Monday, April 21, 2014
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The Path to Altruism

SHECHEN, NEPAL – “Cooperation,” the Harvard University biologist Martin Nowak has written, is “the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities.” As mankind now tries to solve new, global challenges, we must also find new ways to cooperate. The basis for this cooperation must be altruism.

The desire to help others without consideration for ourselves is not just a noble ideal. Selflessness raises the quality and elevates the meaning of our lives, and that of our descendants; in fact, our very survival may even depend on it. We must have the insight to recognize this, and the audacity to say so.

Humanity faces three monumental challenges: ensuring everyone decent living conditions, improving life satisfaction, and protecting our planet. Traditional cost-benefit analysis struggles to reconcile these demands, because they span different time frames. We worry about the state of the economy from year to year; but we consider our happiness over the course of a lifetime, while our concern for the environment will mainly benefit future generations.

But an altruistic approach requires few trade-offs. A considerate investor will never speculate recklessly with his clients’ life savings, despite the potential gain for himself. A caring citizen will always think first how his actions affect his community. A selfless generation will exercise care with the planet, precisely in order to leave a livable world to its children. Altruism makes us all better off.

This vision of the world may seem idealistic. After all, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology have often claimed that humans share an essentially selfish nature. But research over the past 30 years indicates that true altruism does exist and can extend beyond kin and community to encompass the welfare of humans generally – and that of other species. Moreover, the altruist does not have to suffer for his good deeds; on the contrary, he often benefits indirectly from them, while the selfish actor often creates misery for himself as well as others.

Studies have also shown that an individual can learn to be altruistic. Neuroscientists have identified three components of altruism that anyone can develop as acquired skills: empathy (understanding and sharing the feelings of another), loving kindness (the wish to spread happiness), and compassion (a desire to relieve the suffering of another).

Societies, too, can become more altruistic (and may even enjoy an evolutionary advantage over their more selfish counterparts). Research on the evolution of cultures suggests that human values can change more quickly than our genes. Thus, if we are to engender a more caring world, we must first recognize the importance of altruism – and then cultivate it among individuals and promote cultural change in our societies.

Nowhere is the need to cultivate this recognition clearer than it is in our economic system. The unrealistic pursuit of endless quantitative growth places intolerable strains on our planet and widens inequalities. But reversing that growth would create other problems; forcing people to compete for diminishing assets and resources would spread unemployment, poverty, and even violence.

So a balance must be struck: the global community must lift 1.5 billion people out of poverty, while the excesses of the world’s richest consumers – which cause the vast majority of ecological degradation – must be limited. We need not impose more taxes to achieve this, but we can persuade the wealthy that the eternal pursuit of material gain is both unsustainable and unnecessary for their own quality of life.

This concept of “sustainable harmony” can be promoted by publishing indices of personal well-being and environmental preservation, alongside standard GDP data. The government of Bhutan, for example, already accounts for the “social wealth” and “natural wealth” of its people, in addition to its GDP figures.

We could also establish a stock exchange, alongside traditional securities markets, comprising so-called ethical organizations, such as social enterprises, cooperative banks, microcredit agencies, and fair-trade groups. Several initiatives – for example, in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom – have already taken small steps in this direction.

Small steps lead to big changes. As the value of altruism becomes increasingly obvious, the new approach will spread through the economy, benefiting all of society, future generations, and the planet, too.

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  1. CommentedAndreas Psaras

    We have to take into account the historical moment and the dynamics of the economic system in which we find ourselves. The prevailing system, even though flexible and helpful in producing material goods, has serious limiting disadvantages: It “alienates people and concentrates wealth”. Through its operation it cultivates the selfish human side and serves the narrowly defined self interest, which at the end limits the possibilities for real development for all, including the well off. It inhibits real human development. We only need to look around us to see our state of “development”. We live in times of underdevelopment, poverty, inequality, injustice, misery and exclusion.
    Our collective state of development and our collective wisdom is such that we consider all that acceptable and natural. We live in societies with huge amount that needs to be done on the one hand and many out of work and eagerly in need to work on the other hand. We live in societies with enormous unutilized capabilities of production on the one hand and huge unfulfilled needs on the other hand. The way we organize our production is such that makes such unreasonable coexistence acceptable. We think inside the box at times that we need to think outside the box.
    Only when we develop better, alternative ways of production and distribution cultivating the “higher” than the narrowly defined self-interest facets of human nature we will be able to move forward.
    It can be done.

