Altruism - Cover
Matthieu Ricard
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2015
Pages 864
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Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World

An exploration into compassion, kindness, empathy, innate goodness and how these concepts relate to the idea of being altruistic. Comes from a Buddhist point of view, but has a very broad approach and generally-applicable advice and thoughts. Particularly good comments around the idea of emotional burn-out and (Buddhist) techniques for managing it.

Rough Summary

A big collection of research and arguments around a bunch of concepts in ethics and altruism. Nicely presented and probably pretty-well researched; but I think not perfect.

I found it pretty good; but it is a long read. The things I got out of it the most are:

  • Difference between empathy and compassion, and how compassion helps prevent empathetic burnout,
  • Arguments about why we’re not inherently selfish,
  • Neat ideas for how to help children learn altruism.

I think it’s probably a good book to come and to when having doubts and for reminding yourself of useful arguments about how people are essentially good.

Specific Notes

I. What Is Altruism?

  • Page 34 - Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

    “The rich man has little compassion for the poor man, since he can’t imagine himself poor”.

  • Page 51 - Alexandre Jollien:

    “In pity, sadness comes first. I am sad that the other is suffering, but I don’t really love them. In compassion, love comes first.”

  • Page 69

    Uri Hasson thinks that this “brain coupling” is essential to communication.

    I think I liked this part because it reminded me of ideas in I Am A Strange Loop in the sense of a meeting of minds being kind of like having a “copy” of that person in your person; which naturally makes it easier to communicate!

  • Page 78 - Discussion around the idea of whether or not it’s altruistic if you benefit from the action. The claim is that it’s okay, as long as it’s not the intent to benefit. This is a common theme: the intent matters.

  • Page 84 - Nice quote re: Politics

    Philosopher Andre comte-Sponville expresses it this way: “I think that the whole art of politics is to make selfish individuals more intelligent, which I call ‘solidarity’ and which Jacques Attali calls ‘self-interested altruism.’ It is a question of making people understand that it is in their own self-interest to take into account the interests of others.”

II. The Emergence of Altruism

  • Page 147 - On cultivating compassion

    … We can find an inspiration in these words attribute to an old Cherokee giving advice to his grandson: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil — he is hatred, anger, greed, envy, arrogance, grudge, resentment, miserliness, cowardliness. The other is good — he is happiness, joy, serenity, love, kindness, compassion, hope, humility, generosity, truthfulness, and confidence. They are also fighting inside you and inside every other person, too.” The child thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

  • Page 198 - Regarding theory of mind in birds.

  • Page 219

    Research shows unanimously that the most constructive and effective attitude consists of calmly explaining to the child why it would be better for him to change his behaviour. It’s the approach that Hoffman calls induction. The child is urged to adopt the perspective of the other and especially to realise the harm he may have caused to the other. The child is also shown how to spot the harm that has been committed.

  • Page 220 - Regret vs Guilt: Regret can be constructive in terms of awareness, guilt is not.a

III. Cultivating Altruism

  • Page 254 - Epigenetic changes via meditation.

IV. Contrary Forces

  • Page 275 - Comments on Ego and the centeredness of I; i.e. how much time and attention we give to it, and how it relates to Buddhist ideas of interconnectedness.

  • Page 313 - On freedom and being free to “do whatever you want”:

    In practice, expressing oneself free of any constraints seems more destined to hinder the good of society than to accomplish it. I met a young American woman who told me, “To be really myself, to be free, I have to be faithful to what I feel, and spontaneously express whatever I like and whatever suits me”. True freedom, however, does not consist in doing whatever comes to mind, but in being master on oneself.

    This was a nice comment I thought, as I certainly typically feel that to be free is do to whatever you want; but here he argues for taking even greater control of yourself by using meditation to become aware of how feelings and the environment influence us. Interesting.

  • Page 320 - Discussion of self-compassion over self-esteem. Quote from Kristin Neff:

    One reason that self-compassion may be more beneficial than self-esteem is that it tends to be available precisely when self-esteem fails. Personal flaws and shortcomings can be approached in a kind and balanced manner that recognizes that imperfection is part of the human condition, even when self-evaluations are negative. This means that self-compassion can lessen feelings of self-loathing without requiring that one adopt an unrealistically positive view of oneself — a major reason why self-esteem enhancement programs often fail.

  • Page 363 - Comments on violence on TV.

  • Page 413 - Discussion on whether or not we’re naturally warlike or always fighting each other.

V. Building a More Altruistic Society

  • Page 534 and friends - Discussion of moral neutrality in education; i.e. maybe we shouldn’t teach a specific religion, but certainly it’s a good idea to teach kindness, tolerance and an ability to understand your emotions. Some discussion of interesting programs in schools that had interesting results. Good to refer back to when thinking about teaching classes.

  • Page 539 - Regarding Cognitive Based Compassion Therapy in children.

    This program lasts eight weeks and comprises:
    1. developing attention and stability of mind;
    2. observing the inner nature of thoughts, feelings and emotions;
    3. exploring self-compassion — recognizing our desire for happiness, the mental states that lead to personal fulfilment, and willingness to free oneself from emotional states that detract from happiness;
    4. developing impartiality towards other beings, be they friends, enemies, or strangers, and at the same time questioning the value — fixed, or superficial and changing — of this categorization, and identifying a shared desire in everyone to be happy and to avoid suffering;
    5. developing gratitude toward others, with no one able to survive without the support of countless and other people;
    6. developing benevolence and empathy;
    7. developing compassion for those who are suffering, and a desire that they be freed from that suffering;
    8. implementing altruism into everyday life.

    Children are very receptive to this sort of education. When one of the instructors compared anger to a spark in a forest, which at the start can easily be extinguished but which rapidly becomes a huge, destructive, out-of-control inferno, a little five-year-old girl said: “There are a lot of forest fires in my life.”

  • Page 543 - On the usefulness of mentoring processes for children.

  • Page 613 - President of Uruguay living a simple life.

  • Page 659 - Discussion of sustainable growth of the economy.

  • Page 688 and friends - Very simple discussion of what democracy could look like. Similar idea to a lot of places now which is around local ownership built up in layers.