IN LATE JUNE 2015, I sat at a Los Angeles café with my galley copy of Matthieu Ricard’s new tome, Altruism, on the table in front of me. An Echo Park enclave full of used books and local artwork, the café has a clientele that would not hesitate to watch your computer while you step outside or share a table with someone who needed somewhere to sit. It’s a place where I often hear community organizers brewing up strategies to help the neighborhood or advocate for marginalized groups. As I sat with my computer open, sifting through Ricard’s 864 page ode to the concept of altruism, a man walked into the back patio area and proclaimed loudly: “Would some kind person help me? Would any kind person help me?” It was more a statement than a question, with a rhythmic but slightly dissonant tone that made it seem equal parts aggressive and apathetic. Despite his conspicuous presence and loud mantra, no one looked up. I didn’t either. After five long minutes, a barista stepped outside, the loud voice quieted, and the man disappeared through the back gate. 

Moments later, my eye caught a tiny insect crossing my computer screen … I let it crawl onto the tip of my finger and I gently placed it on the wall next to my table, watching it meander upward and away from immediate harm. 

It was clear that most people heard the man in the café. So, why was there no active response? Despite my mild embarrassment about ignoring a panhandler while a huge, yellow book on altruism sat on my table, was my inaction necessarily unaltruistic? Was my gentle behavior toward the tiny insect necessarily altruistic? I have to assume that each person in the café had their own perspective on the situation — “I was feeling lazy”; “I was scared”; “I didn’t want everyone to look at me”; “I had my headphones on and didn’t hear”; “There’s a problem with the system that one person can’t fix”; “I didn’t have any money.” 

Altruism is often defined as a willingness to put oneself at risk for the sake of another; the definition generally connotes that the individual will sacrifice something or encounter a “cost” to their action on the behalf of another. Following from this, people tend to assume that for an act to be truly altruistic, the altruist should not wish any personal gain — they should eschew recognition, monetary benefit, social ties, or personal safety. Yet, one of Ricard’s major claims is that altruistic action does benefit the individual, physically, emotionally, and interpersonally. Other thinkers, such as University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant in his bestselling book Give and Take, has argued that altruism may also benefit us by giving greater work satisfaction and a bigger paycheck. Perhaps the line between selfishness and selflessness is blurred from the very start. 

Moreover, when we consider the potential goals of altruistic action, it’s not always clear whether they are all compatible with one another. Is the ultimate goal of altruism to reach transcendence, enlightenment, or some kind of spiritual reward for our efforts? Is the goal of altruism to strengthen social relationships and thereby increase the quality of our individual lives? Or, on a biological scale, is the ultimate goal of altruism to perpetuate our species, in that the sacrifice of one life could potentially save us all? Are these goals at odds with one another or part and parcel to one “best” plan for humanity? 

The argument underlying all of Ricard’s examples and statistics and anecdotes is that altruism is a good thing. That it makes us happier, healthier, and more productive. As its substantial length would hint, Altruism is a careful collection of research, literature, and theory on altruism. While publishers of the English translation of the French bestseller have filed the book under “self-help” and “psychology,” those categories are insufficient and less than accurate. Ricard’s text seeks to cover everything relevant to or impacted by the division between altruism and selfishness, from research on empathy and affective resonance, to the origins of violent behavior, warfare, and psychopathy, to current research on neuroplasticity and emotional intelligence. Ricard’s suggestions for individual action are seated in changing social systems, including choosing to eat less meat, recycling, repairing, and sharing objects, contributing to political shifts toward a federalist state, and creating better policies for corporate accountability. However, he gives little ontological guidance for the reader who might pick up the book seeking tips for daily practice.  

In the past, I may have turned around, offered a dollar, or at least a word, but that day in the café I measured the potential costs versus the apparent need of the man, and I decided not to risk any potential volatility. As a child of the ’80s, with extremely liberal parents, I was taught never, ever to become a bystander. I was raised to embody an almost crippling awareness of John Darley and Bibb Latané’s “bystander effect,” a term they coined to explain the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a Brooklyn woman whose murder was witnessed by multiple people who did not come to her aid. Ricard covers the bystander effect in chapter 19 of his book. Here, he outlines the causes for pro-social behavior, acknowledging just how difficult it can be to respond to everyone we see who is in need: 

In cities, unless it is one’s profession, it is impossible to take care of all of the people in difficulty you meet in a single day: beggars, people who need help either because of the state of their health, their financial resources, or their homeless state. Stifling our compassion is not without its consequences […] If one puts oneself every time in the other’s place, it becomes hard to look away. But if we wanted to intervene, we’d wind up doing nothing else. 

