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).

19 replies
  1. John McArthur
    John McArthur says:

    ” For example, well-publicized attacks on Confederate statues have quickly morphed into attacks on Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus”

    In the case of Columbus the criticism seems justified. His own written accounts were kept out of books until the late 20th century because they were wicked even to his contemporaries.

    BTW. My email app has flagged up two hidden tracking images in your email alert for this article.

    • Maldun
      Maldun says:

      There are no grounds to accept George Washington yet condemn Columbus. He bares no less importance in the history of the West and coming of America than Washington does.

  2. Barkingmad
    Barkingmad says:

    Sounds as if this book, Western Individualism and the Liberal Tradition, is going to be a mighty interesting book. I would buy it in a heartbeat.

    About Williams Syndrome, doesn’t that sound like the late motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia? Some of you older folks here (over age 50) might remember him as a motivational speaker promoting love and hugging. I looked up “hug” and found this:

    “Hugging has been proven to have health benefits. One study has shown that hugs increase levels of oxytocin and reduce blood pressure.

    “Based on significant research indicating that a 20-second-or-longer hug releases oxytocin. Leo Buscaglia encourages people to hug for 21 days consecutively and to have each day a hug that lasts for a minimum of 21 seconds. He recommends ‘getting lost in the hug’, encouraging people to slow down and ‘use the power of the hug to be fully present in the moment. // In the United States, 30,000 people have Williams syndrome and are prone to hugging others.”

    Years ago, I recall reading that Leo told his audience that when he was a child, his schoolteacher informed his parents that Leo “is too tactile” He was really bothered by being so described – it’s normal to hug all and sundry, you see.

    I guess lots of people took Leo’s hugging advice – look how all those strangers are today embracing like crazy when there’s been some kind of murderous attack and standing beside the massive pile of flowers, candles and teddy bears are a bunch of white people hanging on to each other for dear life in some crazy, communal, backrubbing HUG. Probably warning each other to aovid Islamophobia and racism while they’re at it.

  3. Henrik Agerhäll
    Henrik Agerhäll says:

    Kevin, what should we do? I have read stuff like this from you before and here in Sweden I think this subject is more important than the jewstuff. How do we take moral height and make the view of not wanting replacement migration the moral choice? Nagging about how immigration might be an economic cost or lead to some criminality does not really help if people think stopping immigration is immoral.

    • Skumtomten
      Skumtomten says:

      That’s the challenge – how to win the moral high ground. Stats on immigration costs etc won’t be enough to convince. Maybe we shouldn’t even try to convince. At least in Sweden, you don’t reach anyone by providing facts and figures, no matter how well researched and convincing. I’m with Heartiste here: Shame them!

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    This status-seeking behavior suggests a coming tipping point in the opposite direction. Once a large enough group of someone’s peers no longer provide positive feedback, these status-seeking individuals will reign in their behavior and/or reverse course.

    Here is a related psychology-based article (“Why White Liberals Will Wake Up”) that balances such status-seeking with threat. The research suggests threat is more powerful. If so, a tipping point back toward sanity may be near at hand.

    See also these articles on how this will play out politically.

    The Racial Realignment of American Politics

    Trouble Brewing in the ‘Coalition of the Ascendant’

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      More on how tipping points can (and will) tip white societies back toward sanity. Read this in conjunction with the “How White Liberals Will Wake Up” article.

      The “tipping point” at which vocal activists are able to change majority opinion to their minority view appears to be 25% of the group. Damon Centola and his team at the University of Pennsylvania have experimentally demonstrated this. [Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention, By Damon Centola et al., Science, June 2018]

  5. Eric Charles
    Eric Charles says:

    This is all great stuff, but it’s not new information.
    The crux of the matter is what’s to be done about it, i.e., how to combat it? Do we treat it like a virus, like a meme (mental virus),
    like a religion, or maybe selection for r/k genetic identifiers?

    If we can’t find the answer to these questions, then
    Western Civilization is finished.

  6. tom sunic
    tom sunic says:

    Kevin. I am looking forward to the book. This is a subject of utmost importance for our survival. Now, I do hope you also delve in your manuscript into the origins of the Levantine- Christian inspired Original Sin that led to this secular self-flagellating self-hatred among Whites now. It needs to be covered. Beside our much vaunted in-group pride vs other racial out-groups, and despite our own threatened territorial imperative we often complain about, we have ample evidence that most brutal wars have been fought within White in-groups, aka civil wars. Check Trojans vs. Achaeans, the Peloponnesian wars, then 30 Years War in Europe, 17th ct., then Inter- American Civil War 1961-65, then inter-White carnage in the Spanish civil war, 1936,– finally, the ugly war between Serbs and Croats in ex- YU 1991—folks more or less of the same genepool, you name it. If Arabs, Jews, Asians and Black-Africans were miraculously to disappear now from the US, EU, it is questionable how long we Whites would be waiting before we start whacking each other again. Inter-White conflicts have always served as a good fodder-argument to our enemies, i.e. virtue signalers and a host of SJWs. We need to address this topic more.

    • Barkingmad
      Barkingmad says:

      @Tom. Even if all those other races disappeared plus we did not fight each other anymore, something even worse would remain, namely, our entertainment-obsessed, environment-ruining, consumer mentality. Looks to me as if the vast majority of white people will never voluntarily reject those things – they have to be taken away from us by an outside force. Maybe a nice old-fashioned economic/financial collapse combined with world-wide natural disasters will finally cause us to see what’s important and what isn’t.

      Anyway, what you say is accurate even at the smallest level, i.e., prowhite crusaders tho small in number are already clawing at each other publicly. How washing our dirty linen in public is supposed to benefit us escapes me entirely.

