The Role of Empathy in Moral Communities: Altruism—and Pathological Altruism

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a book to be titled Western Individualism and the Liberal Tradition: Evolutionary Origins, History, and Prospects for the Future. It is completed apart from proof-reading and deciding how to publish it now that Amazon has become part of the thought police. 

In a later section of this chapter on race differences in personality, I describe the personality system of Nurturance/Love personality system and note that this system is stronger in European culture than other human cultures (see also Chapter 3). Briefly, Nurturance/Love is an evolved system linked to specific brain regions coding for positive feelings in response to being loved and nurturing others; empathy—which results in personal distress at seeing the suffering of others, especially loved ones—is a central emotion of the Nurturance/Love system. The extreme ends of individual differences in the Nurturance/Love system are linked to sociopathy at the low end (callous unconcern regarding the feelings of others, lack of remorse, cruelty) to dependency disorder (overly prone to needing social approval and love) and pathological altruism (overly prone to empathy to the point of self-sacrificing, self-harming behavior) at the high end.[1] Because of its role in cementing family relationships and nurturing children, women are higher on the Nurturance/Love system than men.

For individualists (i.e., people who are less prone to negative attitudes toward outgroups and strangers), being on the high end of empathy can easily lead to a pathological form of altruism where high costs can be incurred with no corresponding benefit. Pathological altruism is generally defined as focusing on others’ needs to the detriment of one’s own needs.[2] Such altruism, motivated by what one might label “hyperempathy,” is more common among females­—which fits with females’ generally being higher on the Nurturance/Love system.[3] It can lead to pathological consequences for both the altruist and the intended beneficiary, as in the phenomenon of co-dependence where one person’s altruism facilitates maladaptive behaviors in another person, such as drug addiction by being overly solicitous and tolerant of other’s self-destructive behavior. Pathological altruism often involves a sense of self-righteousness, which can be translated as a sense of moral superiority that advertises one’s good reputation within a community defined, as prototypical European groups are, not by kinship but by conforming or exceeding the moral standards of the community. As noted above, such expressions of moralistic self-righteousness have a long history in Western societies and are very salient in contemporary political rhetoric.

An example of how self-righteous virtue signaling works at the highest levels of government (also illustrating the gap between elites and the rest of society on critical issues like migration), can be seen in the comments of David Goodhart, a liberal journalist based in the UK, on the migration into the UK:

There has been a huge gap between our ruling elite’s views and those of ordinary people on the street. This was brought home to me when dining at an Oxford college and the eminent person next to me, a very senior civil servant, said: ‘When I was at the Treasury, I argued for the most open door possible to immigration [because] I saw it as my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’ I was even more surprised when the notion was endorsed by another guest, one of the most powerful television executives in the country. He, too, felt global welfare was paramount and that he had a greater obligation to someone in Burundi than to someone in Birmingham. … [The political class] failed to control the inflow more overtly in the interests of existing citizens.[4]

An evolutionist can only marvel at the completely unhinged—pathological—altruism on display here, given that the speakers are themselves native White British. Countries whose policies ignore the good of their own people are surely headed for disaster. Such altruism is nothing but a recipe for evolutionary extinction.

As noted in Chapter 7, this overweening concern with people of different races living in far off lands at the expense of one’s own people was characteristic of many nineteenth-century English intellectuals, particularly those associated with Exeter Hall, who exhibited what Charles Dickens described as “platform sympathy for the Black and . . . platform indifference to our own countrymen.”[5] In his novel Bleak House, serialized in 1852–53, Dickens expressed similar sentiments in the character of Mrs. Jellyby, whose “handsome eyes had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if … they could see nothing nearer than Africa.”[6] Mrs. Jellby neglected those around her, including her daughter, her thoughts directed instead towards the fictitious African possession of Borrioboola-Gha and her idealistic plans for its development.

