Bennelong Papers

The Perils Of Pathological Altruism

The quality of mercy is not strained. It dropeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice bless-ed. It blesseth he who gives and he who takes. …” William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Forget the “takers”, Portia was right to focus on the fact that the prime motivating principle behind the showing of mercy, is the “blessing” that is owed to those who “give” it. She/he reminds Shylock that the showing of mercy is the route to the biggest prize of all, the salvation of the giver.

In the course of justice we all must see salvation.”

But, all those blessings can be seriously addictive. Showing mercy and compassion can quickly become vices. They become vices at the point when they are the easy options taken to avoid making tough decisions or odious calls, and when done for the immediate rewards to be gained. Like the judge who uses mercy as a way of avoiding the personal guilt of sending a convicted felon to prison, and who then basks in the “blessing” of the demonstration of his mercy.

Theodore Dalrymple, commenting of the Pope’s message on illegal immigrants into Italy, describes the point where compassion becomes “moral exhibitionism”:

By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy.” — Theodore Dalrymple

Moral exhibitionism, of course, sits well along side Dalrymple’s False Apology Syndrome, with which it is closely linked.

But we are cursed by other “isms” too. Altruism – on its own a wonderful thing, but altruism so easily evolves into “competitive altruism”, where in search of those “blessings” the “good” compete to outdo each other’s “goodness”. And competitive altruism soon evolves into “pathological altruism”. The term “Pathological Altruism” was first coined by psychologist, Professor Barbara Oakley of Oakland University:

A working definition of a pathological altruist then might be a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts but who (in a fashion that can be reasonably anticipated) harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help; or a person who, in the course of helping one person or group, inflicts reasonably foreseeable harm to others beyond the person or group being helped; or a person who in reasonably anticipatory way becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions.”

Now the “good” are so addicted to Shakespeare’s “blessings” that come from the showing of mercy and compassion, that the actual end of the altruism is completely forgotten in the lust for do-goodism.

A good example of this is the Carbon Tax. Its pointlessness was obvious from the start. Looking at the supposed impacts of the Carbon Tax, no rational person could imagine that it was ever going to have an effect on climate or atmospheric CO2 levels. No political realist could ever have imagined it would influence other countries to introduce similar taxes, nor that the policy would garner votes for the Labor Party, which had already determined that before the 2010 election, when the “No Carbon Tax under my government” lie from Julia Gillard sought to allay voter fears that  such a policy would actually be implemented.

When Gillard’s promise was broken, everyone was supposed to sign up to the expiation of the guilt for our supposedly profligate use of fossil fuels and bask in the “feel-good” altruism that came from the introduction of the tax. Walk tall, Australia, and feel good once more because, in response to “the greatest moral challenge of our times” we have passed into law a totally pointless act of symbolism. Forget climate change, that pathological altruism became the end in itself, to the detriment of the country, our manufacturing industries, their workers, taxpayers and even, ultimately, to the environment, the Labor Party and the Greens.

The same problem is obvious in the proposed constitutional amendments. No rational person, outside the immediate financial beneficiaries, would ever presume that a change to the Constitution can materially affect the lives of Aborigines in remote areas. This is pathological altruism and moral exhibitionism to the core, on a level that competes only with “self-determination” as a folly of wishful thinking. The whole history of law-making with respect to Aborigines in Australia has been a history of wishful thinking, made for the very best of motives, ending in foreseeable but unintended consequences.

So take “self-determination”. The mission stations had already attempted to introduce “self-determination” through local advisory committees early in their foundation, but had found them to be a more or less a complete failure. There was no mechanism in traditional society that allowed one person to speak on behalf of another person, so the idea of elected representation was untenable. The failure of the self-determination model was predictable, predicted, and totally ignored. ATSIC was a case study of Indigenous politics at work.

Take the land rights legislation. There were loud warning from those who understood Aboriginal individual- and clan-ownership structures and who warned against the Eurocentric, communist-inspired, communal land ownership model of the centralised Land Councils so favoured by the progressives: Here is one such warning

Aboriginal landowners already possess ‘title’ to their land, in traditional terms, through the joint principles of descent and tjurrunga (sacred objects etc.). This ‘title’ can only be held by the Pmarakutwia (actual landowners), together with their Kutungula (custodians or managers), and cannot possibly be held, even on their behalf, by anyone else. It is for this reason the concept of a Land Trust holding title to land on behalf of a land-owning group is regarded as being impossible in traditional terms. It is also highly dangerous, since it is seen as a major infringement of the traditional land-owner’s rights, possibly resulting in the application of the death penalty.Albrecht et al.

But as an exercise in pathological altruism, “self-determination” and communal land ownership just could not be avoided.

