September 2

Altruism Is Necessary: Why and How To Curb Our Inherent Selfishness

Singapore has a law called the "The Maintenance of Parents Act." This law provides elderly parents who can't support themselves a legal channel to seek maintenance from their children who are capable of helping them but won't do so. Is the mere existence of such a law a clear sign that we humans are an inherently selfish bunch requiring the threat of legal action to display altruism, even towards our own parents?

Fortunately, the answer is no. Though we harbor selfish tendencies, we are equally capable of altruism. There is hope for altruism to triumph even in today's world—a world that wants to reward individual achievements at the expense of collective goodness.

Altruism is innate, but it's not instinctual. Everybody's wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped. David Rakoff.

The Bachelor Pad

In 2010, the finale of the first season of the TV Show The Bachelor Pad began on an interesting note. Two finalists, Natalie and Dave, vied for the final prize of $250,000. They were offered two choices: to "keep" the money—a winner-takes-all scenario in which there'd be a clear winner and loser; or "share" the prize winnings equally and win $125,000 each.

The Bachelor Pad finale got both economists and psychologists talking because the show described a classic game theory concept referred to as the Prisoner's Dilemma—a competition of sorts between rationality and our higher selves.

Prisoner's Dilemma

Here's what prisoner's dilemma looks like:

Let's say cops arrest two people —John and Jim—at a crime scene but don't have enough evidence to convict either fully. After making sure both prisoners are confined in solitude and don't have a way to communicate with each other, the officers present the prisoners with the following choices:

Option A: Tell

John can go scot-free if he testifies against Jim, but Jim would need to serve a three-year prison sentence.

Jim gets no jail time if he betrays John, although John would have to serve a three-year prison sentence.

Option B: Don't tell

If both John and Jim stay silent and don't turn on each other, they each get reduced one-year sentences.

Assuming humans are purely rational, self-interested beings, we would expect John and Jim to choose option A, even though Option B may be mutually beneficial and less stringent overall.

But is that the case in real life? What happened on The Bachelor Pad?

Spoiler-alert: Natalie and Dave chose to split the prize winnings equally (option B). This decision, however, was ascribed to the fact that the offer to keep or split the prizes was made when both contestants were in the same room and had a way to make eye-contact, i.e., assure each other that sharing was better (unlike in a true prisoner's dilemma situation where no communication is possible.)

But what if they were asked to decide separately behind each other's backs? Would they have chosen Option A?

Yes, according to Western philosophers over the years.

Are we inherently selfish creatures?

Western philosophy has made the argument for many years that we are self-centered creatures drunk on the principle of "every man (person) to himself (themselves)."

Here's a small sampling of a few famous philosophers' musings about human nature:

Glaucon (Plato's brother) argues that humans are inherently selfish creatures. The only reason they even consider indulging in fair play is that they fear the consequences of getting caught and want to avoid the suffering it could bring.

Machiavelli said,

Of mankind, we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.

According to the English philosopher Hobbes, humans are not naturally good.

Of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself.

Nietzsche made a joke of it.

Most people are far too much occupied with themselves to be malicious.

So, were these philosophers right? Are we wired to act in pure self-interest and ask, "What's in it for me?" before we embark on any action?

Well, thankfully, the answer to the question of "are we inherently selfish" is "No." Scientific research says so.

Okay, breathe. We're not doomed.

As author Steven Pinker says, "the better angels of our nature" prevail in the long term. Yes, we may harbor some selfishness within us, but we also have the ability to nurture our inherently virtuous qualities, such as compassion and altruism.

More and more scientific research is confirming that to be the case: altruism isn't a foreign concept to human nature; it is innate within us. We simply have to take the time to nurture it.

Even Darwin, the father of the "survival of the fittest" theory, believed after his many observations on animal behavior that cooperation and not selfishness is what helps a species survive and thrive.

In Descent of Man, Darwin writes of being hopeful for humankind:

Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case, the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.

So, should we be cautiously optimistic and share Darwin's optimism for our higher nature? Yes.

But first, the basics.

What is altruism?

Before you read any further, here's a suggestion: the best resource in the world to understand altruism and learn how to be a compassionate, caring soul is French biologist turned writer and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard's book Altruism. Or, if reading makes you ill, you could watch his TED Talks and other videos on the subject.

Known as the world's happiest man after an fMRI scan of his brain showed unprecedented gamma waves, Ricard dedicates his bliss to practicing meditation and his genuine desire to be unselfish and make the world an altruistic place.

But what does altruism mean?

Here's a simple and agreed-upon (by experts) definition of altruism.

Altruism is the desire to put others' welfare above our own. We are altruistic when we act in a way that prioritizes other people's interests without an ulterior selfish motive of our own.

Altruism is why we hear stories of people saving stranger's lives while risking their own such as Ken Hawj, who jumped 30 ft to save an 11-year-old's life, or the brave teachers in the Uvalde shooting who tried to shield their students from a crazed gunman's fire.

Acting impartially

An important aspect of altruism is the requirement to go beyond helping out just "our own." It is easy to put the needs of our own kids, our friends, and family, or people like us above our own needs, but can we do the same for those who don't look, talk, or have the same views as us? That leap requires us to go deep, even beyond empathy, to the place of true compassion where we genuinely want goodness for everyone else.

