Blinded by Empathy

Misguided altruism and immigration policy

By John Wahala on September 17, 2018

Since 1980, the United States has added 55 million people to its population, the equivalent of the entire population of France. Driving this growth is the current federal immigration program, whose scale has no historical or international precedent and began ostensibly by accident, the result of legislation in the mid-1960s enacted to diversify immigration flows while keeping the numbers the same. The result has been four decades of mass immigration that has had a transformative effect on nearly every aspect of American life.

Despite its far-reaching impact, the current system continues with little discussion of the program's overriding objective or what type of system we ought to have going forward. Many politicians are unwilling to question the status quo, regardless of the costs or benefits, because (in addition to the naked self-interest surrounding the issue) the ability to immigrate is increasingly seen as a human right, making any discussion of restrictions out of bounds.

The moral defense of unlimited immigration emerged from long-developing philosophical and cultural trends that cannot be adequately discussed in a blog post. But a 2013 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some insight into the psychology behind the anti-border position (without addressing immigration specifically). The paper by Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering who analyzes learning practices, identifies behavior that is intended to promote the welfare of others but results in harmful consequences that an external observer can reasonably anticipate. In the paper and a preceding book, she refers to this behavior as "pathological altruism" and explains that it is an excessive or abnormal desire driven either by a sincere effort to help people or egoistic concerns for the self. The pathological altruist is blinded by a variety of intuitive biases. Oakley notes that nearly all personality types are susceptible to this condition and that intelligence is no safeguard. Those who are smart simply present more arguments in support of misguided beliefs.

Oakley believes that our culture is particularly susceptible to pathological altruism because of the emphasis that is placed on kindness and empathy. She cautions that empathy is not a uniformly positive attribute. Abetting your friend's destructive behavior, for instance, because you want to please him is not being altruistic. Acting altruistically would be to deny that person what they want. Truly promoting the welfare of others often takes courage and can appear cruel or even harmful, carrying with it a heavy social stigma in our emotion-driven society.

Exacerbating this problem is the interconnectedness of our modern world, where information travels instantaneously. As Oakley notes, peoples throughout human history were organized into small social groups where pathologies of altruism had few means to spread. That is not the case today, as technology has enabled influential individuals or groups to spread their agendas to millions of people living thousands of miles apart while shouldering little or no accountability for their detrimental effects.

Pathological altruism affects both personal relationships and public policy. The federal government, given its size and scope, is rife with examples. Its very existence is dependent on a budget process that has spiraled out of control, as the costs of well-intentioned but often counterproductive programs far exceed the revenue that is available. Oakley calls the growing fiscal crisis "one of the most important national issues of our time" and quotes two principals at the National Academy of Sciences: "Much is at stake. If we as a nation do not grapple promptly and wisely with the changes needed to put the federal budget on a sustainable course, all of us will find that the public goals we most value are at risk."

Oakley also notes that altruistic intentions played a critical role in the creation of the recent housing bubble, which ruined the personal finances of millions of Americans and exerted an enormous burden on the economy. And she mentions the $2 trillion that the United States has provided to Africa over the last 50 years, citing the work of economist and former World Bank consultant Dambisa Moyo, a native of Zambia, who has shown that "such aid has resulted in measurably worsened outcomes in a broad variety of areas, supporting despotism and increasing corruption and a sense of dependency in Africans. In some cases, the money has been directly responsible for extraordinary damage."

According to researchers, it is more difficult to see the harm in programs intended to help people because such efforts are seen as morally right, regardless of their outcomes. Oakley quotes socio-biologist Robert Trivers: "It seems manifest that the greater the social content of a discipline, especially human, the greater will be the biases due to self-deception and the greater the retardation of the field compared with less social disciplines."

Perhaps no public policy issue is more prone to self-deception than immigration. Not only are people the heart of the issue, they are typically people moving from relatively poor countries to more affluent ones. And in the United States, their lot is constantly being compared to the memories and mythology surrounding the ancestors of natives who came to America in past immigration waves. As a consequence, powerful emotions rather than empirical research determine policy. As Oakley writes, "An initial snap, common-sense judgment about what seems right in helping others can gel quickly into formidable certitude without consideration of important relevant facts."

Oakley identifies three categories of people that pathological altruists harm: the group they are trying to help, others beyond that particular group, or themselves. The Center for Immigration Studies has published several hundred reports showing the ways that mass immigration harms people in all three of these categories. One example: A sizable share of the immigration flow is comprised of men coming from impoverished areas of Mexico and Central American who leave their families to find work in the United States. Nearly every single one of these workers intends to return home, although most never do. This has left towns and villages in the region devoid of most of their workforce and reliant on remittances to survive. This creates personal, social, and economic dysfunction that perpetuates itself. The immigrants who come under these circumstances earn higher wages in the United States than they could back home. But this comes at a cost to low-skilled native-born workers, who face stiffer job competition and a reduction in wages. Then there are the diffuse fiscal and social costs that result from importing large numbers of the working poor. Add to those costs the large numbers who enter illegally and the accompanying increase in crime, national security concerns, and the general breakdown of the rule of law.

These and other adverse effects of the federal immigration program have been documented, by the Center for Immigration Studies and other groups, as well as the National Academies of Sciences and congressional commissions. Even academic journals have published studies documenting the problems mass immigration creates for schools and communities. But the conclusions drawn from this research rarely if ever include recommendations to limit immigration in any way. Academics, policymakers, and politicians conspicuously ignore the issue at hand and instead offer feckless solutions to the attendant problems that the issue creates.

This refusal to craft a more manageable immigration policy, in spite of the evidence for the need of reform, can be explained by Oakley's theory, which holds that the actions of pathological altruists are driven by irrational intuitions that are stubbornly resistant to reason. And the motivating empathy can become more about the pathological altruists rather than the group they purport to help, since their actions make them feel good and they realize that challenging prevailing opinion would ostracize them from those in power. Oakley quotes Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience: "the good will of scientists is usually so paradoxical that they are more pleased by the defence of an obvious error which has become wide-spread than by the establishment of a new fact" and she points out that "research has shown the near impossibility of reaching biased individuals using rational approaches, no matter their level of education or intelligence; such attempts can be likened to squaring the circle."

Of course, not all anti-border activists are completely blind to the harm caused by their agenda. Some realize that the immigrants themselves or other segments of the population suffer. But they see mass immigration as a vehicle for some kind of political or social change that will improve the current order. So they too are driven by a misguided altruism that rationalizes the damage they are creating.

Oakley blames our current predicament on a Judeo-Christian culture that sees empathy and altruistic intentions as monolithically positive. To remedy the problem of misguided altruism, she suggests a renewed reliance on science and the scientific method. The problem with this analysis is that the examples she cites of altruism going awry are all contemporary ones, when the cultural worldview of our elites was already decidedly post-Christian. It is in this post-Christian context that the value of empathy became over emphasized and distorted. Furthermore, blind reliance on science creates the same problems as blind reliance on altruism, because the scientific method is conducted by men prone to the same self-deceptions, as Ramon y Cajal acknowledged. What is needed on immigration – and every other endeavor – is a proper balancing and rededication to the ancient virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.

Many thanks to Darryl Boyd, who pointed me to Barbara Oakley's work on pathological altruism as an explanation of current immigration policy.

Topics: Politics