Ironically, all those who accuse the early pioneers of a taking a purely Eurocentric view when describing traditional Aboriginal culture fell for the obvious trap of trying to impose Eurocentric models of local government on traditional Aboriginal “communities”. And note here, my use of quotation marks around “community” — a reminder, I hope, that even the term community itself is not part of the Aboriginal experience, but a model of settled living introduced by the missionaries, and perpetuated during “self-determination” era. To many observers who understand Aboriginal culture the term “Aboriginal community” is an oxymoron demonstrated by community dysfunction every day.

What is interesting is not so much how readily the wishful-thinking, white urban elites adopt Eurocentric political forms and project them on to Aborigines, I guess that is to be expected of those ill-informed about traditional Aboriginal culture, but that the Aborigines of the urban elites themselves are so equally ill-informed about their own culture that they do exactly the same thing, fully expecting them to work.

Take Warren Mundine’s idea of Aboriginal “nations”. The whole concept of “nationhood” is foreign to the Aboriginal experience and has no parallel in Indigenous culture before it was introduced by white anthropologists in a rush of misguided projection. The fact that there were no “national” structures that British settlers could treat with is demonstrated by the fact that in places where political units capable of signing treaties existed, as in New Zealand, settler governments did actually sign treaties.

But this is not about the definition of a “nation” — those arguments, and the consequences, will no doubt be covered elsewhere as the constitutional debate gathers more airtime, headlines and opinion columns.

Since “self-determination”, every remote community has (by an large) systematically and enthusiastically rejected all major aspects of mainstream culture. Mainstream education has declined to the point where grandparents are more likely to be literate than either their children or grand children. Health outcomes have declined in the face of increased health presence, with health worker Sandra Stacy declaring on the ABC’s Science Show more than 30 years ago:

As a health worker I am overwhelmed by the amount of sickness that still exists in the Aboriginal children, and I am distressed because so many of them die from what I know to be preventable diseases. I want to work with Aboriginals to do something to alleviate this situation. The (Aboriginal) health workers say they want to help us. They come and ask us what we think. We tell them, but sometimes they don’t seem to listen.” — The Science Show, Aboriginal Nutrition, 1983

Indigenous communities tolerate levels of poor education, poor health outcomes, violence, substance abuse, and child abuse that would not be endured elsewhere. As Professor Peter Sutton says in The Politics of Suffering (2009):

There is, in fact, much complaint that life was substantially better under the old pre-1970 mission regimes. Even if we discount the distorting factor of Golden Age nostalgia here, for many settlements this is the uncomfortable truth.

Public recognition of mission time as far happier and safer than the post-liberation era in segregated communities, came not just from Indigenous people but was increasingly being recognised among others, even academics.

Goodness me! Even Academics! Astonishing! Well, welcome on board! Better late than never! Sutton also posed this very important question: Since the remote communities were systematically rejecting mainstream values, why were the Aboriginal urban elites continuing to use those same mainstream values as the main metric for evaluating Aboriginal disadvantage?

The use of a Eurocentric value system for measuring disadvantage of a society which is actively rejecting that value system symbolizes the yawning gulf between the de-tribalised urban elites and the tribalised remote area Aborigines. In effect, this urban group is just one more group, acting under the guise of Aboriginality, attempting to impose their version of assimilation onto the remote area Aborigines. How are the Constitutional amendments expected to proceed without assimilation, if the yardstick by which Aborigines are constantly measured is always in the Imperial measuring system? If dysfunction in remote communities is caused by a clash of cultures, what are the Aboriginal values that are being clashed with? Has anyone measured them? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? If nobody knows, who is going to say whether the Constitutional amendments will improve the situation in the remote areas, or simply exacerbate it?

While the urban elites claim that they want to “bridge the gap” between the urban and remote Aborigines, which, as I have suggested above, is double-speak for assimilation, there is no evidence in my mind that remote tribal Aborigines have any such intention. Given that the last 25 years of political theory has been all about legitimizing those traditional Aboriginal cultural values, how can tinkering with the Constitution bring about any substantive change? In the remote areas I would suggest that there is a desire not to bridge, but to cement, the “the gap” into the Constitution.

On the other hand, it is clear that the urban Aboriginal elites, while wishing to bridge one “gap”, do wish to entrench their own “gap” into the Constitution. However, that gap is the gap between Eurocentric, urban Aborigines and Eurocentric, urban non-Aborigines. Incidentally, I have been using the term “Eurocentric” because, while I am comfortable with my heritage as a “WASP”, I imagine urban Aboriginal elites are less willing to admit that they are probably as culturally “ASP” as I am. “Eurocentric” may be a bit more palatable.