Why is altruism necessary?

We are in a culture where competition is encouraged over cooperation, where short-term wins matter more than long-term stability.

But selflessness and altruism don't just elevate the quality of our lives but those of our future generations as well. Matthieu Ricard argues that our very survival as a species depends on whether we can cooperate for the world's common good.

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.

Can we switch from selfishness to altruism?

Sounds like it takes extraordinary bravery and courage to be altruistic, right? Not quite.

We are capable of genuine altruism. Even as babies. A 2020 research study showed infants, even hungry ones, will give away food to a stranger in need. 

Matthieu Ricard says that all it takes is consistent practice to nurture our altruistic tendencies.

So, how do we switch from being inherently selfish to becoming altruistic?

How to be altruistic?

Ricard's book Altruism has detailed explanations and a roadmap on what altruism is and isn't and how to nurture the behavior. Here are some key takeaways we can incorporate into our own lives. Starting now.

Identify your motive

When I recently checked out of a messy hotel room in a hurry, I realized I didn't have enough cash on me to leave a housekeeping tip as I had planned. And so I left without leaving a tip. But I felt uneasy afterward and couldn't stop thinking about the situation for a while.

Then I asked myself, honestly, what about the experience bothered me more: The fact that the person who'd clean the room would think I wasn't just sloppy but miserly too? Or that even a small tip from a customer could have been meaningful to this person and brightened their day, and I'd just missed an opportunity to make someone's life better, albeit momentarily?

In other words, what was my motive? Was I concerned about my reputation (not altruism), or did I genuinely care about them (altruism)?

When we talk about altruism, the motive matters. And sometimes, it matters more than the action itself.

The question "Am I inherently selfish?" can be answered if we take the time to check in with our mind to see our motives.

The trouble is that because we are so disconnected with ourselves, it is hard for us to even know or reflect upon our motivations when we act. As a result, we continue to engage in less-than-ideal behaviors.

This brings me to the next point: Self-awareness.

The Stickers Test

In his famous Ted Talk, How to let altruism be your guide, Mattieu Ricard recounts the "Preschoolers sticker experiment."

At a preschool, kids were given a bunch of stickers and asked to distribute them among four other kids—their best friend, their least favorite person in the class, a child they didn't know, and a sick child. Not surprisingly, most kids handed most of their stickers to their best friends and scarcely gave any to the other three kids.

Then, the researchers conducted an "intervention" for 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week, for 8 weeks and repeated the experiment.

The surprising results? The distribution of stickers was much more equitable—kids handed out the same number of stickers to their best friend and the kid they didn't care for!

Now, what was the intervention? Appropriately-tailored loving-kindness meditation and breathing lessons for preschoolers!

The significance of the experiment cannot be understated. If 4–5-year-olds can be taught to be more empathetic and caring, shouldn't we adults try to learn as well?

And what is it about the practice of meditation that helps us become more altruistic?

Why meditation works

Buddhist Monk Yongey Mingyour Rinpoche said this about his meditation practice.

When I began to practice meditation on compassion, I found that my sense of isolation began to diminish, while at the same time, my personal sense of empowerment began to grow. Where once I saw only problems, I started to see solutions. Where once I viewed my own happiness as more important than the happiness of others, I began to see the well-being of others as the foundation of my own peace of mind. 

The explanation for why meditation works is actually quite simple.

The basic fact is that we wake up every morning hoping that our day (and our loved ones' days) goes by well without suffering. Here's what we forget: every other human has the same goal when they get out of bed.

So, instead of competing and trying to one-up others or indulge in other selfish pursuits, we are better off cooperating to make life easier for all of us. Altruism is the basis for such cooperation. And a consistent meditation practice can help us see clearly and foster a sense of altruism.

Live on less

Another practical way to develop altruism is through the practice of austerity, an understandably difficult concept in the world of excess we're in.

The world says: "You have needs -- satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don't hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more." Dostoyevsky.

Austerity sounds scary to most people. It elicits responses like this: "I've worked hard all my life and I've "earned" my right to watch my favorite show on my 80-inch TV while eating burgers and fries delivered to my house. So, stop judging me or asking me to give up the small pleasures of life."

Again quoting Ricard, when we hear the word austerity, it typically

alludes to the smothering of daily pleasures, making one's existence joyless and imposing restrictions that forbid the free enjoyment of life. 

Instead, he suggests we employ voluntary simplicity in life, especially in material possessions.

The less we keep and the less we need, the more we have to give.

Give it time

And last but not least, altruism develops when you have patience.

The Dalai Lama supposedly said,

The problem in the West is people want enlightenment to be fast, to be easy, and if possible, cheap. 

By cheap, he means getting results without expending resources such as time and effort.

But, Matthieu Ricard adds,

"Everything comes through training, and what's wrong with that? Skills don't just pop up because you wish to be more compassionate or happier. It needs sustained application… We don't mind spending 15 years on education, so why not the same to become a better human being?

Indeed. There is nothing nobler than wanting to be a better human being. So, why wait?

To live is to be useful to others. Seneca



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