The Need for Altruism in the Face of Violence

By Matthieu Ricard on January 26, 2015

Almost every day, a massacre occurs somewhere in the world - in Syria, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places. Recently, the world has been shaken by the murder in Paris of 17 people, including 12 journalists and collaborators of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

In their tragic delusion, perpetrators of violence often perceive themselves as victims and speak of having been ‟humiliated”. They may be people whose neighbors and relatives describe as being ‟normal” or even ‟nice fellows.” They may turn to deadly violence as their frustration rises and extremist ideologies fill the void in their lives and gives them a false moral justification for their deeds. These feelings may be caused by not having been integrated into society, receiving little empathy, not properly understanding beliefs and values, and not having access to a proper education.

Education is not only learning to read and write; it is also educating the heart and helping young people to become good human beings. As Aristophanes said, ‟Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Although they may be passionate, intelligent and daring, people who commit unspeakable acts of violence lack qualities of the heart — compassion, empathy, and altruism. Yet, every human being has the potential to change and to develop these qualities.

Respect needs to be mutual. One cannot demand that one's religion be respected at all costs, while remaining intolerant to others' beliefs and committing acts of violence when one feels offended. A fundamental freedom required by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is to not be enslaved by any dogma. All of us should be free to pursue his/her intellectual or spiritual path, while welcoming others to follow theirs, whether they may be believers or not, religious folk or atheists.

At a meeting of representatives of various religions that I attended at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, said: ‟I know no religion that states it is permissible to kill.” It was disheartening that other religious leaders declined to fully endorse Tutu's idea.

I humbly suggest that global religious leaders unanimously issue a declaration reminding their followers about the imperative truth of Tutu's statement. If religions would just practice the Golden Rule of not doing unto others what they don't want others do upon them, humanity would fare much better.

No religion has been innocent in this regard, even Buddhism, as exemplified by the persecution of Muslim villages in Burma committed by Buddhist monks. Or rather by ‟ex-monks”, because from the moment a monk kills, or encourages a third party to kill someone, he loses his monastic vows. This is inexcusable. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated that, according to Buddhism, there are no justifications for the use of violence.

As Gandhi said, ‟If one applies an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, the world will soon be blind and toothless.”

True altruism is associated with openness, tolerance and respect for others. It motivates us to help others and strive to alleviate their suffering. Benevolence toward others provides a win-win situation.

At a time of worldwide challenges, altruism is an ever more urgent necessity. Whether we pursue a spiritual path or not, the first task we have to set for ourselves is to become better human beings.