Philosophy Weekend: Barbara Oakley on Hazardous Altruism

I’ve been reading Barbara Oakley, a professor and social scientist with a unique theory about altruism. Far from being a boon to mankind, she believes, altruism is often our scourge, our instrument of self-destruction.

She cites the altruistic Chairman Mao (as we have too, in our discussions about altruism and ethics) and Adolf Hitler (who never stopped constantly reminding the German people how much he was helping them, up until the end when the entire country burned). These are both apt examples in the critique of “bad altruism”. Her recent book, lengthily titled Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts offers the case study of a Utah woman named Carole Alden who liked to draw in men who needed help, devote her life to helping them … and then kill them. Carole Alden’s fatal self-victimization complex is an instructive illustration, and Barbara Oakley believes it points to a general truth about the meaning of altruism in our lives.

Well, I don’t know. I admire the clarity and force of Barbara Oakley’s convictions, which remind me of Ayn Rand’s. But Cold-Blooded Kindness is a bumpy read, maybe because the style of writing veers between psychology textbook and Scott Turow thriller (a combination also often used by David Brooks). This breathless writing style can work if expertly handled, but it feels forced here. The idea that horrible Carole Alden (who resembles, roughly, evil nurse/fan Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery) stands as a representative example of normal altruism also feels forced, and this is the more significant problem with the book.

Yes, this woman claimed to be an altruist and screwed up (or killed) every person or animal she tried to help. Yes, there are fringe cases. But the idea that we ought to avoid altruistic impulses in general because of these fringe cases takes it much too far.

Barbara Oakley’s dismissive attitude towards the human impulse towards altruism seems to reflect an unwillingness to admit how co-dependent we all are, always, whether we like it or not. To question whether or not altruism is good for us, as if it were a choice we were making, reflects a naive misunderstanding of the role of altruism in our lives. We ARE altruistic. We will always be altruistic; it’s at the center of who we are. We — our loved ones, our community — are baked into each other’s souls at the deepest levels. No book of social psychology will ever change this fact, nor should it.

The question our best social scientists and philosophers need to answer isn’t whether or not we should be altruistic. The question is how we can do a better job of being altruistic, and stop screwing it up so much. This is where it helps to look at disastrous counter-examples like Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler and, yes, Carole Alden too

Even though I don’t agree with Barbara Oakley’s general emphasis in her books, I am glad she’s calling attention to the meaning of altruism in our lives, and I plan to also check out her next book, Pathological Altriusm, which will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. The question of altruism is one of the most relevant and dynamic questions in philosophy and psychology right now, and Oakley’s books do help to advance the conversation, even if they do so with a direction I don’t find useful.

On the political front, Oakley’s books seem to point to a tough-love attitude towards the world, and perhaps to a Tea-Party-esque political stance regarding entitlements and the social safety net. This Barbara Oakley interview from Trending Sideways also suggests that Tea Party beliefs go along with this theory of psychology:

In the United States, we’ve gone so overboard with a one-dimensional idea that altruism is always good that it is creating real problems for society. For example, an ideology has evolved among certain well-meaning people that business is always predatory, and academia and unions are always on the right side in helping people. But can we afford to have unions that block reform in places like Detroit, where only 25% of students graduate from high school? Or unions that force taxpayers to pay millions to try to get rid of proven child molestors and absurdly incompetent teachers? The state of Georgia is turning out to be the Enron of K-12 education. From my personal experience here in Michigan working with corrupt K-12 school systems, Georgia is just the tip of the iceberg.

The reality is that unions and academics can be, and often are, as predatory and self-serving as businesses. Yet they fly under our radar, because they pretend to serve “the people” instead of just their constituents—and themselves. I’m reminded of Jimmy Hoffa, who inserted into his union’s contract that he had to receive his million dollar salary even when he was in prison. Hoffa was a grifter who got away with his con on a massive scale because he said he was helping people.

