‘Waging War, Eating Meat, Capitalism – Evidence Of A Harrowing Lack Of Imagination’

Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist who loves science more than incense, believes the logic of cooperation will, by a process of natural selection, eventually come to replace the logic of neoliberalism. With the government currently displaying less compassion than ever for vulnerable citizens, it was high time for a conversation with the author of “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World”.

  • Matthie Ricard on true altruïsm: ‘The starting point is to unambiguously do good for someone else, for instance by raising the other’s level of welfare or by reducing or altogether eliminating his suffering.'

When author David van Reybrouck first mentioned that Matthieu Ricard was to visit Belgium, my response was: Matthieu Qui? One of the greatest Buddhist thinkers in Europe was apparently not on my radar.

I discover a thinker who in no way corresponds to the clichés. Rather than quote age-old, hermetic texts, Ricard uses his extensive knowledge of scientific research to test his philosophical convictions. ‘He’s a man in a suit rather than a European in Asian monastic robes’.

The latter didn’t apply however when I finally met up with Ricard at the Amsterdam canals. I forgot to enquire why he considers it important to wear his stone red and saffron yellow robes. He might as well have asked me why I’d picked a black shirt to wear to the occasion.

Imagination does not require power

Altruism, Matthieu Ricard states, is not the same as either empathy, solidarity, brotherhood, apprehension, or reciprocity. ‘When we have different words to describe related concepts, it’s usually with good reason.’ Altruism is all too often confused with empathy, Ricard adds, and especially with the kind of empathy he calls affective resonance: I suffer because I see you are suffering.

‘The starting point is to unambiguously do good for someone else, for instance by raising the other’s level of welfare or by reducing or altogether eliminating his suffering.’

‘Empathy delivers important information and frequently functions as a warning that someone’s in need of help or support. But people who perpetually find themselves in this alarming state of human sympathy, will “burn out” quickly. They become emotionally exhausted because their feelings are constantly invaded by the signals given off by those around them. If the fire alarm in your home were to go off continually, day and night, it would likely wear you out, too.’

True altruism, Ricard, maintains, is a mental disposition, a motivation and an intent. ‘The starting point is to unambiguously do good for someone else, for instance by raising the other’s level of welfare or by reducing or altogether eliminating his suffering. In that case, you can speak of compassion.’

I interject that merely stressing the intention may be a tat too simple. You could, after all, have many good intentions only to discover that “circumstances” are preventing you from acting on them. What use, then, are they to someone else?

Ricard turns the argument around: ‘If you help people in order to boost your own image or to improve your sense of well-being, it’s likely you’ll stop helping them as soon as it ceases to be relevant to you. Or you’ll do things without carefully investigating the problem’s actual causes or the true needs of the people you’re trying to help. Put differently: if you help people for any motive other than their welfare, your efforts will over time produce different, or let’s say: counterproductive, results.’

There’s an immediate link between the importance of our intention and the impact of our altruistic action. Matthieu Ricard: ‘Certain people are only likely to take action on having personally encountered suffering. Frequently, this leads them to focus on the individual in question and so they tend to miss the bigger picture. Altruism however, is about the actual effect it produces and not about the gleam of benevolence surrounding our deeds. Genuine altruism would have you make an effort on behalf of a hundred children in South-Sudan, whom you’re not likely ever to meet, than that you make an effort on behalf of someone with whom you may establish a personal connection – given the potential risk of acting on impure motives.’

An inability to care about people who live far away, is primarily due to a lack of imagination, according to Ricard, or to a lack of willingness to imagine their emotions, to consider the feelings of the mother with her dying child and no access to hospital care, of the family, still homeless, months after the earthquake.

Ricard expands this relationship between altruism and imagination and applies it to animal suffering and war. He quotes Kafka: ‘War is a monstrous failure of imagination’. In other words: when we see others as people just like ourselves, as fathers, as children, as people with their own life stories and dreams, with families and friends, our readiness to kill them vanishes, because we know their death would cause as much grief and suffering as the murder of one of our own family members or acquaintances.

