Extreme Altruism – The Case of the Pathological Do-Gooder

The Guardian just published an article by Larissa MacFarquhar entitled, “Extreme altruism: should you care for strangers at the expense of your family?”  The byline reads as follows:

The world is full of needless suffering. How should each of us respond? Should we live as moral a life as possible, even giving away most of our earnings? A new movement argues that we are not doing enough to help those in need.

It’s a tribute to the power of the emotions responsible for what we call morality that, more than a century after Westermarck published The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, questions like the one in the title are still considered rational, and that a “moral life” is equated with “giving away most of our earnings.”  Westermarck put it this way:

As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivise the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.  The enthusiast is more likely than anybody else to regard his judgments as true, and so is the moral enthusiast with reference to his moral judgments.  The intensity of his emotions makes him the victim of an illusion.


The presumed objectivity of moral judgments thus being a chimera, there can be no moral truth in the sense in which this term is generally understood.  The ultimate reason for this is, that the moral concepts are based upon emotions, and that the contents of an emotion fall entirely outside the category of truth.

The article tells the tale of one Julia Wise, whom MacFarquhar refers to as a “do-gooder.”  She doesn’t use the term in the usual pejorative sense, but defines a “do-gooder” as,

…a human character who arouses conflicting emotions. By “do-gooder” here I do not mean a part-time, normal do-gooder – someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who is drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

Julia is just such a person.  MacFarquhar describes her as follows:

Julia believed that because each person was equally valuable, she was not entitled to care more for herself than for anyone else; she believed that she was therefore obliged to spend much of her life working for the benefit of others. That was the core of it; as she grew older, she worked out the implications of this principle in greater detail. In college, she thought she might want to work in development abroad somewhere, but then she realised that probably the most useful thing she could do was not to become a white aid worker telling people in other countries what to do, but, instead, to earn a salary in the US and give it to NGOs that could use it to pay for several local workers who knew what their countries needed better than she did. She reduced her expenses to the absolute minimum so she could give away 50% of what she earned. She felt that nearly every penny she spent on herself should have gone to someone else who needed it more. She gave to whichever charity seemed to her (after researching the matter) to relieve the most suffering for the least money.

Interestingly, Julia became an atheist at the age of eleven.  In other words, she must have been quite intelligent by human standards.  In spite of that, it apparently never occurred to her to question the objectivity of moral judgments.  I’ve always found it surprising that so many religious believers who become atheists don’t reason a bit further and grasp the fact that they no longer have a legitimate basis for making moral judgments.  They commonly consider themselves smarter than religious believers, and yet they cling to the illusion that the basis is still there, as solid as ever.  Religious believers can usually detect the charade immediately, and notice with a chuckle that the atheist has just sawed off the branch they thought they were sitting on.  Alas, the faithful are no less delusional than the infidels.  Again quoting Westermarck,

To the verdict of a perfect intellect, that is, an intellect which knows everything existing, all would submit; but we can form no idea of a moral consciousness which could lay claim to a similar authority.  If the believers in an all-good God, who has revealed his will to mankind, maintain that they in this revelation possess a perfect moral standard, and that, consequently, what is in accordance with such a standard must be objectively right, it may be asked what they mean by an “all-good” God.  And in their attempt to answer this question, they would inevitably have to assume the objectivity they wanted to prove.

In any event, Julia’s case is a perfect example of why it is useful to understand what morality actually is, and why it exists.  The truth was obvious enough to Darwin, and of course, to Westermarck and several other great thinkers who followed him.  Morality is the manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  It exists because it enhanced the probability that the genetic material that gave rise to it would survive and replicate itself.  Julia, however, lives in a world radically different from the world in which the evolution of morality took place.  She is an extreme example of what can happen when environmental changes outpace the ability of natural selection to keep up.  She suffers from an assortment of morality inversions.  It’s as if she had decided to use her hands to cut her throat, or her legs to jump off a cliff.  In short, she is a pathological do-gooder.

Several examples are mentioned in the article.  In general, she believes that it is “good” to hand over money and other valuable resources that might have enhanced her own chances of genetic survival to genetically unrelated individuals, even though the chances that they will ever return the favor to her or her children are vanishingly small.  She very nearly decides it would be “immoral” to have children because, according to the article,

Children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would be in effect killing other people’s children.

However, she manages to dodge this bullet by reasoning that she and her husband will be able to indoctrinate their child with their own pathological “values.”  The decision to have a child becomes “good” as long as the parents are confident that they can control its environment sufficiently well to insure that it will grow up as emotionally crippled as they are.  Of course, such therapeutic generational brainwashing is unlikely to be a “good” long term strategy for survival.  MacFarquhar concludes her article with the question,

What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder? What if everyone believed that his family was no more important or valuable than anyone else’s? What if everyone decided that spontaneity or self-expression or certain kinds of beauty or certain kinds of freedom were less vital, or less urgent, than relieving other people’s pain?

