The immigration and multiculturalism policies of Western societies are often described as “pathological altruism”. The implication of the phrase is that you can have too much of a good thing: that altruism is generally good, but it becomes pathological when it goes too far. Exactly when altruism becomes pathological is not specified, but the current policies are going too far.
I reject this view. Altruism is always pathological. People are not altruistic at all, so individual altruism cannot explain these policies. The challenge is not to explain why people are too altruistic. The challenge is to explain how selfish individual behavior causes altruistic collective behavior.
Pathological altruism is a type of collective irrationality. It is the result of a social delusion and a tragedy of the commons.
Social delusions are caused by social feedback. To some extent, people select their beliefs to agree with the beliefs of others. This causes people to synchronize their views.
See Social Delusions.
Tragedies of the commons are caused by situations in which each individual in a collective has an incentive to act against the collective interest. An example is a crowded room in which each person talks loudly to be heard above the noise of others talking loudly. It would be better for everyone if everyone talked quietly, but that situation is not stable. Each individual has an incentive to talk loudly, so everyone talks loudly.
The pathological altruism of the West is caused by a social delusion and a tragedy of the commons.
The social delusion is our altruistic morality. People believe that they should be altruistic simply because other people believe it. Altruism is the basic moral value of the modern West. We have discarded most traditional moral values, such as chastity, honesty, bravery, loyalty, etc., and replaced them with a single moral value: being nice to others. It is never spelled out precisely who you are supposed to be nice to or how nice you are supposed to be. In practice, it doesn’t matter anyway, because altruism is just a pretense.
There are three parts to this delusion:
- That altruism is a moral imperative.
- That people are altruistic.
- That society is based on altruism
The first is an ad hoc moral assumption. The second and third are false. Individuals are not altruistic, and society is based on cooperation, not altruism.
The delusion of altruistic morality creates a virtue-signaling tragedy of the commons.
Everyone wants to be perceived as altruistic by others, but no one wants to pay the costs of real altruism. People are innately selfish, not altruistic. Most people do not act altruistically when no one is watching. However, they loudly profess altruistic values in public. They display a pretense of altruism.
It is very costly and risky to allow a homeless person to live your home. It is costly to donate time and money to charity. By contrast, it costs very little to demand that your society house the homeless, allow migrants to enter the country, or provide charity to poor people. Those signaling actions have no direct cost to the signaler, and they confer moral status.
Virtue-signaling creates a divergence between public and private values. In other words, it creates a divergence between stated preferences and revealed preferences.
Each individual has an incentive to signal his goodness by promoting altruistic social policies. The benefit of virtue-signaling goes the individual. The cost is distributed to all members of society, regardless of their stated political values, and regardless of how they vote in elections. Thus, each individual has an incentive to signal virtue at the expense of the collective. It is a tragedy of the commons.
And that explains the pathological altruism of the West. It is collective irrationality caused by a social delusion and a tragedy of the commons.