FLORIDA, September 10, 2012 — For most people, altruism is a highly respected idea.
After all, who doesn’t want to build a better world?
At what cost, though, does altruism come when allowed to run rampant? How much compassion is too much compassion? When should we draw the line while trying to be good Samaritans?
Barbara Oakley is an associate professor of engineering at the Detroit-area Oakland University. She is also the author of the bestseller Evil Genes, and co-editor of Pathological Altruism. In a detailed discussion with me, she explains popular perceptions about altruism, the human trait of irrationality, and much more.
Q: Altruism is often thought to be noble, although many philosophers disagree. What are your thoughts?
A: I think altruism is a lot like good hygiene. Good hygiene is great—I love being clean! But the increased cleanliness of recent centuries has caused surprising problems. Our body’s immune system has to be attacking something. So when we aren’t exposed to infection and disease, the immune system instead begins to attack the body itself. That’s why we’ve seen such a tremendous rise in allergies of all sorts, and serious auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Type I diabetes.
Modern societies can be the equivalent of a hyper-clean house. We need societal altruists—these are the same worthwhile types who struggled to right inequities with race and gender, to ensure a clean environment, and to provide universal education. But the very nature of societal altruists is that they must always continue their relentless march towards perfection. New ways of righting wrongs must be found—new regulations generated.
Societal altruists help victims, so if necessary, a victim mentality must be fostered. Societal autoimmune disease results.
Western society has made a cult of altruism, which is always, always thought to be good. But “helper’s high” can be an emotional cigarette. It may feel good, but it isn’t necessarily good at all, either for you or for others. Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day—and you’ve got a fix for your helper’s high. Teach a man how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Less immediate gratification. And ultimately, you know he won’t need you anymore.
Q: Why do humans frequently allow themselves to be guided by emotion instead of reason? Objectively speaking, this makes little sense.
A: Our cerebral cortex, which does the bulk of the reasoning, is a basically a thin handkerchief wrapped over an emotional bowling ball. Reason was very much an arriviste in the evolutionary game—no surprise that emotion handles the bulk of our thinking. What is surprising is that on rare occasions, we can be guided by reason.
Q: Some scientists and scholars claim that humans are geared toward irrationality. Do you agree?
A: Yes. Virtually all our thoughts grow out of our emotions, which are deeply irrational by nature. When people think they are being objective and rational, they are often fooling themselves. For example, I recently spoke with an individual who characterized himself as a middle-of-the-roader politically. He earnestly told me that everyone who was reasonable, Democrat or Republican, agreed that the stimulus spending was necessary. Of course, there are many reasonable people who have disagreed in various degrees with need for the stimulus. When I mentioned that, the individual responded angrily and cut me off. I subsequently discovered that this individual works closely with the White House in promoting their agenda.
How can we get past irrationality? It’s tough—but one good way is to force yourself into truly understanding the other side’s position. Of course, if you’ve already been subtly and not-so-subtly guided to see the other side’s position as somehow evil—clouded in racism or religion or ignorance—you’ll never give yourself permission to understand their perspective. In fact, you are certain it’s the other side who is refusing to walk in your shoes.
Another way to help get past irrationality—admittedly tongue-in-cheek—is to become an engineer. In the social sciences and humanities, you can build whatever emotionally-based theory you want, and as long as it sounds good, you can find fellow travelers to climb on board. In engineering, you must check your emotion at the door, because if your theory is wrong you can wind up with a lot of dead people.
Q: Many say that humans are basically good, while others believe the opposite. Are either of these perspectives rooted in fact?
A: We’re a complex mixture of hard-wired biology and software individual and cultural upbringing. Virtually everyone thinks of himself or herself as good. But if the police disappeared, we would suddenly find that a significant percentage of “good” people committing all sorts of crimes. History describes opera-loving planners of genocides and cultured sadists who happily tortured at the behest of their fascist and communist regimes.
In other words, we assume that others are basically good at our peril.
Q: Looking at history, it would seem that most human actions take place on the basis of perceived self-interest. Do you find this to be the case?
A: All things considered, self-interest, including interest in your reputation, is a reasonable way to operate. Most people do not want to get reputations as greedy bastards, even if such actions can be in their self-interest.
I’ve learned to be most suspicious of those who say they are acting for others. Often that’s just cover for their own self-interest. The reason that older people tend to be more cynical is simply that they’ve been burned more.
Billions across the world rely on faith just to get them through the day. Said faith might be in the divine, another person, or a social construct. Is this a good or bad thing?
The ability to empathize with other people is considered an essential characteristic. Should it be? The old idiom that things are “killed with kindness” can apply to so many of our society’s problems. Which of these has altruism had the worst impact on?
While attempting to learn about key social issues, should more attention be paid to neuroscience? In the second and final part of our interview, Dr. Oakley will answer all of these questions as well as tell us a bit about her life and career.
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