Assuming the environment remains more or less the same, the answer is simple enough.  The Julias of the world would die out.  In the end, that’s really the only answer that matters.  Is Julia therefore “wrong,” or even “immoral” for clinging to her pathologically altruistic lifestyle?  Of course not, because the question implies the objective existence of things – Good and Evil – that are actually imaginary.  One cannot logically claim that either using your hands to cut your throat, or using your legs to jump off a cliff, is objectively immoral.  One must be content with the observation that such actions seem a bit counter-intuitive.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

14 thoughts on “Extreme Altruism – The Case of the Pathological Do-Gooder”

  1. Well said.

    Whilst there is the possibility that the insights you share tip slightly into the ‘Nihilist’ category, the chance of us understanding our shared nature surely can only begin when we start to understand the forces at play in our conduct, actions and drives.

  2. I don’t think my ideas imply nihilism, and I’m certainly not a nihilist by nature. However, you’re right in the sense that I may have spent too much time writing about what I think morality is, and not enough about the implications if what I say is true.

  3. “Interestingly, Julia became an atheist at the age of eleven. In other words, she must have been quite intelligent by human standards.” I think there’s a false assumption lurking here. Do you believe that Newton was not “quite intelligent by human standards” because he was a deist? What about Einstein? Cauchy? The Bernoullis? Euler?

  4. Then evidently one who notices that Tom Brady doesn’t play basketball as well as LeBron James must also assume Brady is a bad athlete, and one who notices that Mozart didn’t write “Principia Mathematica” must also assume he was an idiot.

  5. Returning to the initial comments re Nihilism, the acceptance that the evolutionary role in forming the ‘drivers’ that may be interpreted as ‘morality or ethics’ are none the less real places Nihilism in the too greater ‘generalisation’ category.
    Placing our instinctual drivers in their appropriate place and accepting personally the role that they have from a survival/evolutionary perspective is now far more complex than ever as we have ‘civilised’ our way to a polygroup society.
    The ability to clearly identify the groups that are for our broader benefit, being able to consciously identify and accept the ‘outdated’ instincts and somehow forging a direction in the knowledge that most of society is blindly following others social constructs strikes me as an almost impossible challenge.
    We find ourselves in a brief moment of time where to remove the mask of illusion is a great start, however, to much pondering the direction to head leads to an almost impossible labyrinth.
    Having said all that, I’m increasingly struck by how most people never even begin to question what ‘sparks’ their thoughts and actions.
    Thanks again for your blog and the sharing of your thoughts.

    One comment re the extreme altruism, many of these behaviours will disappear when pressures remove the momentary abundance and plenty, competition returns in most natural systems.

  6. I really have to wonder about people who are altruistic or at least think they are to people who care nothing about them. Think of the good Samaritan who stops to help a stranded motorist and then gets murdered or raped by the supposedly needy. These missionaries that go to undeveloped third world places to save souls or teach people life skills. Is this really altruistic? Many of these people are treated like royalty by the natives for their so-called philanthropy and quick to status signal the folks back home by telling amazing tales of how they are saving humanity. That’s really sweet really. Do you think you’re a superhero?
    Why would you help the needy? Are they your people? Do other people really need your help? These are humans right? Especially these atheists who claim they believe in Natural Selection. Do you know what Natural Selection is? I don’t think you do if you’re engaging in charity where you are helping the weak and helpless who have lower survival skills.
    Some of these do-gooders are extremely arrogant to boot. They patronize people and expect them to listen to them. You’re not their Mother! And once they get into the habit of lording over these needy, these busybodies start just telling those who don’t need or ask for help what to do to. Yeah, thanks but no thanks.
    Is this really altruistic? If they get an overly high opinion of themselves and begin to imagine other people actually need their help then this is merely a cheap ego booster, which is not altruistic at all really.

  7. I agree that “removing the mask of illusion” is a great start. I doubt that nihilism will be the result if people finally begin to understand what morality really is. The predisposition to perceive good and evil in absolute terms is too powerful for that. Morality will probably continue to function much as it always has, perhaps with a bit less of the pathological self-righteousness that is such a characteristic feature of the present. In the end, I would like to see a simple morality restricted to the mundane spheres of human interaction where it is indispensable for the lack of any viable substitute.

  8. I note that Pinker has tweeted something about altruism, interesting.
    I also notice that the debate around the ‘refugee’ crisis has been hotting up in America, there are some point that can be made here.
    As a refugee from the bleeding heart left I feel in a good spot to out the motives of my well travelled comrades.
    For some context can I just state that we in Australia have an increasing number of the home grown Muslim attacks, the last a 15 year old boy who clearly understood that he was a member of the out group and decided to shot a representative of that group, ending with the death of a “police civilian worker’ who had a role as an accountant and was of Asian background.
    The left and indeed most of the commentators, (what am I saying all the commentators) are saying the same thing and it is highly revealing. If only we can be more inclusive and ‘educate’ this generation all will return to some multicultural paradise.
    It strikes me as unutterable arrogance that the people of the dominant belief structure are so lacking in any ability to see their own ‘beliefs’ for what they are that they expect the ‘out group’ members to somehow see the light and be transformed into aspirational ‘Australians”.
    There are so many layers to this absurdity that its hard to know just where to start, sadly where it will all end is far easier to see.

