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Osama bin Laden: When altruism becomes a sin

By Barbara Oakley, Ph.D.

As we approach the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, it’s time to step back and think on the sin of altruism. Sin, you say? How can wanting to help others be a sin? Or, at the very least, how could it possibly harm people by simply trying to help them?

Bin Laden’s life and death form the goal posts for understanding the harm that can arise from our desire to help others — the harm, in other words, of pathological altruism.

Our feelings of empathy, as Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, arise from our “fast” thinking system. We feel the correctness of these compassionate feelings in the same way we feel the correctness of 2 + 2 = 4. Snap. It’s true. It’s obvious. It’s right. More than that, our decisions about what’s right often arise from what we’re raised to believe. That’s why George Washington could have more than half the blood drained from his body as he lay mortally ill at age 67. Everybody knew, after all, that bloodletting was salutary.

We all vary in our ability, once we’ve made a “correct” conclusion, to back up and steer in a new direction if new, conflicting facts arrive. This is why it is said that science progresses one grave at a time. Instead of changing our mind, it often appears more comfortable, even soul-satisfying, to use our rationality to backfill and support our initial conclusions — conclusions which were often originally based on simple, snap judgments and shaped by what is considered common sense by those around us. This inability to change is especially the case if we’re surrounded by, or we surround ourselves with, people who feel the same way we do. Feelings of rightness shade into self-righteousness. In those with inflexibly self-righteous brain chemistry (we have little scientific understanding of this trait at present), certitude can become frozen into something deeply pathological.

Osama bin Laden grew up watching and caring deeply about the problems he saw in society around him. Drinking, wanton behavior, dishonesty — all of these are problems that can destroy lives. It was clear to bin Laden that radical Islam held the path to redemption.

Once bin Laden made the leap that radical Islam was able to help others, he brought to bear his considerable intelligence, eloquence, and access to wealth and powerful individuals to focus on one problem: helping others. If that meant killing a few unfortunates while on the greater path to redemption, so be it.

How much of what we propose today as a cure for social ills is as simplistic and ultimately as pernicious as the self-righteous attitudes of Osama bin Laden? We may say: We’re not like him. We don’t go around killing people.

But when we seek to help, we should always pause to consider. There is only one trait suicide bombers each hold in common — a trait they share with kamikaze pilots, genocidaires, and the perpetrators of some of the greatest purges known to mankind — the wonderful, caring, loving trait of altruism.

Barbara Oakley is an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. Her work focuses on the complex relationship between social behavior and neuroscience. She is the editor of Pathological Altruism with Ariel Knafo, Guruprasad Madhavan, and David Wilson. Her books include Cold-Blooded Kindness (Prometheus Books, 2011) and Evil Genes (Prometheus Books, 2007).

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