Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Academic Concept Of Pathological Altruism & Explaining The Left

At the WSJ, James Taranto is effuse in his praise for Barbara Oakley:

We don't think we'd ever heard of Oakland University, a second-tier institution in suburban Rochester, Mich., but Barbara Oakley, an associate professor in engineering, may help put the place on the map. Earlier this week Oakland's Oakley published a fascinating paper, "Concepts and Implications of Altruism Bias and Pathological Altruism," in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper is a concise summary of an innovative idea that informed Oakley's two recent books . . .

The PNAS paper has the virtue of brevity, running only eight pages despite including 110 footnotes. Yet it's remarkable for its breadth and depth. It introduces a simple yet versatile idea that could revolutionize scientific and social thought.

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.

So, I clicked over to read the paper - and now agree with Mr. Taranto. What Oakley has posited is not new. Indeed, it has been perhaps the primary complaint as regards the acts of the left for decades, if not centuries. But what Ms. Oakley does is raise that complaint to academic acceptability. She puts it in the language of academia, explains it with clarity, and provides thorough documentation. This from Ms. Oakley:

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.

Pathological altruism can operate not only at the individual level but in many different aspects and levels of society, and between societies. Recognizing that feelings of altruism do not necessarily constitute objective altruism provides a new way of framing and understanding altruism. This previously unrecognized perspective in turn may open many new, potentially useful lines of inquiry and provide a framework to begin moving toward a more mature, scientifically informed understanding of altruism and cooperative behavior. The thesis of pathological altruism emphasizes the value of true altruism, self-sacrifice, and other forms of prosociality in human life. At the same time, it acknowledges the potential harm from cognitive blindness that arises whenever groups treat a concept as sacred.

Think about virtually all of the legislation that has come from the left over the past half century or more that has proven to be disastrous in the long run. Take for but one example the creation of the housing bubble, caused by social engineering and from which we have still not recovered. And indeed, Ms. Oakley does in fact address precisely that:

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.

The implications of "pathological altruism" as an academic theory and area of research are far reaching indeed. It is a concept that would require a level of rational analysis now routinely shouted down by the left. In a larger context, it would provide a challenge on every level to the left's post modernism. It would elevate objective facts as a counter point to pure emotionalism.

Taranto ends his column with this thought:

Oakley concludes by noting that "during the twentieth century, tens of millions [of] individuals were killed under despotic regimes that rose to power through appeals to altruism." An understanding that altruism can produce great evil as well as good is crucial to the defense of human freedom and dignity.


WomanHonorThyself said...

frightening but spot on!!!

estetik drew said...

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