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Discussion > Pathological Altruism and Climate Alarm

JEM posted a link to a fascinating article on "pathological altruism" and I agree that this may be a valuable term/concept. One thing that is evident across many different discussions is that (whether 'we' agree or not) people alarmed about the climate and human influences thereon often consider themselves hugely idealistic and self-righteous (ala Bill McKibben et al.). Whether we critics and skeptics think their high self-regard is always justified is a separate issue, but many of 'them' are convinced of their own rectitude and even altruism (regard for others, welfare and survival of future generations, etc.). This sense of altruism can be a huge motivation and self-sustaining (oops there's that word) influence even when obvious self-interested financial and professional benefits show up, ala Al Gore, Tim Yeo, et al.

I'm starting this discussion topic for anyone who thinks it is useful or interesting to explore the concept of "pathological altruism" as it may related to climate issues.

Jun 16, 2013 at 3:52 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

comment in Unthreaded from "Turning Tide"

@JEM "pathological altruism"

Great find! From your link:

"The left derives its sense of moral authority from the supposition that its intentions are altruistic and its opponents' are selfish."

That's warmism in a nutshell: use of fossil fuels must be restricted because doing so will save the planet for future generations. Anybody who opposes such restrictions must be selfishly placing their own wants above the needs of those future generations.
Jun 15, 2013 at 8:37 PM | Turning Tide

Jun 16, 2013 at 3:56 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

link which JEM posted on Unthreaded:

(this article is by James Taranto at the Wall St. Journal but he is discussion an article by Prof. Barbara A. Oakley)

Pathological Altruism: A simple concept that could revolutionize scientific and social thought.

""Empathy," Oakley notes, "is not a uniformly positive attribute. It is associated with emotional contagion; hindsight bias; motivated reasoning; caring only for those we like or who comprise our in-group (parochial altruism); jumping to conclusions; and inappropriate feelings of guilt in noncooperators who refuse to follow orders to hurt others." It also can produce bad public policy...."

Jun 16, 2013 at 4:00 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

here is some additional info I found on Barbara A. Oakley, interesting background! Prof. of Engineering, with a diverse range of experiences.... the bio note is from Amazon:

Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism (2013)
Barbara A. Oakley

PNAS paper on Pathological Altruism

Barbara A. Oakley biography

I work at Oakland University as a professor of engineering. I have been married for twenty five years to Philip Oakley (aka "the most wonderful man in the universe"). We met when we were both working together at the South Pole Station in Antarctica. We have two daughters and two adopted sons who were originally from Kosovo.I started studying engineering much later than many engineering students, because my original intention had been to become a linguist. I enlisted in the U.S. Army right after high school and spent a year studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California. The Army eventually sent me to the University of Washington, where I received my first degree'a B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literature. Eventually, I served four years in Germany as a Signal Officer, and rose to become a Captain. After my Army commitment ended, I decided to leave the Army and study engineering so that I could better understand the communications equipment I had been working with. Five years later I received a second degree: a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. In the meantime, I worked several fishing seasons as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers up in the Bering Sea. I wrote a book about that experience in 'Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler.' I also spent a season as the radio operator at the South Pole Station, where Philip and I met. (We were married as soon as we got 'off the ice,' in New Zealand.) With the B.S.E.E. degree in hand I settled down and spent three years working as a instrumentation and controls engineer at a laser research and development firm near Seattle.

We moved to the Detroit area in 1989. I worked for Ford briefly, and then began doing consulting and attending Oakland University part time while our children were small. I received a M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1995, and a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering in 1998. I was hired after my graduation to continue on as a professor at Oakland University. Since then, I've become interested in learning about people and places using an out-side-the box perspective--as you can tell from my books. I feel compelled to explore ideas and concepts in writing--thank goodness I have a family that's forgiving of my compulsion!


(2011) Pathological Altruism
editors: Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan and David Sloan Wilson

(2011) Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts

(2008) Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend

(1996) Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler

Jun 16, 2013 at 4:05 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

Of course, one response to this line of discussion is that to the extent that alarm about human influence on climate is justified, there is not automatically something "pathological" or even "altruistic" in thinking we need to act. The debates are complicated across many lines of evidence and policy. Yet, to the extent that the threats may be exaggerated, and/or the policies proposed are inadequate or even counter-productive, then the hype and exaggerations and distortions are indeed pathological.

Whether the pathology is "altruistic" in intent depends upon whether a person claims to be acting out of altruism toward humanity. Of course there can be climatist pathologies which are not altruistic if someone is clearly just profiteering from the alarm bandwagon.

"Pathological altruism" is a category of behaviors, advocacy etc. which is BOTH (purportedly) altruistic and also pathological.