  2. CommentedAli Carrithers

    Great article. One thing that I think it misses, however, is the practice of directing those virtues towards oneself. When we are better able to direct lovingkindness towards ourselves, it creates a more stable platform to also direct it towards others. Moreover, when we can show ourselves compassion and lovingkindness as we are now, there is a tendency to grasp less after self that does not exist or a state of being that is fundamentally impermanent. It is this dissatisfaction with the one's current state that could be argued to play an integral part in the cultivation of greed, which in turn greatly perpetuates the engines of social and environmental degradation.

  3. CommentedAndrej Drapal

    Statement: "Moreover, the altruist does not have to suffer for his good deeds; on the contrary, he often benefits indirectly from them." in non-sense. If a deed benefits to one doing it, this is not altruism any more!
    Take another example: Industrialist builded an enterprase that pleases HIM, brings HIM profits, allows HIM for his pleasure redistribute what he earned; but the outputs of HIS enterprise were used as food (as something valuable) for users (part of society) in exchange for their money. Since they were happy as memebers of wider society also this society benefited. By your definition also such industrialist should be considered as altruist.
    So, sorry: what you say is not only nonsense (logicali and liguisticalky) but by spreading nonsens as a virtue also dangerous for all that accept it.

    1. CommentedAli Carrithers

      I'm afraid I disagree, Andrej. Saying that a person may benefit indirectly from altruism is not the same as saying someone acted altruistically in order to benefit. In the former, the intent may be for the wellbeing of others, however in the latter it is clear that the intent was for personal gain. Intention is everything in these circumstances.

      Moreover, Matthieu also outlined the indirect nature of the possible benefit. This echoes the buddhist principle of karma, which would suggest that if you plant a seed and tend to it then everyone can reap the benefit of the fruit. It is not a self-centred or metaphysical concept as the westernised notion of the idea would have you believe. It is more a case of 'if I treat you well, then humanity benefits, and I am part of humanity'.

  4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Both the article and the comments are very exciting and inspiring.
    It is very difficult to add anything.
    Maybe one thing: while more and more people start to see that some kind of mutual responsibility and mutually complementing cooperation is an absolute necessity for survival in a global, integral world, we find it very hard to find a practical way of starting to behave accordingly.
    Thus we must not forget that our inherent nature is in total opposition with any kind of true altruism, where we give without any benefit for ourselves.
    Thus trying to establish a mutually giving society does not simply mean establishing new forms of structure, new economy, new societal systems.
    First of all we have to change the human nature that established the egoistic and greedy society that is in crisis today.
    What we have done so far is nobody's fault, there is no pint in pointing fingers trying to prosecute "sinners". We simply followed our inherent nature instinctively.
    But today we have an opportunity to perform a critical self-assessment only human beings are capable doing and then initiate self-changes in a positively motivated, open manner.
    First most probably it will be a small amount of people initiating such changes and as the global crisis deepens and the small group becomes more and more successful, the rest of humanity will join them seeing the ever clearer contrast.
    As the process reaches a critical mass a "positive revolution" occurs catapulting us to a new stage of our evolution.
    But the process always have to remain open, without any coercion, leaving people with free choice.
    And in terms of the practical method of self-change, as the article said we have only one tool: education.
    We have to teach ourselves how our nature is opposite to the mutually altruistic vast natural system around us, and what way we can adapt ourselves to the natural conditions, and most importantly we have to show and make each other feel how our quality of existence would change dramatically into a previously unknown, higher level when humanity becomes capable of working, living as an interconnected, mutual "organism".
    There are many signs that this process has already started!

  5. Commentedradek tanski

    Reciprocal Altruism in game theory exists because successive generations of altruistic interactions are the most efficient bilateral prosperity generation mechanism. No arguments there.
    However, If the balance of power between interacting parties is asymmetrical and approaches unaccountability, then the optimal prosperity strategy for the more powerful party, is to cheat, even steal and abuse with impunity to get what is beneficial to itself. In a world of corruption and inequality, and impossibility of holding the greater unequal accountable, the system is self sustainable in exactly that state, i.e. no reciprocal altruism.
    The article's proposition assumes the benefits of the former without providing any solution to the latter condition. In so doing it generalizes the former to where it does not apply.

    No doubt there is reciprocal altruism among trading equals. The poor are accountable to each other by proximity and brute force. The rich are accountable to each other by legal means. But the rich who live far away from and protect themselves via security are not accountable to the poor.

