Book Review: Altrusim
The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World
By Matthieu Ricard
The idea that personal interests motivate all human actions—termed “universal selfishness” by social scientists—has been widely held since the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes presented the individual as a basically selfish being. In his new, 864-page tome Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard challenges this idea by arguing that altruism—selfless concern for the well-being of others—is real, can be cultivated, and will benefit us personally and globally.
Since 2000—when he teamed up with Richard Davidson, a scientist in Madison, Wisconsin, studying meditation’s effect on brain structure—Ricard has been a central figure in the dialogue between science and Buddhism. In Altruism, Ricard makes his arguments by drawing on his years of practicing meditation, recent scientific studies, and many anecdotal stories. “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,” he writes, “and emphasizes the fact that human beings are essentially ‘super-cooperators.’”
Ricard suggests that large, complex questions about income inequality, individual happiness, and environment destruction all boil down to whether we are altruistic or selfish creatures. These challenges are difficult, he tells us, because they exist on three different scales of time—the short-term ups and downs of the economy on a daily basis, the mid-term quality of life measured in decades, and the long-term state of the environment that should be considered for future generations.
Is altruism the answer to all of our problems? Critical readers might point out that we’re complex creatures, capable of both altruism and selfishness. But, perhaps, as Ricard writes, “when one witnesses goodness, it is better to be inspired by it than to denigrate it, and to do one’s best to give it a larger place in our existence.”