruism stating that yes, it does benefit the giver in some intangible manner, but that the material consequences to the recipient far outweigh what accrues to the giver. Physicians can then be altruistic, without overdosing on the adulation given them by the adoring society.

I thought the examples in the article were largely quite poorly chosen: kindhearted anorexics? How do those qualify as 'altruistic', when their saintly behavior is primarily a distraction from the thought of having to eat to stay alive?
Pathological journalism it is, indeed. Care to coin a suitable -itis name for it?

Agree mostly with what Dean and Sujatha said. I have on a few occasions made the same point about altruism here - cooperation and consideration among members of any society are "sensible" operating systems; there is no need to elevate that to an unnecessarily high moral ground. In fact, I prefer that our focus be on the receiver of an altruistic act. How good the giver feels is irrelevant. A homeless man giving his last two dollars to a charity may be a story that the media would report breathlessly. But Bill Gates giving a couple of his many hundred millions to the same cause will go much further along in realizing the goal. There is no need to sit in judgment of which of the two gave "more" of himself on a moral scale. We make that mistake too often and that is what perhaps leads to this pathology of goodness

If an anorexic, seeing I have no food, gives me her lunch, that's certainly not as nice as if she fed me without, as well, forcing me to serve her illness. But my need for food is of a different order than her need to avoid eating it. And she could have avoided eating it merely by toying with it or by hiding it under a napkin. Something about this transaction is more important than the exigencies of her illness; she found an opportunity for charity where she would more usually feel the panicky impulse to waste. This is wrong?

Let's not forget those benighted souls who give for the joy of giving, either. They are rare indeed, but they have the best possible motivation for generosity. They're being true to themselves, and they understand a friendship is not a credit union.

I'm with Elatia on this one. Kant couldn't see beyond the egoistic implications of doing good. If human behavior was limited to chains of learned responses (reward being at the core,) then it is hard to characterize anything as moral. And this is the question. Is there anything that can be called moral or altruistic that characterizes a selfless giving without any expectation for oneself.

Schopenhauer provided a view, which I like, that does not stick, strictly, to scratching each other's backs, or affirming a universal law (Kant's categorical imperative.) If you think of spirituality as a sense of connectedness to others without expecting a reward, then compassion can be seen as spiritual or at least metaphysical. With compassion one can participate in the danger of another while forgetting the law of self-preservation, and move toward the other person. In that moment we acknowledge that we are one with that other. Then compassion and altruism become metaphysical imperatives that originate within us, and not as an egoistic response to a stimulus.

The satisfaction we feel in doing a kindness, or the shame we anticipate if we don't, are not reinforcers (positive and negative) in a Skinner box. They are feedback to us that we are doing good and in alignment with values we have internalized. When someone says, "I feel good when I do it," it is not an admission of egoism and self interest. It is a statement about how one comes to know it was the good thing to do. As Schopenhauer puts it, compassion is the only real moral act.

To illustrate my point, (and I admit that it isn't very well spelled out), I will take aim at one of the sacred cows of morality and compassion - Motherly love. Can a mother's love for her child be termed altruistic? On the face of it, it would seem so, especially in the early years. The mother is extolled as being unselfish in her willingness to subordinate her needs and comforts to that of caring for a child (especially in the newborn stage.) We hear of mothers who gave their lives to save their kids, conversely there are mothers who will abandon the kids in order to survive. All motherly love is clearly not created equal and altrustic. There is a strong, if largely unconscious element of self-interest permeating the actions.

Elatia: the 'kind anorexic' that I was referring to was primarily from the article. I think it somehow morphed into a discussion of the anorexic who feeds others to try and suppress others noticing her not eating.

"Rachel Bachner-Melman.. has seen the impact of extreme selflessness on the anorexic young women who populate her ward.

“They are terribly sensitive to the needs of those around them,” she said in an interview. “They know who needs to be pushed in a wheelchair, who needs a word of encouragement, who needs to be fed.”

Yet the spectral empaths will express no desires of their own. “They try to hide their needs or deny their needs or pretend their needs don’t exist,” Dr. Bachner-Melman went on. “They barely feel they have the right to exist themselves.” They apologize for themselves, for the hated, hollow self, by giving, ceaselessly giving."

What is moral and what is not, is completely relative. It is going to be as varied as there are people on the planet with their own 'minds' and evaluations of what they see to be moral or not.
No baby is born with a set of morals, otherwise babies would never survive. They cry, demand to be fed and made comfortable, and are generally nuisances to the mothers in whose wombs they so blissfully floated, part of a temporary dual-organism. Now that they are out, they make their needs manifest, and the mother, through biological/cultural/societal imperatives, now sublimates her needs to taking care of this new helpless member of the species.
So the values we internalize, if you will pardon my broad brush, essentially is imbibed with the care from our mothers (biological, foster etc.). So too do the constructs of 'satisfaction at good deeds', 'what is right vs. wrong'.