I strongly disagree with the attitude Barbara Oakley is expressing here. I don’t believe that altruism is bad for people, and I don’t believe that government is bad for people. Though I’m sure bad altruism does sometimes exist, and I think it’s pretty clear that bad government sometimes exists too.

12 Responses

  1. I strongly agree with the
    I strongly agree with the attitude she expresses in that interview.

    But, I agree with you about the broader overview of her work. I don’t think an example of a serial killer has anything to do with or can tell us anything about altruism.

    She seems more political than academic, which is ok, but not when presented as academic. This is all too common.

    Political-wise I think we are all altruists for the most part, the question is always what is the best way to help people? The old saying of teaching people to fish vs giving them a fish.

    Luis Bunuel presented the opposite altruistic effect in his movies. In Los Olvidados and in Nazarin for example were sequences where do-gooding liberal altruists ended up in their naive ideals causing incidences that lead to death. They meant well and only wanted to help.

    I’d also say that I doubt Mao really worked all that much out of altruism, but it was his ruse, his cover and he knew it.

  2. TKG and Nardo — well, I’ve
    TKG and Nardo — well, I’ve corresponded with Barbara Oakley since writing this, and she pointed out to me that her book does present many more nuanced shades of distinction than I am presenting here. In describing her entire career in a few paragraphs, I haven’t really captured the subtleties, and it may be worth checking out one of her books, or her website at

    Now, about Mao and Hitler — in fact, I’m completely in sync with the idea that these two are examples of “evil altruism”, if you see these figures as they were seen during their lifetimes. Hitler’s entire public image was based on his conception of himself as a knight of honor, sacrificing everything to save the German people. And the Nazi platform was all about sacrificing personal good for the nation. Think of what the word “fascism” actually means, and you’ll see that self-sacrifice for “the people” is a basic tenet of fascist government.

    It’s also a basic tenet of Marxist government, and Mao’s program for China was also founded upon the idea that individuals should sacrifice anything (including, very often, their lives, either to starvation or war) for China. This is why I have also written about Mao in my posts about altruism — if you’re looking for a real case study of a totalitarian government that oppresses its people via supposedly altruistic causes, you need look no further than Mao’s China.

  3. unions, government regulation
    unions, government regulation and various government social reforms came to exist for a lot of specific, valid reasons, all based essentially on the fact that pure, unregulated capitalism failed us in the ’20s, and business at the time was in fact predatory in nature, and some checks and reforms were needed to address these issues.

    of course, the right-wing corporatists of today would rather we all forget these facts and let the wolves go back to guarding the hen house. i don’t think so. we’ve seen lately what happens when corporatism is allowed to run largely unchecked, and it’s gotten a bit ugly.

    as for “teaching to fish vs. giving a fish,” yes, that’s great, but it’s not exactly like republican types are big on investing any federal money in education. quite the opposite. (unless said education is tied to joining the military, i suppose).

  4. Wait a minute. Is “evil
    Wait a minute. Is “evil altruism” just some term you made up? None of this makes any sense. The word “altruism” is defined as concern for the welfare of others, even to the point of the renuncation of self. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.

    NOT someone who pretends to care about others for their own warped goals.

    Now, we can deconstruct altruism to say that it also makes no sense, in this regard: Some people say that altruism actually benefits the giver; that it’s more rewarding to give than receive; one gains contentment, peace, happiness, or even salvation by giving to others, which means they are not only doing it for others; they are doing it for themselves as well. But that’s getting picky, and that’s not the main problem with this “cold-blooded kindness” concept. I don’t buy it.

