In Praise of Altruism

The French geneticist and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard has been the French translator for the Dalai Lama and has written extensively and convincingly about altruism.

Ricard quotes the Dalai Lama as stating,

“My religion is kindness. And the essence of my teaching is that every sentient being, even my enemy, fears suffering as I do and wants to be happy. This thought leads us to feel profoundly concerned for the happiness of others, be they friends or enemies. That is the basis for true compassion. Seeking happiness, whilst remaining indifferent to others, is a tragic mistake”.

This is a monumental statement of concern for the humanity of our fellow beings which warrants closer examination. This essay seeks to further our understanding of the beneficial effects of altruism.

The Heidelberg philosopher Karl Jaspers was something of a polymath making significant contributions not only in philosophy but also in psychiatry and theology. According to Jaspers, a broad revolution in Mankind’s spiritual development occurred over a wide geographical spread including China, India, Persia, Judea and Greece over the period 800-200BC. He called this period the Axial Age. (This revolution is illuminated with her usual scholarship in Karen Armstrong’s fine book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions.) During this period the foundations were laid for Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. A common thread that arose out of all these spiritual traditions was the Rule of Reciprocity which we perhaps know more commonly as the “Golden Rule”.

However differently the Sages of the Axial Age (Confucius, Mahavira, the Buddha, Socrates and the authors of the Mosaic commandments) justified their teachings, they came to similar beliefs about what constitutes religion. There was a great shift from their more primitive ancestors, who largely believed that religion was about appeasing the gods by making sacrifices or performing other rituals, to a belief that religion concerned our human relationships with one another.

As the famous Jewish Rabbi Hillel responded when asked to explain Judaism:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; that is the total Torah, while the rest is mere commentary.”

So there you are – an explanation of one of the world’s great religions in one succinct sentence with no mention of otherworldliness, transcendence or even God!

In their teachings Confucius and the Buddha (both who propounded their own versions of the Golden Rule) don’t even speculate about God or gods!

The ancients (like some of the more naïve, fundamentalist and ignorant folk of today) were keen to make and accentuate the division between “us” and “others” based on moral prejudice, race, religion or ethnicity. The sages of the Axial Age however, urged us not to take such boundaries so seriously but reminded us of the more important things we have in common.

(In Buddhism, for example, various exercises are recommended to extend the scope of our altruism. People are much more inclined to come to the assistance of a friend or someone with whom they have something in common –ethnicity, nationality, religion and so on, as we saw. The exercises help us draw a wider and wider circle into those we can identify with and consequently show empathy for.)

Of course another who later adopted this more encompassing stance was Jesus. In the gospels he purportedly stood up for society’s outcasts. He allegedly healed the lepers, saved the adulterous woman from being stoned, defended both prostitutes and the hated tax collectors.

Now I have placed all this in front of you not to make any religious argument but to suggest that at this time (during the Axial Age) there was a significant surge in consciousness supporting altruism. A conventional reading of Darwinian evolutionary theory would tend to suggest that altruism is counter-productive in the evolutionary fight for survival. And yet it is pervasive throughout most societies.

I think I first became interested in altruism as a possible evolutionary outcome after reading The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, a book that changed my ideas about “what it is to be human” (and which was of course recommended to me by the good Dr Phil).Wright pointed out how Darwin had departed from his evolutionary orthodoxy in trying to explain altruism.

In The Descent of Man Darwin claimed:

“…each man would soon learn from experience that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return. From this low motive he might acquire the habit of aiding his fellows; and the habit of performing benevolent actions certainly strengthens the feeling of sympathy, which gives the first impulse to benevolent actions. Habits, moreover, followed during many generations probably tend to be inherited.”

This is of course patently false and flies in the face of Darwin’s own theory. Unlike the theory of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, which has been discredited, Darwin’s theory didn’t rely on the notion of the inheritability of acquired traits. (This outlines the importance of both the Nature and Nurture components of human behaviour.)

Without going into the detail, subsequent research relying on the then new discipline of game theory, suggested that altruism had benefits for the long-term survival of humans and probably was dependent on a likely inheritable characteristic, empathy. We know that some of us are more disposed, due to genetic factors, to be able to understand and relate to how others feel. Whereas some, eg autistics and psychopaths, largely see others as objects.

The notion of altruism providing an evolutionary benefit was taken up by Robert Trivers. In 1973 he published a paper titled The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. In the paper’s abstract he wrote that “friendship, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy can be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system.” In recent decades there has been growing evidence that altruism is an evolutionary advantage.

But Darwin (and Trivers for that matter) misunderstood the importance of altruism. They both had in mind “reciprocal altruism” where a person’s main motive for being concerned for others was that they would in turn derive a benefit from them being concerned for the person acting altruistically. Recent work by evolutionary psychologists indicates that altruism is not consciously concerned for what we might get in return.

After all the Golden Rule is not an invitation to exploit one another. It proposes that “we should do unto others as we would wish them to do unto us”. It is not meant to be delivered in its reciprocal form, “do unto others as you would then expect them do unto you”.

The norm of treating people well, regardless of their background, has long freed itself from its religious roots. Immanuel Kant took the next step forward. In its original form the Golden Rule gave us guidance about what we should not do. Kant wanted to turn this into the obverse and thus give us guidance on what we should do. He also pointed out the danger of leaving the judgment to the idiosyncratic ideals of an individual judge. He challenged us not to look at decisions on what one ought to do from the individual viewpoint but from the collective viewpoint. He counselled that we should look at such decisions from the viewpoint of a legislator.

“Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.”

But returning to the evolutionary advantage of altruism, I think the evolutionary drivers are best understood by looking at the tension that exists between the survival of the individual and the survival of the group.

As the evolutionary psychologists point out, selfishness promotes the survival chances of the individual, but altruism promotes the survival chances of the group.

Stefan Klein, writing in his book The Survival of the Nicest, proposes:

“Human’s ability to be selfless developed in direct proportion to their increasing dependence on one another. From the communal concern for progeny and food in the early Stone Age to the admonition to love one’s fellow humans that emerged in the world’s religions about 500 BCE, the history of humankind has been a history of stronger and stronger altruistic norms.”

The argument has been made that in hunter/gatherer societies acceptance of a broad moral code is not so important. In such societies people lived in small groups where the aberrant behaviour of others is readily observed so that remedial action can be taken.

In the Axial Age hunter/gatherer groups were being superseded by people coming together in larger towns and cities. This was facilitated by improvements in technology which in turn was leading to the specialisation of labour and increases in wealth which enabled some citizens more leisure time which also enabled the further development of philosophy. In larger communities bad behaviour was more difficult to isolate than had been the case in the camps of their hunter/gatherer predecessors and therefore the development of moral codes assumed greater importance.

When you live in a small group whilst your selfishness might pay off as a survival strategy, it is obvious to the group and probably can only be sustained by physical dominance.

When you live in a larger group, group cohesion and survival is aided by altruism. When the group is faced with a calamity like drought, famine or sustained conflict with competitors, altruism aids group survival.

There now exists a tension about how do I protect my self-interest when my self-interest is, at least in part, dependant on the welfare of the group to which I belong? Under these circumstances a degree of altruism begins to be a survival strategy. In such circumstances Rousseau’s supposed “noble savage” evolved to be the “noble citizen”!

(It is worthy of note that Rousseau actually never used the phrase “noble savage” in any of his writings even though the term is frequently attributed to him. His early detractors, [Hobbes, Voltaire and others,] claimed that he wanted to restore the original state of nature. Voltaire, mocking his philosophy declared that he was “seeking to have Man return to walking on all fours”. But Rousseau argued that with the development of society there develops not only morality but immorality too. Just as selfishness and altruism are both the products of society, so too are good and bad. {I can’t help but quote the good Dr Phil here who says “if I am alone in the world there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’!}Perceptively, Rousseau proposed that humans find self-fulfilment not through the assertion of self-interest but in the performance of social roles.)

As I wrote in my essay Another Look at Altruism:

“It could then be argued that the genetic fitness of a human being must therefore be a consequence of both individual selection and group selection. The likelihood of survival and therefore the passing on of an individual’s genes was dependent on both the fitness of the group to which the individual belonged as well as to their individual fitness. The preferred position, with respect to evolution, would have been to be a fit member of a competent group. This theory has been called by biologists ‘eusocial evolution’”.


Now, as we saw above, because we‘re dealing with larger groups, it is far more difficult to monitor individual behaviour. Consequently society benefits by the adoption of moral standards against which an individual can be generally more easily assessed. Under these circumstances it does not seem surprising that the Golden Rule became ubiquitous in more settled societies, with denser populations and myriads of interdependencies.

But altruism has more going for it than just improving our group survival prospects. Altruism is positively correlated with happiness. This was clearly demonstrated in a series of studies on hundreds of students by E. Diener and M. E. P. Seligman [yes Martin Seligman of Authentic Happiness fame –refer “Very Happy People,” Psychological Science 13 (2002)]. When we are happy, the feeling of self-importance is diminished and we are more open to the welfare of others. Indeed, in my coaching practice I have often asked my clients to recount the times when they felt happiest. Inevitably the scenarios they recall are times when they were not thinking about themselves at all!

Looking at the obverse, acute depression is accompanied by difficulty in feeling and expressing love for others. Andrew Solomon in his book The Noonday Demon writes:

“Depression is the flaw in love.”

As I have written in other essays on the subject, people in the grip of depression are self-obsessed, not in a narcissistic way, but they just find it inordinately difficult not to think, indeed ruminate, about their perceived problems.

This resonates with the teachings of Buddhism which holds selfishness, (perhaps better defined as an obsession with self) to be the main cause of suffering and altruism to be the antidote to that problem.

Thus Darwin and Trivers were mistaken. Altruism is not undertaken because we expect something in return (as per “reciprocal” altruism) because altruism has its own rewards. Another piece of research undertaken by Seligman gave students the opportunity of either:

  • Doing something self-indulgent, or
  • Doing something altruistic.

Those who performed an altruistic act not only derived greater joy, but their satisfaction lasted longer than those who were self-indulgent.

We can therefore promote altruism, not only because it is beneficial to the long-term ability of societies to prosper, but because it promotes the personal well-being of its perpetrators.

The Dalai Lama has frequently said:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

According to Matthieu Ricard, the ideal of Buddhism is bodhicitta which has been defined as “the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings”. As the seventh century Indian Buddhist master wrote:

All the joy the world contains

Has come through wishing happiness for others.

All the misery the world contains

Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.


Is there need for lengthy explanation?

Childish beings look out for themselves;

Buddhas labour for the good of others:

See the difference that divides them!


It seems to me that if life has any purpose at all, it will only be illuminated by the practice of altruism!