Towards a more altruistic society

By Matthieu Ricard on September 22, 2013

At the end of last week, Plaidoyer pour l'altruisme (The Case for Altruism), a 920 page-book on which I have been intensely working for 5 years, came out in French (the English publication is scheduled for January 2015).

Cooperation, wrote Martin Nowak, is ‟the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution”(1).

It seems that, today, we need to move to the next level of cooperation to face the many challenges that our times are confronted with. Each of these challenges has its temporality and priority. A major difficulty consists in reconciling three different time scales and three different types of preoccupations: the economy in the short term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and environment in the long term.

The economy and finance are evolving at an ever-faster pace. Life satisfaction is measured on the scale of a life project, a career, a family, a generation and a life time. The evolution of the environment used to be measured in terms of millennia and era, but the pace of environmental changes has now considerably accelerated.

We should not however give up the idea of reconciling these three time scales. Altruism is the vital thread that can link them together and harmonize their requirements. Altruism is not merely a noble, somewhat naive ideal; today, more than ever, it is a necessity.

If we have more consideration for others, we will not indulge in wild, self-oriented speculations with the savings of those who have placed their trust in us.

If we have more consideration for others, we will care for the quality of life of those around us, we will make sure that their situation improves.

Finally, if we have more consideration for future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice the world that we hand down to them in favor of our short-term wants and desires.

Altruism is thus the key to our survival and the determining factor of the quality of our current and future existence. We must have the insight to recognize it and the audacity to say so.

In its essence, altruism is a benevolent state of mind, consisting of feeling concerned for the fate of all those around us, and wishing them well, strengthened by our determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the most fundamental state of mind that leads to altruism. When it is our ‟default mode”, it expresses itself as benevolence towards anyone who might come into the field of one's attention and translates itself as goodwill, readiness and willingness to care. As shown by psychologist Daniel Batson, when there is a need that is perceived in others, we readily develop empathic concern, bringing about the urge to fulfill that need. When the need is related to a yearning for happiness, valuing others and benevolence will foster the realization of that aspiration. When the need is related to suffering, valuing others and compassion will induce us to remedy the suffering and its causes.

On the individual level, collaboration between neuroscientists and contemplatives has shown that altruism and compassion are skills that can be cultivated with training. These studies have also distinguished the differences between empathy (the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others), loving-kindness (the wish that others may be happy) and compassion (the wish that they might be free from suffering).

At the society level, research in the field of cultural evolution has also shown that human cultural values can change faster than our genes, and bring about significant transformations in societies.
How can we bring about a shift towards a more altruistic, compassionate culture? First of all we need to recognize the importance of altruism. We then need to cultivate it at an individual level and, from there, bring about cultural changes. Cultures and individuals mutually shape each other, just as two knife blades can be used to sharpen the other.

Ricard, M. (2013). Plaidoyer pour l'altruisme. Nil Editions.

Buy the book in French

(1) Nowak, M., & Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators (Reprint.). Free Press