Pathological altruism refers to sincere attempts to help others that instead harms others or oneself and where this harm could have been reasonably anticipated. It is often caused by cognitive and/or emotional biases that blind people to the potentially harmful consequences of their actions.
“Altruistic intentions must be run through the sieve of rational analysis; all too often, the best long-term action to help others, at both personal and public scales, is not immediately or intuitively obvious, not what temporarily makes us feel good, and not what is being promoted by other individuals, with their own potentially self-serving interests. Indeed, truly altruistic actions may sometimes appear cruel or harmful, the equivalent of saying “no” to the student who demands a higher grade or to the addict who needs another hit. However, the social consequences of appearing cruel in a culture that places high value on kindness, empathy, and altruism can lead us to misplaced “helpful” behavior and result in self-deception regarding the consequences of our actions.“
In some cases, some people gain some benefit from the altruism, but other people and/or the altruist are harmed in ways that could be reasonably predicted, but are not due to such biases. These altruistic biases may be deliberately exploited by some people in order to gain benefits at the expense of other people.
Feelings of self-righteousness and sanctimony have been described as being an intensely pleasurable addiction for some people, which contributes to blind pathological altruism and rejection of logical arguments.
Pathological altruism has not been a very popular field of study, or part of the public discourse, due to politically correct fears that exploring or mentioning the subject would diminish altruism. This may instead have contributed to the harmful effects of pathological altruism and such censorship may thus in itself be an example of pathological altruism.
Gene variants that differ in prevalence between different populations have been argued to be associated with population differences in empathy.
Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and shame/guilt cultures
Pro-social behaviors are very widespread among humans. However, cognitive empathy (the capacity to see things from another person’s perspective and to understand how he or she feels) has been argued to be much less universal and low in, for example, Oceanic cultures. Affective empathy (the capacity not only to understand how another person feels but also to experience those feelings involuntarily and to respond) has been argued to be even more restricted (in particular affective empathy towards strangers), to have the highest incidence in northwestern Europeans, and to have evolved in an ancestral environment where kin obligations were relatively less important. A 2005 study found relatively low affective empathy in a Chinese sample.
High affective empathy may correspond to the concept of “guilt culture”, which is different from the concept of “shame culture”. Shame occurs when someone from the community observes the breaking of a rule. Guilt requires no witnesses and may occur from merely thinking about breaking the rule.
The high affective empathy and the high emphatic guilt may have helped the Europeans in creating advanced societies based not on kinship, but on other ways of organizing social relations. However, the high empathy and the high guilt may also be a cause of exploitation by others. Thus, it may contribute to pathological altruism.
East Asians have also developed highly advanced societies based on other relationships than kinship. However, they have relied more on external means of behavior control (shaming and community surveillance) and by building on cognitive empathy through learned notions of moral duty.
However, this may possible also have contributed to lower creativity and higher collectivism in East Asians cultures. See the sections on these subjects in the article Other race differences.
Attitudes towards animals
Large race differences regarding attitudes towards animals were reported between Blacks and Whites in the US by a 1984 study which stated that “Race results suggested a comparative lack of interest in, and concern and affection for animals among nonwhites.“
Such results may possibly be explained by high affective empathy in Whites.
Group differences regarding ethnocentrism
While Whites thus have been argued to have high general affective empathy and high emphatic guilt, they have at the same time been argued to have relatively low altruism towards their own ethnicity/race, although this may be changing. See Racial genetic interests: Group differences regarding ethnocentrism.
Pathological altruism by Whites towards non-Whites
Many White attitudes and behaviors towards non-Whites have been described as being influenced by pathological altruism.
The theory as applied to mass immigration has been criticized, such as by arguing that many of those supporting mass emigration do this out of self-interest (or perceived self-interest). One example is virtue signalling due to self-interest. Various other self-interest motivations have also been argued, such as by individuals involved economically in the migration “industry”, by individuals having personal relationships with immigrants, and by individuals personally benefiting from effects such as increased wage competition.
Critics have also argued the influence of factors such as Cultural Marxism, race denialism, libertarianism, White guilt, and support for mass immigration by many members of minorities seeing the mass immigration as being in their interest (see, for example, the article on Jews and immigration).