This is a very practical approach to compassion. He argues that while some people (notably Rosa Parks and Abbé Pierre) decide to devote their life’s work to helping all people in need, studies suggest that we need community groups, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to absorb the costs and maximize the gains of individual pro-social behavior. While most of the book is a collection of facts, figures, and anecdotes that flesh out and test the boundaries of the concept of altruism, Ricard’s explicit advice is directed toward an audience that has enough flexible time, financial stability, and social clout to sit on a board, work as a volunteer, or form a foundation. 

Altruism, which is Ricard’s newest book, proceeds from his reputation as perennially fascinating public figure. The son of renowned political theorist, journalist, and public intellectual Jean-François Revel and abstract painter Yahne le Toumelin, Ricard trained as a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute before making the decision to depart from a promising scientific career to study Tibetan Buddhism. Siddhartha-like, Ricard turned away from the central bustle of French intellectual and artistic life toward a relatively quiet, contemplative existence in the Himalayas. After the passing of his teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, in 1991, and in response to a burgeoning conversation between Buddhist contemplatives and scientists, Ricard reentered the Western intellectual circuit. He co-authored two dialectic-style books which marked this reinvestment: in 1998, he wrote The Monk and the Philosopher, a philosophical dialogue with his father which quickly became a bestseller in France, and, in 2000, he co-authored The Quantum and the Lotus, a dialogue with Vietnamese physicist Trinh Xuan Thuan. 

Ricard’s story mirrors the Buddha’s story: a hero’s journey in which the man who has it all walks away from “it all” to find real, lasting, authentic happiness … and comes back to teach the rest of us. Ricard’s dedicated meditation practice received the scientific stamp of approval after he participated in a series of studies at Richard Davidson’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Beginning in the late ’90s and continuing at present, Davidson’s studies assert that advanced meditators, like Ricard, are able to induce greater levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with positive affect and reduced levels of anxiety and stress. In the coverage of Davidson’s work, the popular press labeled Ricard “the happiest man in the world,” a moniker that sometimes embarrasses Ricard, but solidifies his status as a global icon. 

Ricard’s image might easily fit into an apostolic spread or Barnes & Noble gallery of iconic altruists: Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi. These inspirational figures are on a public stage, viewed by all, exemplifying a set of ideas about the role of the individual in society. While Ricard spends a large part of his year in retreat, he does not just tend to those around him quietly. He is founder of a nonprofit organization, Karuna-Shechen; he sits on various boards; he presents at the World Economic Forum at Davos; and he seems to recommend that his readers become visible altruists as well. Karuna-Shechen, with financial backing and a cadre of volunteers has conducted crucial humanitarian work in Nepal — more than any individual could do on his or her own. The organization sets up medical clinics, salvages spiritual sites damaged by recent earthquakes, and builds schools. And, as 100 percent of the proceeds from Ricard’s publications goes toward these projects, Altruism is the final domino that launches Ricard into view as one of the most notable, visible altruists of recent years. 

I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with Matthieu Ricard in person before a Live Talks Los Angeles event in June where he was discussing his book in an onstage interview conducted by his friend and colleague Pico Iyer. In person, Ricard shines. When he steps onto stage, he folds his hands together and bows slightly, as Tibetan teachers often do, which momentarily softens his otherwise commanding presence. Ricard holds his audience rapt, smiling, inspired. He tells tales of the ex-president of Uruguay, José Mujica, who lived in a shack and channeled the entirety of his own salary to benefit the Uruguayan public. He shares his own love for his Tibetan teachers, attributing some of his life’s happiest moments to being in their presence. As he speaks, Ricard projects a radiant, radical, somewhat rebellious spirit; he has an irreverent humor tempered by humility. While he is verbose when it comes to his projects or ideas, Ricard can be blunt to the point of sounding gruff when someone asks a question that is tangential to the subject at hand. The result is that the audience is brought close, but kept just distant enough to feel the pull of his magnetism. 

Yet, Ricard as a person, not an archetype, is not one to be reduced to any label, monk or scientist, East or West. He scoffs mildly when I suggest that others have often framed him as a perfectly self-actualized, alchemical vessel for all traditions. In response to a question about how his identity has impacted the content of book and its reception, he laughs: 

I have the right as a human being to explore altruism from all possible perspectives … in history, philosophy, Western, Eastern … hopefully with an independent mind. I don’t deny my Buddhist background, but this is not a book of [sic] Buddhism’s end. It’s a book written by a human being (laughs). In the same way … Georges Lemaître was a physicist and he happened to be a Catholic priest. I am a human being who writes a book on altruism and who happens to be a Buddhist monk. 

