Pathological Altruism


One legacy of the overwhelming Left-liberal bias in academia, especially in the social sciences, is the avoidance and rejection of hypotheses that have the potential to damage the politically held beliefs of the Left.  A sort of secular taboo exists against studies and findings which undermine concepts like altruism and egalitarianism and which suggest any significant genetic differences between cultures, races, genders, or which document genetic predisposition toward behaviors that aren’t politically correct like aggression or violence.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in Sociology and Anthropology by more than 25 to 1.
From Gene Expression, data: Dan Klein

The academic sanctity of altruism is so intense that there is no named mental disorder for its excess listed in either the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems publications.  So how is it that the “Bible of Psychiatry” could lack such a condition? Perhaps because Psychiatry has always had a strong pseudo-scientific bent influenced heavily by pop-culture and politics: the politics of the Left.

There are numerous qualities and traits that are deemed good, moral, and even essential to normative life that are nevertheless evidence of a personality disorder when exhibited in excess.  Drinking water, eating food, and exercise are biological necessities but polydipsia is considered clinical evidence of mental illnesses like schizophrenia when its cause is psychogenic versus biogenic.  Excessive eating is classified as Binge Eating Disorder. Compulsive exercise is associated with several body perception disorders.  Lack of emotions is captured in psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder and excessive emotionality is a sign of histrionic personality disorder.  There’s even a name for something as specific as collecting books in excess: bibliomania. Heck, in the brand new DSM-5, they’ve even added a mental disorder for drinking excess amounts of coffee! Caffine Intoxication.

There’s no such designation for excess altruism despite there being roughly 300 disorders in the DSM.

The closest is “self-defeating personality disorder” which lists “engages in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice” as one of its indications.  This disorder, however, was not formally included in the body of the DSM and was merely a proposal in the appendix of the third edition that was included only to be rejected–a sort peremptory dismissal–and has failed to appear in all subsequent editions. Sure we considered the possibility that it exists, but it doesn’t because we say so.

Of note, two scientists who were working on proposed revisions for the newly released DSM-5 have quit the project over concerns for the lack of objectivityand failure to focus on evidence:

the [DSM-V] proposal displays a truly stunning disregard for evidence. Important aspects of the proposal lack any reasonable evidential support of reliability and validity. For example, there is little evidence to justify which disorders to retain and which to eliminate. Even more concerning is the fact that a major component of proposal is inconsistent with extensive evidence.

In my attempt to discern if anyone other than Rand has considered altruism to be a vice instead of a universal virture I queried google with terms like “excessive altruism” and “compulsive self-sacrifice” before arriving at “pathological altruism” which proved to be the most forthcoming.

Given such infertile conditions for evidence-based science and hostility to politically incorrect or unpopular theories through conformity and group-think, it’s not surprising that challenges to the historical paradigms and their icons (such as Freud) are slow in coming and are most likely going to feature minds who are skeptical of Left-liberal doctrine.  So can altruism be a vice?  Ayn Rand certainly believed so on a philosophical level, and so does a new book that not only coins the term “Pathological Altruism,” but investigates the harms it can bring.

Give us the layman’s explanation of “pathological altruism.” What is it?

Pathological altruism is an evolutionary oxymoron. What do I mean by this?  Altruism is underpinned by traits and behaviors, such as empathy, that evolved to help us humans function smoothly together.  But altruism has an oxymoronic flip side—sometimes our well-meaning attempts to help others can make matters worse.  As Pathological Altruism reveals, this can happen far more often than you might think.

Do  you have a story or a case study that illustrates how altruism can be harmful?

The same parent who might run into a burning house to save her child can be the parent who “helicopters” in to a university and threatens a lawsuit because her darling son received a well-deserved D on his report card. Altruism can be beneficial at every level of society—a brother’s love, a neighbor willing to lend a helping hand, a philanthropist’s endowment.  But in the same way, pathologies of altruism can be harmful in many ways, at many levels.  The Germans followed Hitler not because they believed he was evil, but because they believed that by following him, they were doing something good. My most recent book, Cold-Blooded Kindness (Prometheus), uses a true crime story as a literary vehicle for exploring how our own feelings of empathy and caring for others can be used as a manipulative tool. This is a critical concept.  It can be deeply empowering to learn that sometimes it’s normal and healthy to turn off our feelings of empathy—that handling our feelings for others in a responsible fashion can allow us, and those we love, to live healthier, happier lives.

To which disorders can selflessness gone awry contribute?

It’s important to realize that selflessness gone awry is not necessarily affiliated with any diagnosable disorder.  In fact, because of society’s emphasis on the benefits of altruism, empathy, and caring for others, the problems affiliated with these seemingly beneficial traits have been largely ignored by science. Pathological altruism is associated with disorders and conditions such as anorexia, the amorphous traits of codependency, animal hoarding, depression, excessive and misplaced guilt, and self-righteousness.  It is also seen in suicide bombing—the one common trait of suicide bombers is their sense of altruism for those who share their ideology.  Pathologies of altruism can even underlie genocide.  A Rwandan Hutu, for example, didn’t wake up in the morning and think “Gee, I’m feeling totally evil today—I’m going to go out and kill Tutsis.” No—instead, he thought—“I’ve got to protect my family and people against those cockroaches, the Tutsis.” In other words, it was feelings of altruism, as well as hatred, that impelled many Hutus to kill.

What factors/conditions in an individual’s personality most contribute to altruism becoming warped?

The road to pathologies of altruism can take a number of different paths.    Warped altruism can arise from excessive feelings of empathy and caring for others—some people are simply naturally hypersensitive.  Or it can arise from self-righteous, inflexible feelings of certitude—we may jump to conclusions and be absolutely convinced that we are helping others, and be unable to look pragmatically at the results of our “help.” Our sense of kindness, in other words, can sometimes blind us, allowing us to be manipulated, or simply to make faulty knee-jerk decisions that ultimately worsen the very situation they were meant to solve.  This is a powerful and important idea—one that is vital for us to understand if we truly mean to help others.

So what does this all have to do with dogs? Well, I contend that pathological altruism plays a significant role in the dysfunctions preset in the shelter and rescue community in dogs and is a major source of friction between those groups and breeders. More on that later.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.