Let Altruism be Your Guide

By Matthieu Ricard on May 07, 2015

Excepts from Matthieu Ricard’s Latest TED Talk, October 2014.

We have an extraordinary potential for goodness, but also an immense power to do harm. Any tool can be used to build or to destroy, and it all depends on our motivation. Therefore, it is all the more important to foster an altruistic motivation rather than a selfish one.

We indeed are facing many challenges in our times. Those could be personal challenges. Our own mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. There are also societal challenges: poverty in the midst of plenty, inequalities, conflict, injustice. And then there are the new challenges, which we don't expect.

Ten thousand years ago, there were about five million human beings on Earth. Whatever happened, the Earth's resilience soon “healed” human activities. After the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, it all changed and it is not the same anymore. We are now the major agent of impact on our Earth. We entered the Anthropocene, the era of human beings...

In 1900 we were well within the limits of safety. In 1950 came the great acceleration. Now hold your breath, not too long, imagine what comes next. Now we have vastly overrun some of the planetary boundaries. Just to take biodiversity, at the current rate, by 2050, 30 percent of all species on Earth will have disappeared. Even if we keep their DNA in some fridge, that's not going to be reversible.

What can we do in that situation? However complex politically, economically, scientifically the question of the environment is, it simply boils down to a question of altruism versus selfishness. Groucho Marx said, "Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?" Unfortunately, I heard the billionaire Steve Forbes, on Fox News, saying exactly the same thing, but seriously. He was told about the rise of the ocean, and he said, "I find it absurd to change my behavior today for something that will happen in a hundred years." So if you don't care for future generations, just go for it.

One of the main challenges of our times is to reconcile three time scales: the short-term of the economy, the ups and downs of the stock market, the end-of-the-year accounts; the mid-term of quality of life -- what is the quality of our life, over 10 years and 20 years? -- and the long-term of the environment.

When the environmentalists speak with economists, it's like a schizophrenic dialogue, completely incoherent. They don't speak the same language. For the last 10 years, I went around the world meeting economists, scientists, neuroscientists, environmentalists, philosophers, and thinkers in the Himalayas, all over the world. It seems to me, there's only one concept that can reconcile those three time scales. It is simply having more consideration for others. If you have more consideration for others, you will have a caring economical system, where finance is at the service of society and not society at the service of finance. You will not play at the casino with the resources that people have entrusted you with. If you have more consideration for others, you will make sure that you remedy inequality, that you bring some kind of well-being within society, in education, at the workplace.

So the question is, okay, altruism is the answer, it's not just a novel ideal, but can it be a real, pragmatic solution? And first of all, does it exist, true altruism, or are we so selfish? So some philosophers thought we were irredeemably selfish. But are we really all just like rascals? Many philosophers, like Hobbes, have said so. There's no better joy than working together, is there? Then, of course, there's the struggle for life, the survival of the fittest, social Darwinism. But in evolution, cooperation -- though competition exists, of course -- cooperation has to be much more creative to go to increased levels of complexity. We are super-cooperators and we should even go further.