Jun 16, 2013 at 4:20 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

I don’t know about pathological but many warmists are stuck on altruism. For them the debate is about good and evil. In years gone by they would have been vigorously religious and felt very justified in seeking out witches and blasphemers. Thus sceptics can’t be people with different opinion, they have to be driven by money and greed, to the point where apparently, many of us are paid by oil companies and business barons. They tend to be very black and white people so they can’t let go of any part of the ‘truth’ because to do so would be to become a little bit evil.

Like the religious zealots of the past they can weave a fair amount of contradictory behaviour into their actions, Believing becomes more important than what you do. They convince themselves that certain actions, including violence, are necessary for the greater good. Flying to conferences isn’t really wrong but a necessary unpleasantness that enables a wider audience to be saved. To them, making money selling green ideals isn’t unconscionable, it’s a just reward for trusting their prosperity to a higher purpose.

Voices of moderation are like the whisperings of the Devil, luring the faithful towards licentiousness and are often targeted more viciously than those with a more obviously polarised ‘evil’ opinion. People like Judith Curry are pilloried because they might lead others from ‘good’ and also because they’re not so far gone that they couldn’t be brought back into the fold. Unlike sceptics who are beyond salvation.

I don’t know that there’s much that can be done about this attitude other than hope it will eventually fizzle out, in the same way that Christian fundamentalism has in the UK… only much faster. Our saving grace might be lack of this type of person in the UK. We’ve been shrugging off fanaticism here for centuries.

One final note - if zealots do change their mind, they often do so absolutely. Thus they would become as fanatically sceptic as they were a believer.

Jun 16, 2013 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

I've been thinking about this some more vis-a-vis warmism, and I think the concept of pathological altruism explains why discussions between committed warmists and sceptics/realists (e.g. on CiF) just go round and round in circles. It's because the underlying assumptions of the warmists go unchallenged. For example, when the argument goes like this (crudely):

"We must stop using fossil fuels right now because otherwise we will bequeath an unliveable planet to future generations"

the unspoken assumption is that reducing/stopping our use of fossil fuels will unquestionably benefit those future generations. I don't think that's correct. Just as we (in the West) have benefitted from our ancestors' previous industrial activities, future generations (particularly in the developing world) are likely to benefit from infrastructure constructed now using (relatively) cheap fossil-fuel energy.

In other words, we shouldn't be arguing against the accusations of selfishness (which is irrelevant), we should be challenging the hidden assumptions.

Jun 16, 2013 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

One of my favourite quotes:

“The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.”
Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow (1921)

There is an element of joyous sadism that underlies a lot of allegedly altruistic behaviour. All the stuff we hear about how we consume too much, waste too much and so on carries the underlying message that we need a bit of deprivation for our own good, as well as that of the planet.

Every summer I get into arguments with people who say that air-conditioning is an evil and unnecessary luxury which is contributing to the trashing of the planet. "We are perfectly comfortable without it" they claim. Well, I'm bloody uncomfortable without it in a climate where 35C - 40C days are not unusual. They assume that it is fine for people like me (who suffer in hot weather) to be miserable just because they are not. Underlying this kind of thinking is a disregard for others in the name of the greater good which fortunately coincides with their own comfort levels. Frankly, these people are just plain callous, with a clear conscience to boot.

Jun 16, 2013 at 10:58 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Incidentally, I don’t think most of the climate scientists suffer this condition, their persistence is much more logical. A prime reason IMHO is catastrophe myopia. I’ve seen it in other sciences and professions, where their focus of study becomes more important than all other concerns because it dominates their lives. Thus they can’t and even won’t consider other competing issues. They prefer that other people make the tough decisions about priorities. Proving the potential crisis becomes more important than placing it in context.

For policy makers it is extremely difficult to judge ‘very concerned’ climate science against ‘very concerned’ disease science against 'very concerned' economists, etc.

Jun 16, 2013 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Some of the scientists involved in the cause of climate alarm are left-wingers, but I hope that most of them are only leftwing in the sense that it is the default position in academia. Defaulted to even by those who have never had a directly political thought nor intention in their lives but may yet be Guardian-readers and quietly tolerate leftwing attitudes in their colleagues. Since self-styled leftwingers have enthusiastically jumped on the climate alarm bandwagon as a vehicle well-suited to destroying the societies they detest so much, the question of their 'pathological altruism' is very relevant here.

