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Altruism No Substitute for Helping Yourself
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We like to be kind to other people.
This desire is often exalted above all others; especially by those in academia and the media. That view is intuitively obvious. After all, isn’t helping those around us one of the most harmless and quintessentially productive urges imaginable?
While conventional wisdom says so with absolute conviction, new research points to the contrary.
In late 2011, Barbara Oakley, an associate professor at Oakland University, co-edited an intriguing book titled “Pathological Altruism,” which details the causes and effects of altruism and its close relative, empathy. Highlighting both the religious and secular bases for these feelings, no punches are pulled as far as the path paved with good intentions is concerned.
For instance, the authors find that empathy has several troubling pathologies; including serious cases of depression, as well as crippling psychological problems for those in the medical field. Altruism in its most severe forms, meanwhile, might be indicative of personality disorders. Indeed, one can only place the needs of others so high before questions must be asked about why this is happening.
As the book notes, the undesirable ramifications of altruism entail more than a few social problems, too. Self-righteous politicking, mass genocide, suicide bombing, and less than efficient charitable programs can all be thought of as the fruits of altruism run rampant.
Each of the authors deftly proves a point so controversial that most people simply choose to look the other way.
Shortly after its release, “Pathological Altruism’s” essential findings were detailed by The Independent, one of Britain’s most prominent newspapers. In addition, the story of a woman named Martha was told.
She is a nice person; the sort that you would love to have as a relative or friend. A nurse by profession, she never hesitates to help her loved ones, or maybe just people that she knows, out of a tricky situation.
Her husband, Jim, is a bit suspicious of her conspicuously charitable nature. He feels that she goes out of her way to help everyone at too high a cost. Nonetheless, Martha cannot think of considering her own needs first and foremost. So, she continues to make runs to the grocery store, check up on the new neighbor’s child, and perform a volunteer taxi service of sorts.
Eventually, though, she begins to lose her temper. Not too long after finishing a particularly tiresome chore for that same neighbor, Martha recalls that she never was thanked for her aid. Such a realization is quickly brushed aside, however. The neighbor, Jenny, has a new problem and once again needs help as quickly as possible.
Beyond this very true-to-life story, the opinions of Cambridge University psychology professor Simon Baron-Cohen help to illustrate the troublesome situation posed by pathological altruism.
He believes that there are two types of people: systemizers and empathizers. The latter can easily be taken advantage of by cold, cunning individuals who use those around them without the faintest hint of remorse. The former, on the other hand, are rational thinkers who consider any given situation in a calm and collected fashion.
There is little doubt that political correctness encourages people to be empathizers above all else. While nobody of sound mind should want psychopathy to attain a semblance of popularity, it does seem obvious that our society is experiencing a crucial lack of systemizers.
Of course, innate cognitive factors play a large role in determining how one views the world, so the idea that everybody can become a systemizer through training is not practical by any measure.
However, this does not prevent any of us from stating the facts about the underside of altruism. Unpopular as such a thing might be, if enough people learn about the very real drawbacks of radical selflessness, the perhaps they will start doing something quite revolutionary for this day and age: helping themselves.
Then, and only then, can proper attention be given to those who are able do no such thing. If this isn’t what charity is for in the first place, then what service should it honestly perform?
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at