Altruism and Empathy

Who Would Donate a Kidney to a Stranger? An ‘Anti-Psychopath’, reads the heading or kidneyan article by Melissa Dahl on Science of Us. It reminds me of a story line in the TV show, Beverly Hills 90210 in which a character, Valerie, is asked to donate her kidney to a stranger. She had signed up at one time and she had a rare blood type that made it hard to find donors. She agreed until she found out that the would-be recipient was a child molester. To me, it seems crazy to donate a kidney to another person unless I valued that person’s life really highly. The fact that someone needs my kidney just doesn’t cut it with me. Giving one of one’s kidneys is a sacrificial act. You are submitting to surgery and losing a healthy organ which taking a chance on infection. But it seems some people are that altruistic.

valerieA psychologist named Abigail Marsh (Neural and Cognitive Characteristics of Extraordinary Altruists) studied brain scans which revealed the not surprising fact that “the donors’ brains even looked structurally different from psychopaths’: While psychopaths have a physically smaller amygdala — the brain structure associated with emotion — than the average person, the donors had oversize ones.” But these altruists were really humble. They didn’t think they were anything special. The article concluded, “The world’s nicest people, in other words, don’t even grasp how nice they really are. Which, if you think about it, makes them even nicer.” Well, that’s one man’s opinion. I don’t much value altruism or humility which is one of the things I find annoying about Beverly Hills 90210 which pushes such values.

harrypotterA related article asked, Can Harry Potter Teach Kids Empathy? A study found that kids who read the books and identified with Harry Potter were more empathetic. Of course, some fans of the books identified with Harry’s enemies, such as Slytherins. Interesting how Slytherin House has a snake for it’s mascot. Psychopaths are often accused of being “reptiles” so it seems logical that we are in that house. Frankly Potter’s altruism drives me up a wall. In Book 7, Harry’s friends go to enormous lengths to safely transport Harry to the Weasley’s house where he will be safe from the Death Eaters. As soon as he gets there, he wants to leave because he doesn’t want to endanger them with his presence. How idiotic. They already endangered themselves by getting him there. There were even deaths. What is the point of him leaving after he gets there? Really stupid.

gryffinder_crestGryffinders (in Harry Potter) are altruists and also rule-breakers. Do they have anything else in common with psychopaths besides contempt for the rules? There’s courage. Both kinds will risk their lives with little concern for safety. But we, Slytherins, don’t cotton much to Gryffinders. We find them too full of themselves. They are the cheerleaders and jocks found in every high school, the glittering, upbeat, perky stars whose qualities always seem to be worshiped in America (and, perhaps, England). Slytherins are more like the goths, not perky and peppy but dark and sneaky. Is it possible that extreme altruists are narcs? Think about it. They get oodles of narcissistic supply. Some slytherincrestnarcissists become leaders of an idealistic movement or religion. But Matthew 6:3-4 says, “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Of course, if you believe God is watching and rewarding, one can still be seeking narcissistic supple. But the first study mentioned here, brain scans done by Abigail Marsh, claimed that the altruists were a humble lot. I guess both kind can be altruistic for different reasons. Some of them really seem to love people more than they love themselves. Melissa Dahl calls such people “antipsychopaths.” In this blog, I wrote about a group of people whom I considered the opposite of psychopaths, those with Williams Syndrome. They really love people indiscriminately. They don’t seem especially altruistic but I suppose they could be if given a chance.

heroPsychology Today discusses Altruism, suggesting “many psychologists believe we’re hard-wired for empathy.” And an article by Craig D. Marker, Ph.D. called Altruism, Heroics and Extreme-Altruism suggests similarities between “extreme-altruists” and psychopaths. He refers to an article by Andrea Kuszewski, called Addicted to Being Good? The Psychopathology Of Heroism which suggests the same thing. “X-altruists are compelled to good, even when doing so makes no sense and brings harm upon them. The cannot tolerate injustice, and go to extreme lengths to help those who have been wronged, regardless of their personal relationship to them. Now, I am not speaking of the guy who helps an old lady cross the street. I am speaking of the guy who throws himself in front of a speeding bus to push the old lady out of the way, killing himself in the process. The average, kind, thoughtful person does not take these kinds of extreme personal risks on a regular basis.

psychopathThe article, which was inconclusive, was followed by comments. One by Lillian Dore said, “There are no similarities between psychopaths and the altruistic. 1) Those who truly wish to help others never say, ‘Hey, I think if I help this person it would be an amazing thrill and a novelty!’ It’s an impulse yes, but those who do help it’s not for self or out praise, or for the thrill in it.” I agree. Yes, psychopaths are impulsive, daring and rule-breaking. But we are not altruists. Of course, a psychopath might perform an altruistic act because s/he wanted to. If somebody whom we value needs extraordinary randhelp, we will give it if we want to. In that case, it is simply acting for oneself, for what we support. This was made clear by Ayn Rand, who was an outspoken opponent of altruism, even considered it “evil.” Her heroes would risk life and limb for things that mattered to them but they still insisted that their actions were profoundly selfish (a word that Rand has worked to rehabilitate from pejorative to positive).

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

methoOf course, in one sense, psychopaths are selfless. That is, we don’t have as firmly entrenched sense of who and what we are at any given time. And we can wear a mask to make us seem to be whatever others need us to be. That’s pretty selfless. M.E. Thomas mentions in Confessions of a Sociopath,

I had no self. If I had been Buddhist on my path to seeking Nirvana, this lack of self would have been a huge breakthrough, but I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment at having achieved that state. Instead I felt the only way anyone can ever feel without a sense of self — free.

taylorswiftOr, as Taylor Swift sang in Blank Space, “Find out what you want. Be that girl for a month.” Many people have called Ayn Rand a psychopath but this strikes me as an important difference. Ayn Rand worships the ego, the self. However, she had a good point in nailing the compulsory nature of altruism as a value.

The difference must be in the freedom of the will. People who want to be kind to others and who act on that desire are just being nice (see Doing Something Nice for No Reason). Those who believe one ought to be self-sacrificing and who try to make others conform to that value are opposed to freedom. One reason psychopaths usually seem to be happier than most is this freedom.


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