Extreme Altruism and You

This morning, I read a long profile of an extreme altruist, who believes in a) giving away as much as possible and b) focusing on whatever will provide the greatest benefit, regardless of whether that means helping loved ones or strangers.

In one passage, she worries that she’ll have to give up her dream of becoming a mother:

“But once Julia opened herself up to the thought that children might not be necessary – once she moved them, as it were, to a different column in her moral spreadsheet, from essential to discretionary – she realised just how enormous a line item a child would be. Children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would be in effect killing other people’s children. Julia talked about this with Jeff and she grew very upset. Once the prospect of giving up children felt real to her, it felt terrifying and painful.”

In the end, she agrees to her husband’s logic:

“He calculated that if the child gave away around 10% of its income, then they would likely break even – that is, the money their child would donate would be equal to the money they did not donate because they spent it instead on raising the child. Of course, this did not take into account that it was better to give money now rather than later, especially to urgent causes such as global warming and Aids, so some discounting would have to be factored into the calculation. All this made Julia feel better for a while, and even though she realised that it would be pretty weird to tell a child that they expected it to pay for its existence in the world with a certain percentage of its income, she figured she was going to be a weird mother anyway, and her child would probably be weird, too, and so perhaps to a child of hers all this would seem perfectly sensible. Finally, Julia decided, sometime before her 28th birthday, that she would try to get pregnant. Their baby, Lily, was born in the early spring of 2014. The thought of leaving Lily in order to go back to work upset her, but she knew that she had to start earning again so she could keep donating. She felt that there were people in the world who needed her money as much as Lily needed her presence, even if their need did not move her as Lily’s did.”

For people like me, who are wired with a “normal” level of altruism, this kind of thinking seems batty at best, and monstrous at worse.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I care a heck of a lot more for my kids than anyone else’s, and that I pour a disproportionate amount of money into rendering their childhood safe, health, happy, and fulfilling.

My guess is that the instinctive revulsion most of us feel to the idea of extreme altruism is based on the basic principles of evolution.  Natural selection favors those who pass on their genes; people who agonize over whether or not to have children, and then refuse to care more for their children than strangers are pursuing a losing strategy as far as Darwin is concerned.

That revulsion I feel is billions of years of self-preservation taking one look and doing the cartoon “cuckoo” gesture.

But, our modern environment is radically different than what existed for most of human history.  The challenges that face most of us these days aren’t figuring out how to scratch out enough food to avoid starvation.  It may be that extreme altruism, while individually maladaptive, is what our species needs to survive, since our own essential instincts will cause us to consumer more than our environment can support.

While it may be tempting to dismiss extreme altruists as wack jobs, I seem them as a useful experiment–an insurance policy that explores on way that human behavior may need to evolve to suit a new environment.

Just as long as they don’t ask me to join them.  I’m running a different experiment!

UPDATE: Slate’s Laura Miller did a great job of encapsulating most of my feelings in a single passage:

“Do-gooders take something we all want to believe is quintessentially human—the willingness to extend ourselves to strangers—and place it in direct conflict with something that is even more fundamentally human: caring for our own.

The result is a bit like a reverse version of the famed Uncanny Valley effect, in which a representation of a human being becomes more disturbing as its resemblance to an actual human being increases.

Do-gooders are already human, of course, but as they ratchet up their selflessness, they begin, ever so slightly, to depart from the fold. They look like us and talk like us, but they abide by rules that we understand we could only adopt were we to abandon something that feels essential to ourselves.”

4 thoughts on “Extreme Altruism and You

  1. Anonymous

    "My guess is that the instinctive revulsion most of us feel to the idea of extreme altruism is based on the basic principles of evolution. Natural selection favors those who pass on their genes; people who agonize over whether or not to have children, and then refuse to care more for their children than strangers are pursuing a losing strategy as far as Darwin is concerned."

    Absolutely not.

    Natural selection works on a *population* level; what helps populations to survive is what matters. It's entirely consistent with evolution to assume that a population has an "average" level of altruism, and within that population, there are variable levels of it between the individual members that deviate considerably around the population's mean. It's just as likely that natural selection *favors* this variance because highly altruistic people help the population survive by redistributing resources in useful ways.

    In short: your instinctive revulsion is likely due to your own, personal inability to empathize with this person, not "basic principles of evolution."

  2. Anonymous,

    To be clearer: Throughout most of human history, individuals who practiced extreme altruism would be extremely unlikely to pass on their genes. The fact that they might help the group as a whole is largely irrelevant to their particular genes.

  3. Rationalizing a decision like having children feels sacrilegious because its not a purely rational decision and doesn't offer rational benefits that can be measured on some sort of excel document.

    What they are choosing to measure doesn't matter — I would be just as revolted by a selfish rationalization around optimizing happiness (balancing the likely hit on the marriage with the happiness boost in old age, balanced by the challenges and liklihood of special needs etc. etc.)

    Rationalizing on any terms it feels wrong.

  4. Rebecca,

    Your comment touches on the key distinction between the sacred and the profane. We appear to have evolved to recognize this distinction; one of the reasons why many folks have problems with a purely secular and relativistic approach to the world is the way in which it leaves no room for the sacred.

    One of the things I tell people about having children is that there is no exact substitute; you either want to have the experience of being a parent, or you don't. And the choice to have children, once you have them, is irrevocable.

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