  5. Hi Levi,
    The author of

    Hi Levi,
    The author of this book seems to suffer from the same weakness as her subjects–mendacity. Any book that can include Hitler as an example of altruism – regardless of his self styled image and the popular appeal of such – is wildly and indefensibly misguided. She has done what he (Hitler) did: he said one thing and did another. His motive was either pure evil or madness or both, but she has no other excuse. She is either lying outright, or she is demented.
    Saying so does not make anything so. She would need to use examples of real altruism and show that they fail. Has she done this? It is obvious (read: needs no new book to argue) that some of our best laid plans fail. Has she more to offer?
    Confusing a rationalization with an explanation should have been stymied long before publication. It’s informal logic 101. She seems to have deliberately confused the issues in order to make grandiose claims for a ‘new appreciation’ (devaluation) of altruism. Her claims are not just philosophically untenable, they must be deliberately misleading in order to justify a book.
    Can you say “Hack”?
    The shear number of dunderheads trying to make their claim on the world’s attention is astounding. Charlatans like this one should be called out on it. Sorry, but I think you are going much too easy on her. Though I know of and respect your interest in the topic, not every book with ‘Altruism’ in the title will be worthy of your time. Any book with ‘Hitler was, at heart, a nice guy’ is not worth anybody’s attention!
    Regards, as always

  6. How can one be altruistic
    How can one be altruistic towards a group and not mankind? If one is altruistic (a definition that others should pin on the person and not the person claiming to be altruistic), s/he would be so towards all people, would they not? To say Hitler was altruistic is highly doubtful when his so-called altruism didn’t include Jews, Gypsies, gays and whoever else did not live up to the Nazi ideal. That is not altruism.

  7. I think I introduced a
    I think I introduced a distracting note into this discussion when I mentioned the example of Hitler. Obviously I didn’t explain this piece of the idea well, but the Hitler example is not at all the main idea of Barbara Oakley’s books, or my article — it’s really completely beside the point. The main idea is that people who claim to be altruistic (and may actually believe themselves that they are altruistic) can do great damage.

  8. Levi,
    I have since read


    I have since read her interview at Trending Sideways and I agree, a false note has been struck. She’s not demented, obviously, nor overly political per se, but she does confuse the concept and virtue of Altruism with good intentions, generally. They are not the same, though one (altruism) is a species of the other (good intentions). She does this, I think, by focusing on what people say to rationalize their behavior and its effects, then calling any good intent an example of altruism. It seems to me, this is a category mistake, of sorts. This conflation perhaps makes the book more accessible to a wider audience, but it doesn’t help or advance the debate.

    As to her main point, that people seem all too eager to blithely laud and even forgive behaviors which are dangerous or harmful just because they were (however naively or negligently) well intentioned, I have to agree. But I also have to say, this is not news and it says nothing about altruism as such. It is, however, further evidence that the public debate on serious issues has grown crowded with noise-makers and self-styled pontifs.

    Sorry if I shot off too soon.


  9. I haven’t read Ms. Oakley’s
    I haven’t read Ms. Oakley’s book(s), but I have recently finished The Price of Altruism by Oren Harman. Anyone who still thinks that altruism is a choice and not a basic human characteristic has not been keeping up with the field of human genetics.

    Also, my Merriam-Webster’s defines altruism as “unselfish regard for… the welfare of others,” or “behavior by an animal that… may be harmful to itself, but that benefits others…” Neither of which could rationally be applied to Mao or Hitler, much less political extremists of any stripe.

    I’d also like to give kudos to Levi Asher for his excellent work (a little short for a book), Why Ayn Rand is Wrong and Why It Matters. Perhaps you could do a follow-up piece on the seamless way her premise of egoism fit her psychological profile as a narcissist.


  10. I can’t help but be reminded
    I can’t help but be reminded of Alanis Morisette’s misuse of the word ironic while reading this. Altruism is not simply going-with-the-group, it is a process of morality-based decision making with deeply seeded biological roots. Where Asher says “We — our loved ones, our community — are baked into each other’s souls at the deepest levels” I am reminded of a lecture on the evolutionary foundation for altruistic behavior.

    As far as Hitler’s philosophies are concerned; they were the antithesis of altruistic. Hitler’s extremely literal interpretation on Niche’s essays on the problems with morality, more or less started that morals governing altruistic behavior were what was holding progress back, and THAT is why he could justify the holocaust.

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