Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World by Matthieu Ricard is a hugely popular and esteemed read.

Our author says, "I am altruistic for I must help the other without wanting to", is nonsense and stupid. He says its stupidity is an argument against, "If I wanted to help and fulfil my want by helping then I was not altruistic. I got a reward." It is in fact not an argument against it at all. It is the only candidate for an counter-argument and it is wrong. Helping others then without desiring to is true altruism. Most altruists are in fact phonies. Bring in God into it and being altruistic towards him and you add to the problem.

He defines altruism as being about the goal another person has not your own.  That can be very impersonal.  I would have thought you could do it for a person and that happens to give them what they want.

With books like that, they are confused in defining altruism and tend to bully you into affirming the validity of altruism for the alternative is too terrible to envisage.  The paradox is that they assume we need scaring to be altruistic while they say that acting for another out of fear or looking for a benefit is not altruism but immoral.

Predictably, he goes on to argue that for violence to be waged, it is believed that people must become more selfish/self-centred and less altruistic. And also, the person has to be reduced in value in your mind enough so that you can proceed to deliberately do harm. So violence is linked in this book to a lack of altruism or to people not being altruistic enough.

A society that condemns violence is still to blame for it if it is too much of a selfish society. If you are selfish then what the violent narcissist does has something to do with you. There is something there even if there is not much. You are part of the boiling mixture that produces people like that.

The book says that hatred is characterised by seeing only faults and bad motives in the other. Soon the flaws get exaggerated and exalted to an importance they do not have or deserve. And the good side is explained away as a scheme or ignored. Hatred consists of a desire to hurt another person and also to convince yourself and everybody else that the person is just bad and needs destroying in one form or another. Demonising the other person is what hate is largely about. It is also how it operates.

Yet we all know people who hate who know very little about the target of the hate. They don't know enough about them to twist the things they do into something bad looking. People have hated others for being good. The book's analysis applies for some not all.

Hate is simply wanting to hurt another and seeing them as needing some kind of destroying, It may or may not use demonisation.

There is no mention of how even if we don't dedicate ourselves to suspecting the motives of others the fact is we never really know what they are. That may not erupt in violence but can be a slow cooker for toxicity.

The book says selfishness is what happens when you have an amplified and unrealistic idea of how great you are. You have to be real for your own safety, physical, mental, moral and emotional. For example, imagine the agony if you think you can easily get a PhD and are proven wrong! It is hard torturous work keeping up the illusion. If you want to love yourself then being selfish won't work for your only reward for your effort will be frustration and fear and they feed on themselves. Break the cycle or it will get worse! If we are naturally selfish then it is important not to let it go too far.

There is no mention of how you don't need to be a bombastic noisy narcissist for that to happen.  The argument that God thinks you are great and loves you infinitely does the same job.  It is just another way of channelling egoism without upsetting others too much.

Today's crazy world thinks self-esteem, liking yourself, is what makes everything fall into place in the person and the wider society. The author says that bad self-esteem is not what is driving evil tyrants. Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein, according to people who knew them well, said that if these men were anything they were totally carried away by how great and wonderful they were. They were their own Gods. And he does not tell us that bad self-esteem can be painful but in fact is a paradox.  "I am so wonderful and I cannot feel it."  It is really misdirected self-esteem.  So whether self-esteem glows or hurts you, you still think you are a God.  That is what is in your head.

Another monstrosity with a superiority complex, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated things like, "I know and I feel that doing good is the truest happiness that the human heart can taste." The dictators in their speeches said equally heart-warming things. They knew that human nature thinks in terms of, "I will be tolerant for they are not all bad." That kind of thinking is good but it can be taken in another direction.  It can still be the reason a religion can murder left right and centre and end up cherished like today's Catholic Church.  Rousseau was clearly thinking that the more suffering you cause the more peace can come.  That is an act of religious faith.  Jesus turned this idea against the individual and said that the more you suffer the more treasure you lay up in Heaven.  In time such doctrines, mean you will not just stop at yourself.  After all you cannot torment yourself without tormenting others.  That may not be directly intended but soon it will be.

