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.