Why No Sanctions against Altruism?
Why are there not social sanctions when acting against the common good for altruistic reasons? Let me suggest two possible reasons. First is the widespread belief that altruistic motivation is necessarily good and inevitably produces a good outcome. If this belief is correct, altruism poses no threat to the common good, and no sanctions are needed. But the research reviewed in the previous section indicates that this belief is not correct. In each study, empathy-induced altruism reduced the common good.
A second possible reason for the lack of sanctions against altruism is even more basic. This is the assumption that altruistic motivation either does not exist or, if it exists, is too weak to pose a threat to any other motive (Miller & Ratner, 1998; Wallach & Wallach, 1983). If altruism is nonexistent or weak, there is no need for society to develop sanctions to limit its ability to undermine the common good. So there are none. True, there are sanctions against rampant or compulsive altruism. One might get labeled foolish or do-gooder. But these sanctions seem designed to protect self-interest more than society’s interests.
Through the media, empathy-induced altruism may even be a threat to the common good on a global level. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in a Time magazine essay at the time UN troops were sent to Somalia in 1992, empathy was a potent factor in the decision, so potent as to pose a problem:
In a democracy, policy (unless pursued in secret) must reflect public sentiment. But sentiment can ooze sentimentality, especially in the age of global information, when networks and newsmagazines can sear the vision of a suffering Somalian child or Bosnian orphan into the soft hearts of millions. Random bursts of compassion provoked by compelling pictures may be a suitable basis for Christmas charity drives, but are they the proper foundation for a foreign policy? Will the world end up rescuing Somalia while ignoring the Sudan mainly because the former proves more photogenic? (Isaacson, 1992)