    • Carolyn Yeager
      Carolyn Yeager says:

      Tom Sunic – ” We need to address this topic more.”

      I fully agree, but you left out the two world wars which were the most devastating White-in-group competition of all and led us directly to our catastrophic situation today. Is it because England is the main culprit in these, with Germany and Austria the victims? Let’s talk about that. Because the Allies are the ‘virtue-signalers’ in this and refuse to give that up even 100 years later.

      To Barkingmad: Do you consider putting truth first and being fair to all concerned as “washing our dirty linen in public?” If so, that’s the price we have to pay. Clearing the air like after a storm – just imagine how beautiful it will be.

      To all: Do you want White unity, true White fellowship and trust, or do you need to hang on to your own national myths and prejudices? It’s you who are standing in the way of the former.

  7. Muh Fashy Bookshelf
    Muh Fashy Bookshelf says:

    Even though you’re currently up against the censorship of Amazon I consider this a white pill and I definitely plan on picking up a copy. Hopefully it’ll be available in hardback. Now if we could only find a way to entice the moronic whites with anti-white proclivities to pick up this book, we would truly be making progress.

  8. joe six pack
    joe six pack says:

    Kevin MacDonald in this great and incisive psyche piece says:
    ” 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.”

    In my opinion status is always lowballed as a motivator for for political opinions but after survival what else is there? We are dry under our roof, and heated or air conditioned, and well fed, so what else will occupy our minds? And if 73% of our economy is attributed to consumers I find it hard to believe we actually need that much. Our economy would grind to a halt if we only bought what we needed.

    In any case, Katherine Betts thought status was a significant element of people’s opinions on immigration.

    Status markers for Immigration
    p.187 A History of America’s immigration Crisis, Unguarded Gates by Otis Graham, Jr
    The media, politicians, academic and religious spokespersons–the national elites that shape opinion–had decided in the 1960s that there was only one legitimate position on immigration. One had to be for the mass-immigration era and see in it only wonderful benefits. Katherine Betts called these elites “the new class” in her insightful book on Australian immigration politics Ideology and Immigration(1988) and in a lengthy tour of the United States in 1991 found exactly the same class and ideological alignments here. Elements of this educated, cosmopolitan class in both countries(and in Europe) benefited from cheap domestic and tourist industry labor. But Betts pointed out the key to these elite position on immigration was its use as a marker of social status. Immigration was “not a topic but a symbol.” Hostile condemnation of any criticism of current immigration flows “was a shorthand way of demonstrating commitment to anti-racism and internationalism,”and of distinguishing we cosmopolitan internationalist “better people” from average folk who were known to be narrow nationalists tainted with racist views and a “bigoted preference for cultural homogeneity.”

    • Rerevisionist
      Rerevisionist says:

      “After survival, what else is there but status?” wonders ‘joe six pack’.

      Some figures – it’s hard to know – state a few million US Americans sleep outside. Other figures say 9 out of 10 ‘Americans’ are only one pay check away from nothing. It’s pitifully clear from this website that there are no Americans able to speak out against Jewish power; all the best writers are from Britain. Nobody on this site even analyzes false flag attacks. Nobody here comments on the obviously unnecessary viciousness of wars in the last few centuries, the evident fact that they are arranged by small cliques, and the obvious relation to money in the legal paper sense.

      I hope times have changed sufficiently that books using dismantled tropes – freedom (just for some), liberalism (no relation to original meanings), ‘left’ meaning Jewish theory but not practice, wars obviously for Jews, the misapplication of ‘pathological altruism’ in the text above – coupled with no consideration of obvious frauds (9/11, Holohoax, ‘the good war’ etc ad nauseam, fake refugees) -cannot succeed, and deserve not to succeed.

  9. Trenchant
    Trenchant says:

    I wonder whether, strategy-wise, it wouldn’t make sense to release it under Creative Commons with a paper version available as well. This would enable its more rapid diffusion. The paper book isn’t necessarily a direct competitor with its electronic version.

  10. Luke
    Luke says:

    Add one more regular visitor to this website who looks forward to ordering a copy of Professor MacDonald’s new book.

    • White Nation
      White Nation says:

      There were 8 used “cultural insurrections” on sale on eBay before the Amazon ban.

      Now there’s only 1 left. For 102$.

      eBay is still a voice for truth. Anyone and everyone with used or new books by Professor MacDonald should put them on sale on eBay.

      Spread the message.

  11. Danny
    Danny says:

    I’m sure no scholar, but I can see thru the jews torah, babylonian talmud and elders of zion, and the parts that have be taken out of the babylonian talmud and volumes they sure don’t want you to see that is passed down to their leaders only. First their torah book is their front book, that they want you to see. That their the chosen ones and they are are first for everything and God is on their side and all that B.S. Their Second book is the one they really follow is the Babylonian Talmud books and the elders of Zion. Now those books are the books of war against everyone who is not a jew. They teach them how to destroy nations physically and teach them how to use other countries to destroy countries that are their enemy and they will eventually destroy the country that the used
    to destroy that country. Or they will destroy a country thru multiculturalism and open borders. Or they will infiltrate a country and destroy it from inside. They will install their central banks and fed bank by controlling the jobs interest rates and economy. And their banks get interest on the bonds they sell and wars they start. Oh they have a whole bag of tricks they used over the centuries. Their whole military operation is to destroy nations and people marked for destruction and the people’s marked for enslavement. Their goal is to take every thing from the people they destroy and enslave. This is why they been around so long, they use these bag of tricks over and over again and it has worked for them because the proof is in the pudding. None of their books say nothing about helping non jews or doing good for other people’s, it’s always about conquest of other people’s. There a bad bunch….. And their whole being is a highly organised military operation to enslave and rule the world out of israel.

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