When Altruism Becomes Pathological

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Wed, Dec 30 - 9:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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The Good Life - Altruism

Who is more likely to cheat — those who play individual sports or those who play team sports?

A fascinating experiment by Professor Sharon K. Stoll and reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education compared athletes in individual sports such as golf or singles tennis with those playing teams sports such as basketball or doubles tennis. Those in the individual sports exhibited higher levels of morality, while those in team sports were much more likely to cheat and rationalize.

In tennis, for example, if my opponent’s shot lands on the line, then I’m supposed to call it In and lose the point. In a singles match, I lose the point for myself alone — but in a double’s match both I and my teammate suffer the loss. So my incentives are different, and my felt obligation to do what’s best for my teammate gives me an additional reason to cheat.

Also, in team sports such as American football or basketball, the strategy and many of the plays are called by the coaches on the sidelines. By contrast, in individual sports each athlete himself or herself has the decision-making responsibility. So individual-sport athletes are much more likely to learn to take responsibility for their actions, while team-sport athletes are more likely to learn to follow orders and to shift responsibility to others.

There’s also the matter of how one sees one’s opponents and oneself. In an individual wrestling match, one is very aware of oneself and one’s opponent as unique persons, but in team sports — with many people all wearing uniforms — one is much more likely to see one’s opponents as undifferentiated, depersonalized others.

All of this takes us into darker moral territory and the debates over altruism — and for that purpose I’ve borrowed my article’s title from Professor Barbara Oakley’s ground-breaking Pathological Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Altruism, like many contentious and philosophically-complicated concepts, is used in a variety of ways. In its strongest form it means what the word’s coiner, Auguste Comte, meant: that the interests of others are ethically prior, and that one’s willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of others is the criterion of morality. “The chief problem of human life,” Comte argued, is “the subordination of Egoism to Altruism.”

In religious form, strong altruism was urged by the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s teacher, Father Eymard, who was canonized in 1962. His guiding principle was that “to save society we must revive the spirit of sacrifice” by means of “suffering and self-abnegation.” Further: “You are here solely to immolate yourselves, body and soul.”

In secular form, the progressive Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jane Addams argued that “in this effort toward a higher morality in our social relations, we must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection with the activity of the many.”

But in weaker usages, altruism sometimes merely means intentional behavior that respects or benefits the interests of others. Such uses do not necessarily imply an opposition to egoism, as business traders, acquaintances and friends, and lovers can form social relationships that are mutually respectful of and beneficial to each party’s interests.

The best way to avoid terminological confusion is to use the term pro-social for intentions and actions that foster positive social outcomes, and to use altruism and egoism for the competing positions about how properly to achieve the pro-social.

The debate is this: If promoting pro-social behavior (trade, friendship, etc.) is part of ethics, then should we argue that pro-social behavior is best enabled by respecting each individual’s interests or by requiring that individuals sacrifice their own interests for the others? That is, do we think the pro-social requires a commitment to the win-win, as egoism argues, or to the lose-win, as altruism argues?

The concerns over possible pathological implications of altruism connect directly to the mindset of one kind of cheater, as when contrasting individual and team sports above:

  • For the sake of the team, I will sacrifice my integrity in order to lie.
  • To be a part of the team, I sacrifice my independence of judgment and follow others.
  • “There is no ‘I’ in team,” and our opponents are merely impersonal others.

That is, those who behave badly often seem to be acting as strong altruism requires — they are putting others before themselves, they are valuing the group’s needs over their own, and they are sacrificing individuality for the sake of the social.

Professor Dan Ariely studies in-group-cheating and ran a pair of experiments with students at his Carnegie-Mellon University. Students in one group were asked to solve a series of math problems, for which they would be paid upon completion. A member of the group, who was actually a confederate working with the experimenters, stood up after a very short period of time and claimed he’d solved all of the problems. Clearly, that was unlikely, given the number and difficulty of the problems. But the supervisor of the experiment paid him his reward without checking to see whether he had completed all of the problems. Unsurprisingly, many of the remaining students soon followed suit, claiming to have solved many more of the math problems than they actually had.

The experiment was run again with another set of students, but with one difference — the confederate student wore a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, which identified him as a member of a different social group, the cross-town rivals. When the U-of-P-sweatshirt-wearing student made the cheating claim to have finished, the subsequent amount of cheating by the rest of the students was much, much less.

The morally-negative implication of Ariely’s experiment is that to the extent that individuals think of themselves primarily as members of a group, their individual responsibility diminishes. I will cheat if other members of my group do, but I won’t if members of other groups do. That is, their moral compass is directed by others in their group, not by themselves.

Worse: In-group identity can and often does lead to a willingness to sacrifice individuals who are members of the out-groups. Professor Joachim Krueger, one of the contributors to Oakley’s volume, notes that “altruism tends to be parochial,” and that means that when the interests of those in other groups are in conflict with the in-group, the sacrifice of individuals in those other groups seems morally warranted and even imperative. In extreme form, this willingness to sacrifice members of out-group others is a component of the genocidal psychology. It’s for the good of my group, and the group’s needs are paramount, so anything goes.

Even members of the in-group who seem to be threats to the group as a whole — dissenters, heretics, those with physical deformities or psychological infirmities — can be sacrificed morally, according to pathological altruism. Many commentators have noticed the altruistic collectivism built into Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s call for forced sterilization to prevent the “manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” As he wrote in Buck v. Bell (1926), “It is better for all the world” that such individuals be sacrificed.

And of course, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the group is a key component of altruism. In pathological form, those who seek martyrdom for the cause, kamikaze pilots, and suicide bombers are examples of those with an extreme willingness to sacrifice themselves — so as to display their altruism and to benefit their group’s cause both by setting an example of self-sacrifice and by achieving whatever group-beneficial value their sacrifice is aimed at.

The point is that despite the oft-repeated claims that altruism is a positive, there is a hugely complex set of fascinating — and disturbing — issues that need further exploration — terminologically, psychologically, and morally.

Photo by LuckyBusiness/Getty Images

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .

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