@ Sujatha:

Sounds too deterministic to me.

Norm and Elatia:

I believe that charity is based primarily on empathy and a desire for overall good. Indeed these are moral values as we commonly understand them. But unless we see ourselves in someone else's shoes, we cannot act altruistically. A bit of guilt about our own good fortune too is often an ingredient in driving a generous gesture. So in most common altruistic acts, the motivation of the giver plays a role. That doesn't necessarily make it "selfish" but definitely a consideration of our own self is involved in the decision. I wouldn't bring spirituality into it. If however someone feels a spiritual gratification in giving, that is fine by me.

In this light, the anorexic young woman's disposal of food does not quite measure up to a charitable impulse. She is ridding herself of something she fears and abhors. The giving in this case is a vehicle for self indulgence sans the empathy, a calculation. That a hungry person benefits from it makes it charity in a strictly dispassionate sense, which is okay with me. But let's not bring in the "morality" of the giver into this case.

@ Ruchira:

Since I introduced the terms 'spiritual' and 'moral' I should be clear on what they mean. In neither case do I intend them to connote an other-worldliness, or connection to the supernatural. They are categories of very human and earthly experiences and behaviors.

"I believe that charity is based primarily on empathy and a desire for overall good. Indeed these are moral values as we commonly understand them. But unless we see ourselves in someone else's shoes, we cannot act altruistically."

Your view is exactly in line with Schopenhauer's "On The Basis for Morality," 1841. It is compassion, he says, that enables us to feel the suffering of another even though we and they are separate entities. Because we see ourselves in the other's shoes, we can act altruistically. For Schopenhauer, compassion and empathy are little differentiated from each other.

Some refer to this connectedness to another human being as spiritual. The self (ego) and the non-self (non-ego) lose their differentiation, if only for a brief moment. This is how we can participate in the suffering, the pain, the danger, and the rejoicing of another.

Yes, we do good things in the context of receiving a reward. I just donated another $10 to a political cause in order to be included in a raffle for a free trip to San Francisco to meet and have dinner with Nancy Pelosi. There are plenty of people who give of their time and money ONLY to reap the rewards of acting generously. This is more than selfish and egoistic. It is objectification and manipulation.

I would like to propose that 'altruism' might be qualified by other adjectives than 'pathological', since that term doesn't lend itself to effective examples.
'Practical altruism' might be one,An example would be the merge-line that I see daily in the approach to downtown. Masses of vehicles of every size and description, that have been crawling at 2 mph for the last half hour, and invariably, some motorist, frazzled as they must be after the wait, will allow one or even two cars from another faster line to merge in front of them. He/she has allowed 'greater good' to supersede personal benefit. It never fails to work, except on days with light traffic, in which case, the merge is now fraught with more danger than the slow days. It's not compassion, just 'let's do the right thing and get on with life.'
The problem is, ants also adopt a similar approach when they have merging lines to a bottleneck. Can we ascribe altruism to ants?

P.S. I admit it, I'm addicted to 'practicality' :)

I think you're on to something, Sujatha. A similar behavior involving cars occurs in parking lots, where ambitious, selfish, unrealistically demanding drivers wait and wait and wait for somebody arriving at his or her car to open it, get in, sit down, buckle up, start the car, adjust the mirrors, plug in the cell phone, back out (s-l-o-w-l-y), and, finally, exit. Then the eager parker parks, relieving the backup of cars behind him/her. More practical, and moderately altruistic, would be simply to continue coursing through the lot waiting for the coincidence of an open space with one's own arrival. The reason this isn't full-fledged altruism is that the personal benefit enjoyed by the patient and intent driver is an illusion, but is reaped instead by the person who lets fate take its course, as well as by every other person trying to find a parking spot. True altruism shares the "greater good" aspect of this scenario, but doesn't require the ulterior motive of the personal benefit that accrues despite the appearance of self-sacrifice.

Reviewing the story, I see that it really isn't at all about altruism. It's about pathological behaviors, such as barely feeling one has the right to exist, that "wear[] the trappings of selflessness and love."

Bingo, Dean! The article should have been titled 'Pathologies masquerading as Altruism'.

Pathological altruism is a most interesting concept. I have never heard of this before but it does make sense. If you give to the point where there is very little or nothing left to give, it's going to hurt you. That I know for sure because I've seen family members of mine doing this very thing. You should give only so much and no more. It reminds me of that expression: 'Any man who has himself as his lawyer has a fool for a client.' Touche! Right? Well now you know... Watch what you do because it's going to bite you if you're foolish about it....

So if you give to your own detriment then you suffer from pathological altruism? Is that correct? I would imagine that it's impossible to blindly behave in such a selfless manner. It just doesn't make any sense. I guess if the will to help is so overwhelmingly strong that nothing else matters, it may be entirely possible to give to your disadvantage. Unfortunately.

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