The author of the Dissecting Leftism blog, John Ray, is less generous about the question-begging attribution of altruistic intentions to leftwingers:

As JAMES TARANTO suggests below, the concept of Pathological Altruism could become a powerful and widely-used concept in debunking Leftist proposals. It has the virtue of being polite. It assumes that Leftists have altruistic intentions. I am less polite. Given the regularly destructive overall results of Leftist actions and policies, I think we have to assume that the motives are destructive too. It is absurd to say that Leftists never get the results they intend. They are often smart people. The results they get are therefore the results they intend. There is nothing altruistic about Leftism. It is just a camouflage coat that they wear. They are haters, not helpers. -- JR


Jun 16, 2013 at 5:10 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Barbara Oakley sounds like a fascinating person and pathological altruism is a concept I can accept as potentially enlightening, but not if it’s simply used as a stick to beat lefties with.
Accept that lefties tend to believe that the world would be a better place if society were organised in such a way as to encourage people to be nicer to each other. Just as I accept that rightwing people tend to believe that the world would be a better place if everyone minded their own business. There’s nothing much you can do to prove or disprove either point of view except keep voting for your preferred bunch of idiots.
If you start by defining pathological altruism as the thing that the others (greens, lefties, warmists) have got wrong with them, you end up running round in vicious little circles. That way lies madness and maybe even a professorship at UWA or Bristol University.

Jun 16, 2013 at 7:41 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

" in such a way as to encourage people to be nicer to each other."

In my world, that encourage would be 'force', and the right-wing reply would be 'let' people be nice to each other, remembering that schools, hospitals and all that good state-run stuff was in existence before the state decided it had to run it all. I guess a lot of people who think of themselves as right would not quite see it that way, though.

Jun 16, 2013 at 8:08 PM | Registered Commenterrhoda


I certainly wouldn't want to behave like the warmists in carrying out amateur psychiatric diagnosis on those on the other side of the debate. I'm not sufficiently arrogant to think that people who disagree with me must be mentally ill.

Anyway, it's not arguments that'll ultimately scupper climate alarmism: it's a combination of a real-world climate that hasn't read the IPCC reports and a general lack of money to pursue every green dream down every blind alley.

Jun 16, 2013 at 8:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

Geoff Chambers, I agree that the "pathological" part of the term may cause needless offense if it is seen as a psychiatric rather than analytical category. I am thinking of the broad category as referring to "self-defeating" behaviors and policies, I.e., what is supposed to benefit humanity, save the polar bears etc. but in fact may be ineffective, irrelevant, counter-productive, or much worse.

Jun 16, 2013 at 9:20 PM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

I'm meant to be on a fast from climate blogs so this has to be quick! But what a good subject Skiphil. I am immediately reminded of my Twitter interaction with Jo Abbess last Thursday, in which she said, among many other things:

#ShaleGas is a curse on our descendants, their atmosphere, water and land.

That was right after I decided to 'turn nasty' and have a go at her enormous (to my mind very harmful) sense of self-righteousness.

One thing that greatly bothers me about this person and those like her (and I don't lump the whole of the left in with this) is the things they have to believe to maintain belief in their own altruism. Starting with the evil, conspiratorial nature of their opponents but including, as shown, the demonisation of shale gas. Without the demonisation the illusions of altruism would be shattered in seconds.

That's why I think pathological is entirely fair. And that's why I decided (though I might never try again) I would try to puncture Ms Abbess's vast sense of her own moral superiority. Because I'm convinced it's far removed from the reality of what such people actually achieve, if they become influential - which they have in the West, in international organisations and in NGOs, which put together then have far too much influence on what the 'bottom billion' are allowed to do, countries and peoples that need our 'false conscience' like a hole in the head.

Jun 17, 2013 at 2:19 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

These apercus help explain how this 'altruism' can be sustained for longer periods that you would have thought plausible (& ditto for 'alarmism'):

If the recent history of our universities is any guide, the products of a leftist bureaucratic monoculture will be characterized by the following:

Ignorance: Groups of like-minded people are notoriously incurious about the ideas and perspectives of dissenters.

Condescension: They don’t let ignorance stand in the way of a bulletproof sense of moral and intellectual superiority.

Hatred: Since all the good people they know agree with them, they ascribe the worst of motives to the other side, believing them to be motivated by little more than greed and bigotry.

And, finally . . .

Fanaticism: Cass Sunstein described the ”law of group polarization” like this: “In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own pre-deliberation judgments.” In other words, when like-minded individuals deliberate, their common views grow more extreme over time.


H/t Dissecting Leftism

Jun 17, 2013 at 2:20 PM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Thanks for many good comments......

I'm on the run today but hope to discuss more later.

I just wanted to note another take on such issues, which is to examine ways in which the "concerned" believe they are exhibiting empathy and altruism, and then analyzing whether such attributes, even if sincerely felt and believed, may turn pathological.

