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What Mental State Leads to Altruism ?

By Matthieu Ricard on February 04, 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

Among the eight types of empathy listed by Daniel Batson, only empathic concern was necessary and sufficient to engender an altruistic motivation. What about the categories outlined by Tania Singer and her neuroscientist colleagues?

Emotional contagion can serve as a precursor to empathy but, in itself, it does not help to engender an altruistic motivation since it is accompanied by a confusion between self and other. It can even consti- tute an obstacle to altruism — if one is overwhelmed by this emotional contagion and disoriented, one is concerned only about oneself.

Empathy, or affective resonance, is also neutral a priori. According to the circumstance and the individual, it can transform into concern and give rise to the desire to provide for another’s needs. But empathy can also provoke a distress that focuses our attention on ourselves and diverts us from the other’s needs. For this last reason, empathy is not enough in itself to engender altruism.

The cognitive approach, on the other hand, can constitute a step toward altruism but, like empathy, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for the genesis of an altruistic motivation. It may even engender completely selfish behavior, as in the case of psychopaths who feel neither empathy nor compassion, but are expert in guessing others’ thoughts and use this ability in order to manipulate them.

There remains compassion whose essence is an altruistic motivation, necessary and sufficient so that we will desire the good of the other and will give rise to the wish to accomplish it by taking action. Compassion is awareness of the other’s situation, and is accompanied by the wish to relieve suffering and to procure the other’s happiness. Finally, it is not distorted by confusion between the emotions felt by the other and our own.

Thus the importance of compassion for all suffering beings is emphasized by psychologists, who speak of empathic concern, by neu- roscientists, and by Buddhism, where it occupies a central place.