During our conversation, Ricard states that Altruism is a book about “general ideas,” and that his half-century experience as a Buddhist monk only contributes a small part to the book. In his conclusion to the book, he notes the challenge of seeing the big picture and trying to pare it down into manageable chunks: “I had to avoid simplifying an infinitely complex reality, in which the various phenomena are massively interdependent.” This staunch dedication to general ideas is why Altruism is so lengthy. 

I believe that Ricard’s primary contribution to public debates on altruism is his lucid, well-grounded argument that altruistic motivation is not unnatural or undesirable in an evolutionary sense. His text is built to present counterpoints that respond to three general preconceptions about altruism: 1) human nature is not altruistic, 2) we can train our minds to be more prepared to enact those intrinsic altruistic tendencies, and 3) altruism does not, by definition, necessarily leave the individual at a deficit. While Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is not actually about “selfishness,” one of the perhaps unintended memetic impacts of that book is the widespread argument that human beings, like all animals and plants, are genetically programmed to be self-interested. Somehow, perhaps as the cryogenically frozen spirit of Ayn Rand looked on, the argument that human beings are intrinsically selfish gained hold, despite a slew of evidence to the contrary. Ricard, on the other hand, cites copious evidence, from neuroscience to anthropology, that human beings have intrinsic motivations toward love and compassion. In this sense, Ricard does not present new information, but offers a synthesis of prior texts that together offer overwhelming evidence that altruism does not run against the grain of nature, but is yet another expression of it. 

In the space between selfies and crowdfunding, we find ourselves at a particularly potent impasse in terms of how we give, how we relate to others, and how we conceive of the individual. Ricard’s primary argument throughout is that we must create a culture of altruism comprised of individuals who all possess intrinsic motivations to respond to the needs of others. Individual action and macro-level change are utterly interdependent. For Ricard, like Auguste Comte, the 19th-century French philosopher who coined the concept as a central tenet of positivist philosophy, ultimately altruism has political, as opposed to spiritual, ends. Yet, while this model offers a very clean, integrated view of systems and individuals, there are times when what seems like moral, altruistic action on a personal level is not directly in line with what is necessary to create large-scale social change. 

The most recent models of altruism merge profit with generosity, inviting consumers to buy into a brand while simultaneously exhibiting solidarity with a cause. A consumer can buy clothing through Gap’s Project RED, don one of Susan G. Komen’s pink ribbons, or throw on a pair of Toms shoes or Warby Parker glasses. We want our individuality and solidarity served up on the same dish, and we want to believe that these goals do not contradict one another. Ricard’s book is at the crest of a movement that attempts to pull thesis and antithesis into a perfect synthesis; optimizing altruistic systems to the point where giving is receiving, what benefits you benefits me and vice versa in an endless self-perpetuating cycle. Yet, as we shall see, this synthesis is fraught. 

The final chapters of the book hold some of Ricard’s most salient suggestions for how every person can live more altruistically. In these chapters, he mainly argues for systemic changes, like renewable energy, sensible water management, and abolishing factory farming, but he also suggests that people pare down their material possessions. Ricard advises that individuals need to radically simplify their lives, renting and repairing instead of buying into planned obsolescence and personal property. He urges us to embrace what he calls “voluntary, joyous simplicity,” providing the disclaimer that this approach to life is not austerity: 

Austerity is not a nice word to hear. In the minds of most people, it alludes to the smothering of daily pleasures, making one’s existence joyless and imposing restrictions that forbid the free enjoyment of life […] “Voluntary simplicity” is a whole other concept. It does not involve depriving us of what makes us happy — that would be absurd — but coming to a better understanding of how to achieve genuine satisfaction, and to stop being addicted to the causes of our suffering rather than prioritizing our happiness. Simplicity goes hand in hand with contentment. 

Yet, this idea that we can find simplicity without giving up pleasure is another one of those have-your-cake arguments. The way that this argument seems to manifest lately is in a commodified form of minimalism. Recent nonascetic arguments for minimalism suggest paring down the things one owns by investing in a few very expensive, beautiful pieces in a designer tiny house. 

