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.