Similarly, it is well-known that massive non-White immigration has negative effects most of all on the traditional, White working class of Western societies, while wealthier Whites can escape the problems brought about by immigration by moving to better neighborhoods and have jobs that have not been impacted by immigration, although the proliferation of visas for workers in technical areas is increasingly common. However, contemporary liberal-minded elites throughout the West are indifferent or even dismissive of the negative effects of immigration on the White working class in terms of lowered wages,[7] less community cohesion and community involvement,[8] deteriorating public schools in areas with poor, uneducated immigrants, and often being forced to move away from urban areas impacted most by non-White immigration. In Mrs. Jellyby’s case, this included neglecting her own children—also characteristic of contemporary liberals who typically fail to think seriously about the effects of mass non-White migration on the long-term prospects of their own children as a minority in a majority non-White society.

Such expressions of high-mindedness are attempts to fit into a moral community as defined by their peers among contemporary Western elites. Because the left dominates the moral high ground, expressing empathy for the native Whites, especially the White working class, makes anyone with such ideas into a moral pariah, as would advocating for their interests, with likely effects on career prospects. Indeed, expressions of White identity and especially having a sense of White interests have been condemned by establishment media and academic figures as illustrating the lowest form of moral depravity.

Of course, the motives involved in such cases may involve more than empathy for suffering others. While these elite people may feel genuine empathy for suffering others in foreign lands to the point of wanting to inundate the West, they are also in effect buttressing their status in the morally defined ingroup. They may even be attempting to be “more moral than thou”—competitive virtue signaling—by out-empathizing others in the group. And whether consciously or unconsciously, they may aware of severe costs if they fail to conform to the norms of their moral community—as well as benefits by conforming.

As expected given the above-noted sex differences in empathy, women are more prone to pathological altruism than men—the prototype being the long-suffering wife who continues to nurture an abusive, alcoholic husband. Pathologically altruistic people would respond very strongly to images of suffering refugees, immigrants, and other non-Whites. And as noted regarding empathy, there are specific brain regions that are activated when a subject feels sympathy for others. Indeed, Williams Syndrome, a genetic disorder, is characterized by being overly trusting and sympathetic.

The conviction of self-righteousness characteristic of pathologically altruistic people need not be rational:

What feels like a conscious life-affirming moral choice—my life will have meaning if I help others—will be greatly influenced by the strength of an unconscious and involuntary mental sensation that tells me that this decision is “correct.” It will be this same feeling that will tell you the “rightness” of giving food to starving children in Somalia, doing every medical test imaginable on a clearly terminal patient, or bombing an Israeli school bus. It helps to see this feeling of knowing as analogous to other bodily sensations over which we have no direct control.[9]

In other words, the sensations of rightness and nobility act as psychological reflexes, and they are so pleasurable that people are inclined to seek them in their own right and without regard to facts or the long-run consequences to themselves.

Talk to an insistent know-it-all who refuses to consider contrary opinions and you get a palpable sense of how the feeling of knowing can create a mental state akin to addiction. … Imagine the profound effect of feeling certain that you have ultimate answers. … Relinquishing such strongly felt personal beliefs would require undoing or lessening major connections with the overwhelmingly seductive pleasure-reward circuitry. Think of such a shift of opinion as producing the same type of physiological changes as withdrawing from drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes.[10]

Because feelings of moral righteousness are pleasurable, expressions of self-righteousness can be addictive. “Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again.”[11]

The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong. Or, that your method of helping others is so purely motivated and correct that all criticism can be dismissed with a shrug, along with any contradicting evidence.[12]

This type of sanctimoniousness is, of course, particularly common among people who are labeled Social Justice Warriors. These are the people screaming “racist,” “misogynist,” “white supremacist,” etc. at any seeming violation of the norms of the moral communities of the left. And, because of the cultural hegemony of the left, such people can often be seen on social media (and in op-eds in the mainstream media) expressing their moral righteousness—a moral righteousness that fits with or extends the boundaries of the cultural left.

Another aspect of this is what one might call competitive altruism or competitive virtue signaling. Given that expressions of moral righteousness are typically communicated in a social setting and are aimed at solidifying or enhancing one’s reputation within a group, there may be competition for ever more extreme expressions of self-righteousness—even among people who are not biologically inclined to be high on the Nurturance/Love system. Extreme expressions of moral righteousness are not only addicting, they may also raise one’s status in a social group, just as it’s common for religious people to express “holier than thou” sentiments. Strongly religious people compete to be most virtuous in their local church. On the left, we see vegan fanatics shunning vegans who even talk to people who eat meat or eat in restaurants where meat is served — even family members. I imagine there is a dynamic within antifa groups—the shock troops of the establishment’s views on race and migration—where people who do not condone violence or are unwilling to crack heads themselves are ostracized or at least have much less status.