If one has too many resources, minimalism looks like liberation and lightness. Again, we can see Siddhartha, the prince, who comes from his large kingdom, who had been protected from every form of harm, first discovering that despite all of the riches, despite all of the beauty, we all suffer. From that vantage point, letting go of the cushion is liberation. Yet, from the vantage point of one who has never lived in the castle at all, who has never known the experience of having more than he or she could ever want, will this voluntary simplicity have the same benefit? One human pares down, the other gets basic safety and security — in simplicity, perhaps we find the great equalizer. However, there’s still a qualitative difference between the rich person who rejects her wealth and the homeless person who is given a secure place to live. Even if these two people wind up benefiting from the same system, finding either freedom or safety, inequality takes a long, long time to heal. 

In light of this disparity, Ricard’s participation in the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, is a noteworthy part of the context for this publication. The “Davos Man,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, is oft categorized as a privileged member of the global elite who shapes the world but has little true understanding of what most of the world experiences, either financially or politically. Many WEF participants have adopted an expatriate lifestyle by choice, as opposed to exile or asylum, and tend to have a certain freedom afforded by money or social status. Similarly, Ricard may have given up his scientific career, but he still holds the titles, and while he took a vow of poverty and abandoned the origins of his social capital, he did so by choice. The element of choice alters our frame of reference: liberation or loss, benefit or depletion. 

This is less a critique of Ricard than it is a question about how the new altruism operates: does altruism pave the way for financial security, social clout, civic engagement, and overall happiness, or are those things necessary to opt into this new form of altruism in the first place? In the face of inequality and broken social systems, altruistic action does not take place in a vacuum where every altruist accrues the same benefits to their well-being, faces the same level of risk to their person, or has the same impact on the world. Peter Singer, a vocal proponent of “effective altruism,” has argued that it’s better to take a job with a hedge fund than a nonprofit, because the money will go further than years of effort in a cash-strapped state. Effective altruists argue that the best way to make a difference is to make large amounts of money and distribute them to causes that are most urgent. Yet, when we look at power, privilege, and who generally occupies the top rungs of the corporate world, we find inequalities and rifts. One might hypothesize that the one percent will inevitably have different ideas about who most deserves a donation than those who actually need

Teju Cole’s 2012 article in The Atlantic, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” calls attention to the way such power dynamics impact service scenarios. His arguments also throw the entire conceptual history of altruism into question. Cole argues that forms of altruism that are currently on the market are a byproduct of colonialist, missionary attitudes toward charity combined with “white” guilt built up over generations of American culture. This unexamined motivation leads to impulses and actions that do not actually help anyone, beyond the altruist’s temporary high. Cole challenges the triteness of the phrase “make a difference” that feeds into most calls for volunteerism, claiming that the problems that require altruistic intervention are “both intricate and intensely local”:  

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. […] I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement. 

In this sense, Ricard’s conceptual framework for altruism winds up being in a bit of a vacuum — his dedication to general ideas offers broad strokes and statistics, but may not apply to those on the margins or outlier cases. If I am in a position of power, for example, it costs me very little to offer my ideas, my time, my goods to another. If I am not, giving costs much more, it’s risky. Nonviolent resistance is powerful precisely because the individual is taking a major risk to achieve a goal, but it only matters if someone who can intervene is watching. Altruism falls into the same trap. And, while altruism may ultimately benefit everyone, we need to be critical about people in power telling people who lack power and resources to give of themselves. Additionally, while altruism may very well be the key to a variety of social and personal benefits, we cannot base our own actions on the lives of icons. 

Ultimately, the outcome of altruistic action may hinge on perspective. For one, simplicity means paring down and finding liberation from things we own, for others it may feel as though we are denying ourselves complexity and hedonistic joy. Herein lies the benefit of Ricard’s work — his book is a testament to the complexity of altruism. It signals the start of a new conversation about altruism, not its end. In developing solutions to the massive global problems we face, we must use the evidence that has mounted against faulty, unilateral assumptions that human beings are sinful, selfish, or evil by nature. Ricard’s book is a foundation for developing the strengths of human nature: our desire to connect, to protect, to empathize, to love. The evidence he has collected will help ground arguments that altruistic action is a good choice. However, getting to the ideal political and social ends that Ricard imagines will take practical steps that are not outlined in the book. A practice manual would help us very little, in any case. Such change rests on knowledge born from immersion, dynamic relationships that grow from deep listening, not actions based on any abstract definition of altruism.  In the end, as comprehensive as it was, the book left me wanting more – more that perhaps even Ricard, with his clear wisdom and experience, could not offer in a big book; more that can only be gleaned from our own direct and deeply local experiences.

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Ashley Karlin lives and writes in Los Angeles, where she is faculty in University of Southern California’s Writing Program and acts as Assistant Director for Mindful USC.