Altruism Does Not Require ‟Sacrifice”

By Matthieu Ricard on March 26, 2014

The fact of experiencing joy in working for the good of others, or of coming away with unexpected benefits for oneself, does not, in itself, make an action selfish. Authentic altruism does not require that you suffer from helping others and does not lose its authenticity if it is accompanied by a feeling of profound satisfaction. What's more, the very notion of sacrifice is relative: what seems a sacrifice to some is felt as an accomplishment by others.

To remedy others' suffering, we can choose to pay with our own person, give up some of our possessions or comfort. In fact, if we are moved by a sincere, determined altruistic motivation, we will experience this action as a success and not a failure, a gain and not a loss, joy and not mortification. Abnegation called ‟sacrificial” and, under that description, decried by partisans of egocentrism, is a sacrifice only for the egoist. For the altruist, it becomes a source of fulfillment. The quality of our life does not seem to be diminished, but rather increased. ‟Love is the only thing that doubles every time it's given,” said Albert Schweitzer. So we can no longer talk of sacrifice since, subjectively, the accomplished action, far from having been felt as a suffering or a loss, has on the contrary brought us the satisfaction of having acted in a correct, desirable, and necessary way.

When we speak of the ‟cost” of an altruistic action, or of sacrifices made for others, it is often a matter of external sacrifices — our own physical comfort, our financial resources, our time, etc. But this external cost does not correspond to an internal cost. Even if we have devoted time and resources to the accomplishment of the good of others, if this act is experienced as an inner gain, the very notion of cost evaporates.

What's more, if we recognize the value of the common wish of all sentient beings to avoid suffering, it will seem reasonable and desirable to us to accept certain difficulties in order to ensure great benefits for them. From this point of view, if an altruistic action indirectly does us good, so much the better; if it does us neither good nor bad, it doesn't matter; and if it requires certain sacrifices, it is worth the trouble, since our sense of fulfillment becomes deeper.

Everything is a question of proportion and common sense: if the diminution of suffering is the main criterion, it would be unreasonable to sacrifice our lasting well-being so that the other can enjoy a minor advantage. The effort required must have a meaning. It would be absurd to risk our lives to fish out a ring that someone else dropped in the water, or to spend a large amount of money to give a crate of vodka to a sick drunkard. On the other hand, it would be meaningful to save the life of a person if she had fallen in the water with her ring on her finger, and to use our money to help the drunkard escape the alcoholism that is killing him.