The Daily Debate - 6/17/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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June 17, 2013

1. The Pathology Report

2. Obama's Youth

3. Dispatches


1. The Pathology Report

On Friday, James Taranto wrote about what he describes as "a simple yet versatile idea that could revolutionize scientific and social thought." That idea is the concept of "pathological altruism," introduced in an academic paper by Barbara Oakley of Oakland University in Michigan.

Here is Taranto's summary:

"Oakley defines pathological altruism as 'altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.' A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, 'an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.' Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn't pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is....

"'Empathy,' Oakley notes, 'is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others.' It also can produce bad public policy."

Mark Perry picks up on Taranto's piece and singles out one passage from Oakley's paper.

"Ostensibly well-meaning governmental policy promoted home ownership, a beneficial goal that stabilizes families and communities. The government-sponsored enterprises Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allowed less-than-qualified individuals to receive housing loans and encouraged more-qualified borrowers to overextend themselves. Typical risk–reward considerations were marginalized because of implicit government support. The government used these agencies to promote social goals without acknowledging the risk or cost. When economic conditions faltered, many lost their homes or found themselves with properties worth far less than they originally had paid. Government policy then shifted...the cost of this 'altruism' to the public, to pay off the too-big-to-fail banks then holding securitized subprime loans.... Altruistic intentions played a critical role in the development and unfolding of the housing bubble in the United States."

I found this argument about the housing crash particularly interesting because it is exactly the thesis of an article I wrote at the time arguing that altruism caused the subprime crisis.

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."

Ayn Rand, please call your office.

The point being made by Oakley, and picked up on by Taranto, is not quite the same as Ayn Rand's argument for the morality of rational self-interest and against the morality of altruism—but it tends in that direction in a very interesting way.

The idea that altruistic schemes are "well-intended" but have destructive "unintended consequences" is a pillar of free-market economics that goes back at least to Frederic Bastiat—and to whoever coined the saying, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." But the "pathological altruism" described here is a little more than that, because it is specifically about consequences that could have been anticipated—which raises the question of why they weren't anticipated. Oakley's answer seems to be that the act of altruism, the emotion of empathy with suffering, is considered more important than a rational projection of its consequences.

And as Oakley points out, this attitude applies to attempts to analyze altruism itself.

"Both altruism and empathy have rightly received an extraordinary amount of research attention. This focus has permitted better characterization of these qualities and how they might have evolved. However, it has also served to reify their value without realistic consideration about when those qualities contain the potential for significant harm.

"Part of the reason that pathologies of altruism have not been studied extensively or integrated into the public discourse appears to be fear that such knowledge might be used to discount the importance of altruism. Indeed, there has been a long history in science of avoiding paradigm-shifting approaches, such as Darwinian evolution and acknowledgment of the influence of biological factors on personality, arising in part from fears that such knowledge somehow would diminish human altruistic motivations. Such fears always have proven unfounded. However, these doubts have minimized scientists' ability to see the widespread, vitally important nature of pathologies of altruism. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, 'Morality binds and blinds.'"

In other words, intellectuals' commitment to the upholding altruism as a moral code causes them to ignore any negative consequences of altruism—which explains, among other things, why failed government programs go on and on forever and can never be repealed.

But Oakley, too, shrinks from the full consequences of her insight. In dismissing attempts to "discount the importance of altruism," she also treats altruism itself as beyond moral question. Which brings us back to Ayn Rand, whose fiction and non-fiction is one giant pathology report on the negative consequences of altruism. Oakley is arguing that there is a version of altruism that is pathological. Ayn Rand argued that altruism is a moral pathology.

Part of the difference is that Ayn Rand had a narrower and more precise definition of altruism. Oakley defines altruism as "well-meaning behavior intended to promote the welfare of another," a definition so broad it includes any form of benevolence, empathy, or good will, down to greeting another person with "have a nice day." Yet the term "altruism" is not synonymous with all of these things. It is a relatively recent coinage, invented in the late 19th century by Auguste Comte to refer to a very specific moral philosophy. "Altruism" literally means "other-ism" and Comte used it to refer to a philosophy of living for the sake of others. There is a big difference between saying "I sympathize with my fellow man and wish him well," versus saying "the sole moral purpose of my life is to serve others." As for the political consequences of this view, Comte went on to declare that "the social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism."

