Can You Help Helping?

Altruism is a celebrated virtue. We desire to be giving and selfless individuals who do not seek anything in return for our helpful actions. We idealize altruistic and selfless behavior and punish selfishness and ruthlessness. In the last few decades, a number of businesses have engaged in some form of corporate altruism. But is this really altruism? And is this altruism helpful or harmful?

The essence of altruism is self-sacrifice: an individual committing a selfless act with no benefit to themselves. Yet, in our society, we view altruistic behavior to be benevolent or helpful acts. This pathology of helpfulness and altruism is prevalent in our society, but our desire to be helpful can mislead us when it comes to truly knowing what is helpful for others. And the repercussions of this lack of consideration can result in severe collateral damage.

In her book Pathological Altruism, Barbara Oakley defines “pathological altruism” as the inability or lack of access to the information needed to make the most reasonable decisions, which “align with cultural values associated with altruistic behavior.” Pathological altruism can be perceived as a behavior, which attempts to benefit others, but instead results in harm to either oneself and/or to others. Because it questions the validity and importance of altruism itself, examining its pathologies is hardly a popular topic. But given the rise of corporate altruism and corporate social responsibility programs, perhaps it is time to look into pathological altruism a bit more thoroughly.

Corporations seek to be philanthropic as it is good for business and can benefit others. It satisfies the altruistic desires of not only the company itself, but also their consumers. The popularity of corporate social responsibility programs allows businesses to incorporate these programs into their central business strategies; the success and effectiveness are measured by how they help the communities they reside in.

On the surface, businesses’ love affair with CSR is not a bad thing. Corporations developing business strategies that consider their impact on others and communities is a positive thing. But with the growing number of CSR programs and “cause marketing” comes a growing pathology of altruism that impacts others negatively. When developing CSR programs, corporations have to consider the direct and indirect impact these programs will have on those they are trying to help. This can include not only the direct recipients of the corporation’s aid, but the intermediary stakeholders and larger society. Often corporations neglect to do this, and the consequences can be dire.

TOMS Shoes have built their brand on the Buy-One-Give-One initiative, which rewards the altruistic desires of not only their company but also their consumers. It includes the provision that if you buy a pair of their shoes, another pair will be donated to an underprivileged child in a developing country. Donating certain goods to those in need doesn’t seem like a bad thing on the surface, but in donating shoes to the developing world, is the company infringing on the growth and sustainability of textile industries in certain developing countries? Instead, TOMS Shoes could consider supporting the growth and sustainability of textile industries in these countries. Mere donation to individuals does not solve the real issue, which is the lack of access or ability to obtain shoes. Therefore, shouldn’t there be a consideration as to why this may be the case, rather than just throwing money or goods at the issue?

From Big Business to Big Government

Government policy is not that much different than business. Economist and former World Bank consultant Dambisa Moyo detailed that the $2 trillion in foreign aid provided to Africa in the last few decades has actually resulted in worsened outcomes in a variety of areas, encouraging despotism, corruption, and economic dependency. Another example of demonstrating a lack of foresight into the impacts of government aid is the coalition forces food aid program during the recent war in Afghanistan. The daily food ration packages were colored canary yellow and looked awfully similar to a BLU-97 bomblet in both color and size. To make matters worse, the packages were labeled in English. A number of unsuspecting Afghans looking for canary yellow food packages instead picked up BLU-97 cluster bombs and died as a result. A simple adjustment to the color of the food ration packages and a consideration of the local language would have been helpful in this circumstance.

What are we trying to accomplish with our altruism? Our inclination towards it is largely considered to be an innate behavior; a number of animals, humans included, engage in altruistic behavior by conducting helpful or self-sacrificing actions without the expectation of reward or reciprocity. There are also cultural and societal conditions that encourage altruism. But without insight into the undesirable effects of acting altruistically, are we creating bigger problems than we are solving? Are we creating societies of hyper-helpfulness or burdening ourselves to the point where we are only helping for the sake of helping?

Many disciplines in the world of social sciences and applied sciences examine the origins of altruism and the motivations behind it. There is definitely an altruism bias, which champions the more helpful aspects of this behavior instead of studying the less helpful ones. The pathology of altruism has many followers, when it should have more skeptics.

This is not to say that there is no validity to championing altruism and altruistic behavior, but celebrating it without scrutiny is dangerous – particularly when there are real victims to ill-informed, ill-prepared, and wrongly executed CSR and aid programs. A cultural shift towards encouraging profound thought into why we need to be altruistic and how altruism impacts others needs to occur. Whereas its positive influences are obvious, where could it be negatively received? How should we redefine altruism then?

With the countless number of aid programs spearheaded by non-governmental organizations and governments, and CSR programs, it is imperative that profound readjustments of our altruistic behavior occur, for not only the sake of those on the receiving end of the collateral damage but for the sustainability and validity of altruism itself.

Rebecca McKeand is a research coordinator at Idea Couture. She is based in Toronto, Canada.

Photo: UK Department for International Development


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Rebecca McKeand