I.e., assume altruistic intent, for the current discussion, but examine ways in which different fact sets could produce counter-productive and possibly very harmful responses.

The "pathological" could be in terms of individual mentalities, but also perhaps in terms of wrong policies pushed for "emotional" reasons etc.

Also consider extreme behaviors such as lawlessness, violence, seizures or violations of property and rights, etc.

Jun 17, 2013 at 3:55 PM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

To provide focus, here is the definition, from the WSJ article:

Oakley defines pathological altruism as "altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm." A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, "an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable."
So I suppose a simple example would be biofuels.

Jun 17, 2013 at 4:23 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

I think that a valuable test of whether altruism is pathological is to assess if it requires others to make sacrifices for an abstract ideal whether they choose to or not. In other words, the abstract ideal is more important than the people who are forcibly deprived or punished for it.

So, requiring poor people to forgo economic prosperity to "save the planet" is pathological altruism, IMO. Supporting their right to a decent material existence, even if it involves some trade-offs with regard to the pristine wilderness, is non-pathological altruism.

Altruism and empathy can only be applied to people, not things or concepts. If people choose to make sacrifices for things or concepts, that is up to them, but when it comes to forcing others to to the same irrespective of their wants or needs, we are in the territory we know so well.

Jun 17, 2013 at 4:58 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Accept that lefties tend to believe that the world would be a better place if society were organised in such a way as to encourage people to be nicer to each other. Just as I accept that rightwing people tend to believe that the world would be a better place if everyone minded their own business.
Jun 16, 2013 at 7:41 PM geoffchambers

Er...hang on Geoff, I think you snuck one in there.

You left an assumption hanging in the air that "organising societies to encourage people to be nicer to each other" was an essentially left wing position.

AFAIK the first attempts to do this were by Christian religions - most adherents to which have tended to be (and still are in some places) well to the political right.

By subtly, and indirectly, implying that right wing people don't care about being nice to others - aren't you just "pathologising" them?

Jun 17, 2013 at 5:09 PM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

Left wing/right wing are vague concepts as most of us are a mixture. It also varies by culture since gun control is a much more minor issue with right wing people in the UK than the US. And Liberal can mean anything.

Jun 17, 2013 at 5:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Without getting into the notion of this as a left-wing/right-wing issue, there's

First off, when it comes to climate alarmism and pathological altruism - my take is that the credentialed scientists who would label themselves on the 'consensus' side of the climate issue do so for a variety of reasons. In some cases the need to be seen as 'doing good' may be a primary motivation, in others it just feeds a sort of herd confirmation bias.

But where pathological altruism really comes to the fore is in the next tier - the 'communicators', the 'social scientists', the Wards and the Lewandowskys and the Oreskeses. These are individuals who are only peripherally attached to the field, who have embraced it because of a sort of ankle-bone-to-knee-bone logic that assumes that anyone who'd question any cause embraced by the environmentalist community (which is, by definition, Good) must be an evil killer of polar bear cubs.

Jun 17, 2013 at 6:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterJEM

@johanna "I think that a valuable test of whether altruism is pathological is to assess if it requires others to make sacrifices for an abstract ideal whether they choose to or not. In other words, the abstract ideal is more important than the people who are forcibly deprived or punished for it."

Some greens seem to take the line: "I'm perfectly happy living in a yurt with no electricity and an earth toilet. If everyone lived liked me, the world would be fine." Of course, for most people such a lifestyle would entail considerable sacrifices, but the person who has chosen that lifestyle is doing what he/she wants to do, and therefore hasn't sacrificed anything at all.

In all my online dealings with warmists/alarmists, I can't say I've ever heard any of them acknowledging that they refrain from doing things they'd actually like to do on environmental grounds.

Jun 17, 2013 at 6:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

Interesting point, TT. It comes back to the old argument about whether altruism exists at all - or do people who do good do it because it makes them feel good about themselves?

However, the CAGW debate is infested by hypocrites who enjoy the good life (like Al Gore) or even a modest lifestyle in the West by choice, which is still incomparably better than that of most people in very poor countries. You don't see even the most passionate hippies drinking unclean water by choice, or voluntarily starving to death because this year's lentil crop failed.

Jun 18, 2013 at 6:40 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Altruism in CAGW usually means giving someone else's hard earned cash away. Green taxes are another way of creating a have/have not society. There's no sliding scale for the rich. If you can afford the offsets or a forest, you don't even have to feel guilty about you emissions. Congratulations greenies, you've invented a way to make the air we breath a commodity we have to pay for.

Jun 18, 2013 at 9:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2