Skip to main content

The complexities of altruism

An article on Vox.com cited recent research that suggests that "extreme altruism" and "extreme psychopathy" are two polar ends of the same spectrum. Among people who risk their own lives to help others, an area of their brain called the right amygdala is usually above average in size and has increased activity. The amygdala is associated with the ability to feel emotion. This may explain why people who take extreme actions to help others will say that they act quickly without spending time calculating what to do. Psychopaths, on the other hand – that is, those who are immoral or amoral, and who manipulate or injure others for self-serving purposes – have less active amygdalas. They have a more limited emotional repertoire and are known as being more calculating.

Most altruism is not extreme. Where on the spectrum, by the way, would the "ice bucket challenge" fall? Last summer, the popular phenomenon involved people publicly daring their friends over social media to dump a pail of ice water over their head and post the video online. A charitable donation of $100 was usually part of the dare. Most of the money went to research for the degenerative disease ALS; a staggering $115 million was raised for that cause. Everyone, it seemed, was dumping ice on themselves.

This highlights the fact that altruism is a very strange thing. People give money for reasons that fundraisers cannot always anticipate, though they would love to be able to. A recent New York Times Magazine article collected some observations. First of all, people often derive some kind of pleasure or satisfaction from giving to charity. Their giving is often self-interested to some degree. Other times, they give more purely out of compassion, and many people are aware that their feelings of empathy and guilt are at risk of being exploited, so they may "self-bind" by avoiding solicitations in the first place. They may also simply not want to expose themselves to solicitations that may force them to think about others' suffering simply because such thoughts are unpleasant or come at an inconvenient time. The "ice bucket challenge" did not evoke any image of the degenerative disease for which it was fundraising. Instead, it appealed to the forces of peer pressure and the narcissistic urge to post videos online. Additionally, it tapped into a quirk of human psychology: a law according to which feeling a measure of pain prompts us to confer more meaning or value upon an action. One can say that people gave for the wrong reasons – but they gave.

Sometimes charity that is given after prolonged, careful thought about "the right thing to do" – to help others who are less fortunate – does not achieve the desired effect. An article in The New Republic about international development aid pointed out that any action taken will have side effects, and we are bad at predicting these side effects. These side effects may be good or bad, and in some cases, they undermine the original purpose of the project. Giving charity to a community may result in that community's taking less interest in solving the problem themselves (since it is being solved for them) and failing to maintain physical and institutional structures (since people tend to value less what they do not pay for) or even to have the knowledge about how to maintain them. Addressing one issue, even a large one, may reveal it to be a symptom of another intractable issue. Charitable work remains "the right thing to do" – or, at least, the right reason to take some action. What action is best on practical grounds is often difficult to know.

Sources

"The science of extreme altruism: why people risk their lives to save strangers." Joseph Stromberg. Vox.com. Oct. 15, 2014.

"The Ice-Bucket Racket." Ian McGugan. The New York Times Magazine. Nov. 14, 2014.

"Stop trying to save the world." Michael Hobbes. The New Republic. Nov. 17, 2014.

Photo taken in New York City by Ed Yourdon. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896)

On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa "cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age – that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans." In this battle, Ethiopians beat back the invading Italians and forced them to retreat permanently. It was not until 1922 that Benito Mussolini would again initiate designs against Ethiopia, leading to its defeat in 1936, but ultimately, Ethiopia retained its independence. "Adwa opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the rollback of European rule in Africa. It was," Jonas wrote, "an event that determined the color of Africa." (p. 1) It was also significant because it upheld the power of Ethiopia's Christian monarchy that controlled an ethnically diverse nation (p. 333), a nation in which, in the late 19th century, the Christian Emperor Yohannes had tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity. (p. 36)The Victorian English spelling popular at t…

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House. Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity.Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be acc…

The most embarrassing 'Dr. Phil' episodes

Dog costumes, videotaped brawls: Embarrassing behavior aired on 'Dr. Phil'The "Dr. Phil" talk show addresses dynamics of dysfunctional relationships. Many of the problems people bring to the show can seem to embarrass them in the eyes of the viewers.This article was originally published to Helium Network on April 13, 2014. Dr. Phil McGraw, cover of Newsweek Magazine, 2001. Photo by Jerry Avenaim, WikiMedia Commons © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic licenseDr. Phil is an American talk show host who brings together people in dysfunctional family relationships and makes them confront each other so that they can attempt to move their relationships through the impasse. The issues discussed on the show include rebellious teens, cheating spouses, drug use and violence, and when "talking it out" is not enough, Dr. Phil's team may offer a gift of inpatient rehabilitation or another appropriate psychological service…