The result is a “feed forward” process in which the poles of political discourse move ever farther apart. For example, well-publicized attacks on Confederate statues have quickly morphed into attacks on Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus. Sympathy among liberals for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants has morphed into calls by prominent Democrats to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) and proposals among California Democrats for giving them health care, driver’s licenses and voting rights. Inviting anyone remotely associated with conservative ideas — much less the Alt Right — to give a talk at a college campus has morphed from a tolerated rarity to a context for angry protests, rioting, injuries to conservatives, and damage to property.

Indeed, I suggest that this competitive virtue signaling is a major cause of the increasing polarization that we see in the United States and throughout the West in the age of social media. The chart below shows increasing political polarization in U.S political attitudes from 1994–2017, with the shifts being much more due to the median views of Democrats shifting left.

Nevertheless, a theoretically similar phenomenon exists on the right as, for example, when individuals condemn others for being insufficiently militant or ideologically pure. Such competitive virtue signaling from both the left and the right is highly characteristic of the social dynamics of social media sites and journalism. However, because the left dominates the cultural landscape, such competitive virtue signaling has had most of its effects on the left. Thus people on the right face the danger that pushing the boundaries likely means social ostracism if one is “doxxed.” Hosts of shows in the mainstream media may have to cope with losing sponsors and hence their livelihood; e.g., Fox News host Tucker Carlson has lost nine major companies as sponsors, mainly because of his comments on immigration.  Or people may fear losing their job as a result of a phone call to their place of employment from the Southern Poverty Law Center. This may well be why it’s the left that has become more extreme in recent decades, whereas far too many on the right attempt to mollify their leftist critics by knuckling under to their moral righteousness.

The cultural domination of the left has meant that certain views are off-limits for all but the most daring. Thus, media sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, while definitely to the right of the mainstream media, avoid explicit advocacy of White identity and interests. Such constraints are much less apparent on the left, with the result that the left continues to get more and more extreme in their views. As I write this, views on immigration (e.g., benefits for illegals, abolishing ICE) and abortion (making abortion legal up until birth or even after birth) that were virtually non-existent among Democrats are being espoused by mainstream Democrat politicians.

A critical aspect of this is racial polarization. White Americans have been shifting toward the Republican Party, by 1.5 percent every four years.[13] In general, this is an expression of implicit Whiteness (discussed below), as non-White groups coalesce in the Democratic Party. The point here is that such trends are likely to increase as polarization becomes ever more severe.

[1] Kevin MacDonald, “Personality, Development, and Evolution,” in Robert Burgess and Kevin MacDonald (Eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Development, 2nd edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005):207–242; MacDonald, “Cutting Nature at Its Joints.”

[2] Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, and Michael McGrath, “Pathological Altruism—An Introduction,” in Barbara Oakley, Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan and David Sloan Wilson (Eds.), Pathological Altruism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012): 3–9, 3.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] David Goodhart, “Why We on the Left Made an Epic Mistake on Immigration,” Daily Mail (March 22, 2013).

[5] Arthur A. Adrian, “Dickens on American Slavery: A Carlylean Slant,” PMLA: Journal of the Modern Languages Association of America 67, no. 4 (June 1952): 315–29 (329).

[6] Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Vol. 3 (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1853), 26.

[7] George J. Borjas, “The Analytics of the Wage Effect of Immigration,” Working Paper 14796 (March, 2009), National Bureau of Economic Research.

[8] Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies 3 (2007); Salter, “The Biosocial Study of Ethnicity”; see also Frank Kemp Salter, “Germany’s Jeopardy,” You Tube (January 5, 2016).

[9] Robert A. Burton, “Pathological Certitude,” in Oakley et al., Pathological Altruism, 131–37,

[10] Ibid., 136.

[11] David Brin, “Self-addiction and Self-righteousness,” in Oakley et al. (eds.), Pathological Altruism, 77–84, 80.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sean Trende, “Does GOP Have to Pass Immigration Reform?,” Real Clear Politics (June 25, 2013).

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