    1. CommentedAli Carrithers

      What you say is interesting. However, I wonder if your model applies here as it is not clear that personal prosperity is the intent once someone has sufficiently cultivated the virtues of compassion, lovingkindness and empathy. The whole point of these virtues (they are called the bramhaviharas in buddhism) is to recognise that there is essentially no separation between you and I. We are not different, rather we are part of a whole. This is not simply a buddhist concept and is echoed in the John Donne poem 'No Man is an Island':

      No man is an island,
      Entire of itself,
      Every man is a piece of the continent,
      A part of the main.
      If a clod be washed away by the sea,
      Europe is the less.
      As well as if a promontory were.
      As well as if a manor of thy friend's
      Or of thine own were:
      Any man's death diminishes me,
      Because I am involved in mankind,
      And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
      It tolls for thee.

      Personal prosperity falls by the wayside once these virtues are sufficiently cultivated as there is a systemic shift from 'I' to 'we'. I meditate regularly on the bramhaviharas and I recognise these shifts within myself.

      I am not suggesting that we ought to all simply meditate on these virtues for an hour a day and notions of personal gain will complete go out of the window. We are not Buddhas nor Bodhisattvas. However, there is a scale the exists between self-centredness and altruism, and it is possible for society as a whole to move incrementally towards the latter.

  6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    In our journey towards securing greater happiness for our children we have faltered to provide the right blend, between what takes us to a greater and ever-expanding pie and the constant individual chronological arrogance towards virtues of narrow freedom that enfeebles our understanding of human virtues and contribution to the world around. In this journey collective wisdom cannot be assured any more through individual ignorances, or that uncoordinated autonomy can give us invulnerability, that would make inter-personal care redundant. The more I see our fallibility, I am now convinced that Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, stands out and in that sojourn, we need to have lesser and lesser narrow freedom to act in individual capacity, unless we want to enhance the tragedy of the commons; giving such freedom to unlimited wants of conspicuous consumption, we are in fact committing ourselves willfully to the cause of conflicting narrow desires that enhance self-defeating idle nature of dead-habits and enfeeble the expansion of the creative elements.

    Could not agree more with the article.

  7. CommentedJoshua Soffer

    Altruism as Matthieu Ricard understands it is an intention to do unselfish acts. But since the self only finds itself by EX-isting, that is, via an inseparable relation to the world, we are always acting selfishly precisely by enlarging the scope of self, by embracing the world . We never deliberately reject others unless the appear to us as unassimilable, alien, radcically other. The fault, then, lies not in our intention to be 'selfish', but in the limited scope of our knowledge of others. Progressivism makes an error by assuming the uncharitable intentions of conservatives. They would embrace a more expansive social agenda if they believed it would be effective in promoting the greater good, but they fail to understand the science behind it. Instead of browbeating conservatives for their immorality , it would be more useful to encourage their mastery of ideas in philosophy and the social sciences since Hegel.

  8. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    There is truth in both Mr. Ricard and Mr. Econotarian.

    Thinkers of the 19th century West were in euphoria, thinking that they had at last discovered the new, so far hidden, great truth that by exclusively emphasizing selfish greed and by totally ignoring altruism they could build a society where the greatest good would be achieved. We know now that babarian social philosophy needs to be extenuated and compensated for by something else.

  9. CommentedRobert McMahon

    I totally agree with this paragraph. The need for ethical investment practices is paramount right now, and it needs to be facilitated and made not only visible, but stylish.

  10. CommentedMr Econotarian

    "The unrealistic pursuit of endless quantitative growth places intolerable strains on our planet and widens inequalities."

    You are factually incorrect. In truth, global inequality has been dropping for years. The World Bank estimates global poverty was halved from 1990 to 2010. In fact, according to the World Bank, the United Nations’ “millennium development goal” of cutting world poverty in half by 2015 came in five years ahead of schedule despite a major global recession. The decline in poverty coincides, not coincidentally, with developing nations embracing more market-based systems.

    The best thing you can do for someone is to trade with them, not to give them something.

    1. CommentedJay Sobti

      You are intellectually incorrect. Declining poverty by itself has nothing to do with decreasing inequality. In fact, while the global poverty rate has dropped over the years because the poor have been able to earn marginally in excess of an ill conceived and measly poverty threshold, the rich have gotten richer by an exponential factor. Hence, the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor.

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