by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor, 12 August 2013While acts that benefit others are universally regarded as morally good, we also have the saying, that the road to ruin is paved with good intentions. Altruism is the philosophy and practice of benefiting others because one cares as much or more about the well being of others as that of oneself. Benevolence is called “pro-social,” in contrast to anti-social acts that are disagreeable or harmful to others. Pathological altruism occurs when acts are subjectively pro-social, but objectively anti-social. Before the act is done, during the time that economists call “ex ante,” the act seems beneficial. But after the act, or “ex post,” the act is recognized as displeasing.
Social scientists are now paying more attention to this pathology. Among the books recently published on this topic is Pathological Altruism. One of the editors and authors is Barbara Oakley, a systems engineer professor at Oakland University in Michigan. She studies the intersection of neuroscience and society. Among her books is Evil Genes, which examines evil action.
In her article “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley defines pathological altruism as “behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.”
We can apply the concept of pathological altruism by being more aware of the effects of well-intended actions, because values are subjective, and what one person thinks is good may differ from what the intended beneficiary believes and values.
Religious missionaries have gone to remote nooks of the world to propagate their views. They believe they are doing good by replacing what they believe are false religions with their true religion that provides salvation. But the actual effect has been the disruption of native cultures and an alliance of the colonial church with the imposed foreign rule.
Pathological altruism has profound implications for governmental policy. The government chiefs of the USA, Canada, and Australia believed they were benefiting the native people by forcing their children to attend boarding schools where they had to abandon their native language and culture and assimilate into the English language and culture. Much of the harm done by pathological altruism is due to such cultural supremacism.
Governmental programs often have bad unintended consequences because the doctrines that promote the programs are flawed. Planners have what Friedrich Hayek called a “fatal conceit” of thinking they have the knowledge to redesign society, such as with urban renewal, when in fact the optimal designs can only be discovered by the evolution of society from on individual interactions. The old Soviet Union was a supreme example of pathological government.
In an article in the 19 June 2013 reason.com blog, Ronald Bailey writes, “the modern welfare state can be conceived of as being largely a collection of enterprises conjured into existence by pathological altruism.” Why do governments have social security programs to provide income to retired workers? That financial security is seemingly beneficial to the elderly. But if the same funds now being paid into the US Social Security system were instead invested in a diversified portfolio at the prevailing long-run rates of return, then on retirement, the financial investment could be put into an annuity that would provide several times greater retirement income.
Social Security is also pathological for the economy by depriving it of savings that would be invested in enterprise and growth. Because Americans save very little, the USA relies on foreign savings, and the economy then gets drained by interest payments to foreigners. The worst of this is the negative savings of governmental deficits. A looming problem is that promises have been made for future income and services, without sufficient funding. The trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities are an outcome of pathological altruism along with pathological politics.
But it is actually not real altruism when government forces people to pay into Social Security and other programs, because genuine altruism has to be voluntary. Government officials are not altruists when they force people to pay taxes on their wages. Altruism implies benefitting others from one’s own resources, not forcibly taking the resources of others.
We should promote sympathy, empathy, and benevolence, but such sentiments need to be informed by a knowledge of ethics, governance, and economics. Pathological altruism can be minimized by a respect for equal self-ownership. Authentic sympathy helps others promote their own values, and does not deprive individuals of the fruits of their own human action.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2010 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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