The Wikipedia entry on altruism provides another very clarifying quote from a 20th-century philosophical defender of altruism: "Altruism is to...maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue." I've never heard of the philosopher who wrote this (an obscure 20th-century academic named W. G. Maclagan), but I know that this idea—that one's own interests and happiness or either morally irrelevant or morally suspect—is the central thesis of the very influential moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

The injunction to live for the good of others while ignoring or disparaging one's own good creates a basic contradiction. As I have observed elsewhere, the contradiction is summed up in W.H. Auden's question, "We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don't know."

Or as Ayn Rand asked the question, "Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you?" If happiness is a morally worthy goal, shouldn't it be morally worthy for everyone, including yourself?

Here is where Ayn Rand provides her most powerful criticism of altruism as a moral philosophy. She argues that altruism does not regard happiness as morally good for anyone. The hard-core altruists make noisy proclamations about the good of others, but they are not really concerned with whether others benefit. Their real concern is your sacrifice of your happiness.

In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand gives the definitive statement of the goal of altruism to her fake "humanitarian" villain, Ellsworth Toohey, who describes his ideal world.

"A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbor who will have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbor who will have no desires—around the globe, Peter. Since all must serve all....

"Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy."

Similarly, in Atlas Shrugged, the character who is the whiniest, squishiest, most watery-eyed "humanitarian" turns out to be the most vicious hardliner when it comes to enforcing altruistic sacrifice at the point of a gun. As Oakley observes, "during the twentieth century, tens of millions [of] individuals were killed under despotic regimes that rose to power through appeals to altruism." Having escaped from the Soviet Union, Ayn Rand knew this all too well.

In fact, long before Oakley, Ayn Rand gave a perfect description of the philosophy and psychology of "pathological altruism."

"'The good of others' is a magic formula that transforms anything into gold, a formula to be recited as a guarantee of moral glory and as a fumigator for any action, even the slaughter of a continent. Your standard of virtue is not an object, not an act, not a principle, but an intention. You need no proof, no reasons, no success, you need not achieve in fact the good of others. All you need to know is that your motive was the good of others, not your own."

All of this explains why Ayn Rand is and must be an essential part of the intellectual canon of the right, even if many on the right disagree with her atheism or the scope of her rejection of altruism. Taranto is right when he says that "the defense of human freedom" requires "an understanding that altruism can produce great evil"—so it will always require the writer who has provided the most comprehensive pathology report on the meaning and consequences of altruism.


2. Obama's Youth

There has been some controversy over whether Edward Snowden, who leaked the existence of the massive NSA domestic data-gathering program—is a hero or a traitor.

The fact that he fled to Hong Kong and seemed to be angling for a deal in which he would get asylum from the Chinese—perhaps in exchange for tips on how they can improve their own domestic spying—seemed to tilt the scales more in the direction of "traitor."

Now add the fact that Snowden is leaking details on our spying on Russia. I'm glad that we know the U.S. government is spying on our phone and e-mail data, so that we can assess the program and rein it in rather than having all of the decisions be made in secret without the knowledge of the American people. But when it comes to spying on foreign governments—well, I hope that our government is doing that, and to reveal this program serves no purpose but to damage U.S. interests.

What I find interesting is that, even as he strays from what could be considered legitimate civil disobedience into providing aid and comfort to our enemies, Snowden still seems to have the sense of holding the moral high ground. Talk about pathological altruism! Apparently, anything that harms the interests of your own country is good.

Notice, though, the way in which Snowden reflects the Obama administration's policies and public pronouncements on national security and the War on Terror. President Obama's policy has been to continue many of the Bush administration's policies—from keeping prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, to drone strikes, to vast new surveillance powers—while also loudly agonizing over the immorality of these same programs. You can dismiss these as moral crocodile tears, but the self-flagellation has consequences.

It's no suprise, then, that a low-level functionary like Snowden takes seriously the moral agonizing that radiates down from above, but unlike the president, he can't continue to support the programs his commander-in-chief hypocritically denounces as immoral.


3. Dispatches

For all the mania about wind and solar and electric cars, the good old gasoline engine stands test of time and will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

Is New York University sacrificing dissident Chen Guangcheng to appease China's rulers?

Turkey's false nostalgia for Ataturk's secular dictatorship.

Sean Thomas imagines a special circle of Dante's inferno for the architects of the Euro.

Joel Kotkin provides a cautionary tale about Japan's enervated young generation of "herbivores." Though considering what Japan's carnivores did in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps this is an understandable overcompensation.

Meet Superman's copyright lawyer, plus the lawsuit seeking to liberate the "Happy Birthday" song from a dubious copyright claim.


—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

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Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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