  9. James Burnham describes the liberal syndrome very well in his “Suicide of the West,” which was published in 1964. It includes the notion that you can “cure” terrorists by “educating” them, as you describe in your comment. The type is just as familiar today as it was then, and the continued development of the culture has been pretty much as Burnham predicted.

  10. Afternoon,
    If I can return to your notion of “Extreme Altruism” for a moment, there has been an issue buzzing around in my thoughts re this for some time now and its a dilemma.
    If I could start with a bold and somewhat disrespectful comment, meant in the nicest way, the act of sharing your thoughts, and my act in reading them and responding with my own thoughts are in some way ‘altruistic’. You are aiding my understandings of the way the world works, and you are only guessing that I’m part of the team, in fact as I’m part of the WWWeb I could be anyone.
    OK, so the second part deals with the scarcity of books and writings that outline the way things are,. (Ie what you are doing)
    ‘The art of War’, and ‘The Prince’ etc, but compare with the other side, the side of submissive illusion and wishful thinking, the religious, the mystical, the self help! (If every there was a oxymoron) etc, and there are literally bookshops full, the greatest selling book is of course the fantasy book called the Bible.
    Now I suggest there are at least two reasons for this,. Firstly as we see with the writings of Ardrey, Lorenz etc, when the cat is well and truly belled people are somewhat taken aback when confronted by reality, this leads to a rejection, best retreat into delusion.
    Another possibility is that people are hard wired to not admit to or espouse the truth, (bit of a give away etc).
    So we see the conscious mind unable to see or accept reality when its handed to them on a platter. I’ll extend this thought with a slight tangent into the difference between the conscious understanding of the way things work and the reality of the situation. Here goes,:
    When reading Confucius I had the gnawing thought that if he was such a great philosopher then why was he always getting the sack and generally being ignored? If I could suggest my current theory, he was surrounded by people who were acting unconsciously ie straight human nature, ie instinctively, territorially etc,. So whilst our historical legend was fantasising about his ‘way’ the average small ruler and his helpers were walking all over him. None of these are so lauded!
    He shared much with the humanists of today, he is an example of the submissive type, ruling elites just love those who think principles are more important that anything else, or that its better to give your wealth to the poor etc, your not very likely to revolt.
    So back to todays Extreme Altruism, combined with todays politicians who react unknowingly to the latest public reaction, we are in the realm of fantasy becoming policy.
    This is happening whilst at the same time these very same bleeding heart lefties etc are viciously defending their territories/careers at their Universities etc.
    What a mess!

  11. Yes, I think “fantasy becoming policy” pretty much hits the nail on the head. For more on this, see my latest post.

  12. These posts on PC are deeply inisreettng. I wonder, though, about the idea that PC is ultimately directed against human “selfishness” – or “self-interest”, even. Isn’t it more accurate to say that PC finds individual human action horrifying in and of itself? Or, better, that PC is against human individuality or human nature in general? Lots of human things are contrary to PC even when it isn’t in any normal sense “selfish” (or even “self-interested”). If people prefer their own family or ethny to others, or feel a special loyalty or responsibility, that will have un-PC consequences. But these natural human preferences and feelings are not selfish or even self-interested. They are deep dimensions of human life that don’t have to do with the self or the larger society (as that is understood by PC). In this way, PC may only appear to be a hyper-secular recognition of sin. At a deeper level, it is what your friend Father Rose (or Nietzsche) would call a nihilism of destruction – a wish to annihilate reality as a whole, not just the parts of human reality that are bad.

  13. I think that altruism doesn’t exist in humans. Everything we do is based on selfish reasons. But selfish decisions can benefit other people. Mother Teresa was a purely selfish being like everyone else. But she got her pleasures and self-worth from helping others.

    On the last question:”What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder?”
    If we really all were thinking like this without exception (no one thinks of himself first) and be rational about it (we see the world as it is and not as we want it to be, meaning that we can see the difference between actions that look good on paper but are harmful and actions that don’t look as good but are realistic) , we could be a more advanced society. It would probably benefit the human race as a whole, making long time surviveablity more realistic. That said, I’m not a do-gooder. I think about myself first, then family and friends and those close to me and then strangers.

  14. It would be very surprising if altruism doesn’t exist in humans. It would imply that it is impossible for genes to enhance the odds that they will survive and reproduce by programming behavioral predispositions that result in acts of altruism, even for the benefit of closely related individuals. Given, for example, the frequency of acts of apparent altruism in battle, it seems a bit of a stretch to claim there is no such thing.

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