The need for altruism

This is an extract from Matthieu Ricard’s book Altruism, Little, Brown and Company editions

We need a unifying concept, an Ariadne thread that will allow us to find our way in this labyrinth of serious, complex preoccupations. Altruism is this thread that will allow us naturally to connect the three scales of time— short-, middle-, and long-term— by reconciling their demands.

In the contemporary world, though, altruism is more than ever a necessity, even an urgent one. It is also a natural manifestation of human kindness, for which we all have potential, despite multiple, often selfish, motivations that run through and sometimes dominate our minds.

What, in fact, are the benefits of altruism with respect to the major problems we have described? Let’s take a few examples. If each of us cultivated altruism more, that is, if we had more consideration for the well-being of others, financiers, for example, would not engage in wild speculation with the savings of small investors who have entrustedthemselves to them, just to gather larger bonuses at year’s end. Financiers would not speculate on commodities— food, grain, water, and other resources vital to the survival of the poorest populations.

If they had more consideration for the quality of life of those around them, the ones who make decisions and other social agents would be concerned with the improvement of working conditions, family and social life, and many other aspects of existence. They would be led to acknowledge the divide that is growing ever wider between the poorest and those who represent 1% of the population but who control 25% of the wealth(1). Finally, they could open their eyes to the fate of the society itself from which they profit and on which they have built their fortunes.

If we evince more concern for others, we will all act with the view of remedying injustice, discrimination, and poverty. We would be led to reconsider the way we treat animals, reducing them to nothing but
instruments of our blind domination which transforms them into products of consumption.

Finally, if we care about the fate of future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice their well-being to our ephemeral interests, leaving only a polluted, impoverished planet to those who come after us.

We would on the contrary try to promote a caring economy that would enhance reciprocal trust, and would respect the interests of others. We would envisage the possibility of a different economy, one that is now advocated by many modern economists(2) an economy that rests on the three pillars of true prosperity: nature, whose integrity we must preserve; human activities, which should flourish; and financial means, which ensure our survival and our reasonable material needs(3).

Most classical economists have for too long based their theories on the hypothesis that people exclusively pursue selfish interests. This hypothesis is wrong, but it still comprises the foundation of contemporary economic systems based on the principle of free exchange theorized by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. These same economists have argued against the necessity for each individual to attend to the well-being of others so that society can function harmoniously— a necessity clearly formulated, nevertheless, by the same Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Also forgetting the emphasis placed by Darwin on the importance of cooperation in nature, certain contemporary theories of evolution think that altruism makes sense only if it is proportional to the degree
of biological kinship linking us to those who carry some part of our genes. We will see how new advances in the theory of evolution allow us to envisage the possibility of an extended altruism that transcends
the ties of family and tribal proximity and emphasizes the fact that human beings are essentially “super-cooperators“(4).

Contrary to what the avalanche of shocking news often presented in media headlines would have us think, many studies show that when a natural catastrophe or some other kind of tragedy occurs, mutual aid is more the rule than every-man-for-himself, sharing more common than pillaging, calm prevails more than panic, dedication more than indifference, courage more than cowardice.

Furthermore, the experience of thousands of years of contemplative practices attests that individual transformation is possible. This age-old experience has now been corroborated by research in the neurosciences that has shown that any form of training— learning how to read or learning a musical instrument, for example— induces a restructuring in the brain at both the functional and structural levels. This is also what happens when one trains in developing altruistic love and compassion.

Recent studies by theoreticians of evolution(5) stress the importance of the evolution of cultures: slower than individual changes but much faster than genetic changes. This evolution is cumulative and is trans-
mitted over the course of generations by education and imitation.

That is not all. In fact, cultures and individuals continue to influence each other mutually. Individuals who grow up in a new culture are different, because their new habits transform their brain through neuroplasticity, and the expression of their genes through epigenetics. These individuals will, in turn, contribute to causing their culture and their institutions to evolve so that this process is repeated in every

To recapitulate, altruism seems to be a determining factor of the quality of our existence, now and to come, and should not be relegated to the realm of noble utopian thinking maintained by a few big-hearted, naïve people. We must have the perspicacity to acknowledge this and the audacity to say it.

But what is altruism? Does real altruism exist? How does it appear? Can one become more altruistic, and, if so, how? What are the obstacles to surmount? How can we build a more altruistic society and a better world? These are the main questions we will try to examine in this work.

We will be answering all these questions and more at the third Altruistic Encounters organized by Karuna-Shechen on Saturday May 25 and Sunday May 26, 2024 at the GoodPlanet Foundation in Paris. Matthieu Ricard will exchange views with Christophe André, Claire Nouvian and Ilios Kotsou at several round tables. These discussions will be recorded and rebroadcast on the Karuna-Shechen Youtube channel a few weeks after the event.

  • 1. These figures relate to the situation in the United States.
  • 2. Notably Joseph Stiglitz, Dennis Snower, Richard Layard and Ernst Fehr, as well as the protagonists of the GNH (“Gross National Happiness”) movement promulgated by Bhutan and now being seriously considered by Brazil, Japan and other countries.
  • 3. These three pillars correspond to the concept of “mutuality” developed by economist Bruno Roche.
  • 4. Notably due to the work of David Sloan Wilson, Elliott Sober, E. O. Wilson and Martin Nowak.
  • 5. Notably those of Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson. See Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. (2005). Not by Genes Alone.

Photo credit Svöðufoss, waterfall connected to the Hólmkelsá River (also known as Laxá), September 2023 – Par Matthieu Ricard