Is it true as the book says that altruism and compassion, though they allow judging when appropriate, are not based on any form of judgementalism?

They are about wanting people to have benefits even if they don't deserve them so it involves judging. You have to judge what you think they deserve and don't deserve. To want them to have benefits because they don't deserve them is not altruism or compassion for it is rewarding their bad side.

Buddhism argues that people who do harm and are selfish need light for their problem is ignorance. The ignorance and lack of knowledge and unwisdom are doing the evil not them. Buddhism argues that to be altruistic you must bring them light and thus react in a nonjudgmental practical way. Keep the thought of sin or immorality out of it.

This is why as regards a God of justice and fair play, Buddhism is definitely atheistic and should indeed be anti-God.

Religion defines altruism as an unconditional love for God and argue that selfless love for others is a gift from him and you cannot have or understand altruism without a firm faith. It is interesting that altruistic discussion is markedly secular. The religious view is hardly mentioned.

Christianity sees prayer as representing altruism and being its best manifestation for unless God is asked to give you a spirit of sacrifice and altruism it will not happen. If prayer does not work then this tells you will be left selfish. Or if your prayer is for some reason not pleasing to God then you will still be left selfish. Maybe the prayer is not real for real prayer seeks an unselfish relationship with God. We ask now in that case if the selfishness punishment? It may be that prayer is impotent for there is no one to hear it and even if there were it would not be acceptable. So you are judged as unworthy as a person and as a person of prayer. Prayer then involves self-righteousness. Prayer is smug so we need to see it for what it is.

That aside, even if prayer were truly good no real altruist holds prayer in such esteem. She or he sees the person who jumps into the water to save a drowning child and thus risking serious danger as doing something that is better than all the prayers that were ever said.

Our writer talks about Ayn Rand, the apostle of rational self-interest.

Rand thinks that because humankind at the core wants to be alive and to be happy that this is proof that humankind is selfish.

Two arguments are poised now against that.
Firstly at most it would make people self-centred but that is not the same thing as selfish. A person who is sick will be forced by their condition to think too much about themselves and is different from the person that just wants to idolise their own self.  When you look around you you see a competition for resources so this forces us to be self-centred too.  You never really can tell if the person grabbing as much money as they can is greedy or afraid.  You know a lot less about discerning selfishness than you think and want to think.

If our programming makes us self-centred, rather than selfish, what then?  The person saying we should be altruistic is just a bully and passive-aggressive and not an altruist at all, ever.

And secondly that trying to be happy can backfire and lead to misery. You are better off being kind to others and not thinking about your happiness for you cannot be a slave to a desire. That will only ruin you. Reality is not about you or about keeping you safe and happy which is the prime reason selfishness will backfire and not deliver on its promise of happiness.

Now altruism can backfire too.  The selfish and unselfish person suffer wreckage alike.

Rand would say that the issue is the KIND of selfishness not selfishness as such. If I am forced by reality and my realism to feed my dog the best of food that does not mean I am unselfish. It means I am just selfish in a way that lines up to reality and keeps on the right side of it.

The argument that we are not selfish for selfish is too destructive makes no sense. It is like saying nobody is really an alcoholic for everybody knows how destructive too much alcohol is.

There is no real argument against Rand's philosophy. Most who do not like it still argue it is the best of a bad lot.  There is something wrong with altruism if all you can do is lie to try and keep people in thrall to it.

The book makes a determined case for altruism but the lack of any real convincing evidence, and a problematic definition of it, shows that there is something wrong with the philosophy of altruism. It is not a philosophy so much as a scheme filled with gaps and assumptions and holes. The only alternative is to say that altruists are in denial about how self-centred they are. Like our tyrants, they have huge self-esteem their own way. They esteem themselves for being the impossible - the altruist!
The failure of a book that puts together all the known arguments for the goodness and validity and practical value of altruism and falls short says it all.


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