Unless the constitutional amendments explicitly address which “gap” is being addressed, and what the stated end point of all this is to be, it will be left to the courts who seem singularly ill-equipped to make sensible practical decisions, and will fail just as the previous attempts to improve the lot of Aborigines have failed.

To those suffering pathological altruism or moral exhibitionism, locking taxpayers into open ended litigation is not a problem. It will provide endless opportunities for the serial do-goodists to do what they do best – photo-opportunities and grand-standing, To someone attempting to actually solve Aboriginal problems, this is a real problem.

The very people whom Abbott accuses of “lacking heart” in their dealings with Aboriginal people in the past, in reality, simply lacked the desire for moral grand-standing. They understood pathological altruism, even if they didn’t know the term, and understood that it was possible for the well-meaning to do more harm than good with ill-considered, feel-good programs. Consider the appendix of the 1899-1900 Annual Report of the South Australian Protector of Aborigines:

At the annual meeting of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, in the Town Hall, Adelaide, on the 8th of October instant , His Excellency Lord Tennyson , who presided, ….

The Minister of Agriculture and Education, (Hon. E.L. Batchelor) said :- …

In South Australia the public funds, so far as the natives were concerned, chiefly went in providing rations and clothing in depôts scattered about the colony, and also the assisting the missions like those under this association (the A.F.A.) He had heard criticisms – he was not referring to His Excellency’s that evening, that they did not do enough in the way of providing food and clothing for the natives. He was personally quite convinced that it was possible to do more harm than good by indiscriminately providing food and clothing all over the place, and so leading the natives to think there was no necessity for them to work. They might spend four or five times as much money as at present, and do a great deal less good than was being done. Idleness among whites or blacks bred all kinds of trouble, disease, and finally death, and if they took care that the assistance rendered by the public always went in the direction of helping those institutions which aided in providing work for the natives, they would do far more good than by public or private indiscriminate charity to the aborigines. He had seen natives in a good many places.” 1899 – 1900

Those guys recognised in 1900 that welfarism was no solution to Aboriginal problems, and were prepared to take flack from the charitable NGOs while rejecting it. And they are still, 100 years later, taking flack for their non grand-standing approach.

Ultimately, the carbon tax had nothing to do with carbon, or taxes, or anything of the like, but was a simple act of moral vanity driven by pathological altruism — the desire to look and feel good. Similarly, the constitutional amendments ultimately have nothing to do with Aborigines or their aspirations. No one could really believe a mention in the Constitution will make the slightest difference on the ground in the remote areas when there appears to be no consensus on what is actually supposed to be achieved. It is another exercise in pathological altruism where the end is an opportunity to exercise moral exhibitionism on a grand scale. The extent of the damage to be suffered will only become apparent when the actual text of the amendments are released and, ultimately, interpreted by white urban judges who have their own moral exhibitionist-driven agendas. Walk tall Australia oncre again! Feel good because you have made another pointless symbolic act!

Unfortunately, to stand in the way of the “yes” case is to stand in the way of those addicted to moral exhibitionism, and to deny them their “high”. I fear that that is going to be more dangerous than standing in front of the Carbon Tax.

Frank Pledge is the pseudonym of a veteran geologist who has spent much time in the developing world and, more recently, in and around Amata, Oenplli, Yalata and other remote communities


One thought on “The Perils Of Pathological Altruism

  • says:

    Dear Frank,
    I must take issue, albeit only slightly, with your statement/proposition that – ‘Altruism – on its own is a wonderful thing’. To my mind, altruism, or more accurately compulsory or obligatory altruism is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest curse[s], of mankind.
    If you had proposed that generosity, charity, philanthropy was wonderful, I would unhesitatingly agree with you. These are necessary traits for civilisation to be formed and to be maintained.

    However, the underlying and always unspoken essence of altruism is that the ‘giver’, ‘donor’ [or what ever] must not receive a benefit for his/her actions. The concept of altruism is perhaps as old as mankind. It is the tacit philosophical base of all religions, and more recently behind all secular socialist political philosophies and parties.
    The concept of obligatory altruism is the philosophical base behind most atrocities committed throughout history. Last century approximately 100 million people were killed because of the dictates of compulsory altruism, i.e. Communism and Nazism. It allows otherwise good men to rationalise, even to excuse foul deeds.

    If you as a ‘giver’ benefit in any way from an act of charity it is not altruism, it is a form of trade. Trade upsets altruists. In most cases it is not the benefit to the recipient of charity that pleases the collectivists so much as it is that the ‘giver’ has not benefited, or has even lost or suffered. This especially applies to the matters that you wrote so well about here.
    Thank you,
    Dennis Boothby

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