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Action Alone Does Not Define Altruism

By Matthieu Ricard on February 18, 2020

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The blog below is an excerpt from Matthieu Ricard's book Altruism. If you wish to know more about it, please follow the following link: https://www.matthieuricard.org/en/books

In her book entitled The Heart of Altruism, Kristen Monroe, professor of political science and philosophy at the University of Irvine at California, suggests we reserve the term “altruism” for actions carried out for the well-being of others at the price of some risk for ourselves, without expecting anything in return. According to her, good intentions are indispensable for altruism, but they are not enough. One must act, and action must have a precise goal, that of contributing to the well-being of another.

Monroe does acknowledge, however, that motivations for an action count more than their results.8 So it seems preferable to us not to restrict the use of the term altruism to external behavior, since actions do not in themselves allow us to know with certainty the motivation that inspired them. Just as the appearance of undesirable and unforeseen consequences does not call into question the altruistic nature of an action meant for the good of the other, so a hindrance to taking action, which is beyond the control of the one who wants to act, does not at all diminish the altruistic nature of his motivation.

Moreover, for Monroe, an action cannot be considered altruistic if it does not bear a risk and has no “cost,” however potential, for the one who performs it. In our opinion, an altruistic individual will indeed be ready to take risks to accomplish good for others, but the simple fact of taking risks for someone else is neither necessary nor sufficient to qualify as altruistic behavior. One can imagine an individual put- ting himself in danger to help someone with the idea of gaining his trust and drawing personal advantages from it sufficiently desirable to justify the perils encountered. What’s more, some people agree to court danger for purely selfish reasons—to seek glory, for instance, by carrying out a dangerous exploit. On the other hand, a behavior can be sincerely devoted to the good of the other, without bearing any notable risk whatever. The one who, moved by benevolence, gives away part of his wealth or devotes years to a charity organization helping people in need does not necessarily take a risk; but his behavior deserves to be qualified as altruistic, in our sense of it.

It Is Motivation That Colors Our Actions

Our motivations, whether they are benevolent, malevolent or neutral, color our actions. One cannot distinguish altruistic behavior from selfish behavior, a lie meant to do good from another uttered to harm, by the sole appearance of actions. If a mother suddenly pushes her child to the side of the street to prevent it from being run over by a car, her action is violent only in appearance. If someone approaches you with a big smile and showers you with compliments with the sole aim of swindling you, his conduct may seem benevolent, but his intentions are obviously selfish.

Keeping in mind our limited ability to control outer events or anticipate the turn they will take in the long run, we cannot qualify an act as either altruistic or selfish on the basis of the simple observation of its immediate consequences. Giving drugs or a glass of alcohol to someone who is undergoing a detox cure, with the excuse that he is suffering from abstention symptoms, will no doubt provide him with much-appreciated temporary relief, but such an action will do him no good in the long run.

On the other hand, in every circumstance, it is possible for us to examine our motivations attentively and honestly, and to do our best to determine if they are selfish or altruistic.