Not emotionality, but rationality

Ricard’s view is that altruism should be a rational choice and not a matter of emotionality. Better yet it must be a choice geared towards effectiveness. In his view, rationality alone cannot suffice, if only because our current economy is also based on rational arguments.

‘Reason is important’, but it will never convince a selfish individual to advocate for the needs of the poor if he himself isn’t poor.’

‘Reason is important’, he says, ‘but it will never convince a selfish individual to advocate for the needs of the poor if he himself isn’t poor. Reason alone will never push man to protect the environment if that aim doesn’t coincide with his motivation to maximize his own interests. Reason and rationality can be applied equally well by the psychopath as by the benevolent individual. That’s why it’s so important to add the voice of caring man to that of rational man.’

When asked if he would like to free the term rationality from the one-sided way in which the West applies it, Ricard responds that he ‘wishes primarily to place rationality in the service of compassion, as opposed to letting it be used by selfishness.’ Altruistic people are in no way less rational, he adds, they merely have different objectives.

Throughout his entire 864 page-long book on altruism, Matthieu Ricard demonstrates his adherence to scientific examination and verification. The same goes for his most recent work, A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion.

When I mention to him that, because of this, he sounds quite different from other Buddhist preachers and teachers I know of, he immediately responds that he isn’t a preacher. A monk, yes, but not a preacher.

‘Scientists’, he says, ‘aren’t required to disseminate reassuring messages. That the news coverage on climate change makes everyone unhappy, doesn’t imply in any way that scientists have to adapt their message. No one goes to the dentist because they enjoy it, but because it is necessary to take good care of your teeth, and to avoid a whole lot of suffering in the future. He who is concerned for his welfare, sometimes needs to be willing to go the extra mile for it. And the same can be said about collective issues, like climate change.’

Additionally, climate change is sound evidence for the fact that scientific consensus and even moral perspicuity on their own aren’t enough. What we need most to bring about this necessary transition, is a cultural turnaround. Although Ricard knows how difficult this will prove to be, he has reasons to remain optimistic: ‘When you realize that today, there are more vegetarians than hunters in the United Kingdom, even though hunting was still considered inviolable cultural heritage twenty years ago and hunters are a hundred times more organized than vegetarians are, I’m convinced that all cultures are capable of change.’

‘To bring about cultural change, you don’t have to wait until a majority of people is convinced of some new insight. Slavery was abolished at a time when the majority was possibly still in favor of it, and yet, it has since been absolutely impossible to plea for its return. If 10 to 15 percent of society is convinced of a solid and powerful idea, this can be enough to tilt the balance. Gay-haters are considered backward brutes in today’s Europe, but ten years ago, this wasn’t the case at all.’

‘I am convinced the same will be true with regard to the idea of a compassionate economy. Already today, it’s no longer okay to shoot one’s mouth off about how altruism has no place in economic thinking, but the day after tomorrow everyone may already be wondering how it was ever possible to base an economy purely on individual gain.’

An inflated sense of self-worth

Matthieu Ricard is an outspoken opponent of homo economicus, a theoretical human being described in early capitalist theories, whose decisions are entirely based on the making of rational choices that provide him with personal benefits. This homo economicus never existed, Ricard states, because people are much more inclined to solidarity than to the one-sided pursuit of personal gain.

And yet, for the past decennia we’ve been living in a world that stimulates and legitimizes this type of “economic” behavior. Isn’t it possible then, that people have already adopted this mindset to such an extent that they feel the need to comply with said egocentric norms, as they lead to increased societal appreciation and to higher wages and bonuses? ‘That is clearly one of the dangers’, Ricard reacts.

‘Fortunately, a lot of scientists, among whom a Nobel Prize winner in economics, have pointed out that selfish behavior is counterproductive. This hyper-individualistic inflation of our feelings of self-worth is detrimental. But in education, there is nonetheless a strong tendency to stimulate this kind of thinking: each child gets the message that it is the best, each girl is a princess, each boy a champion.’

‘Research shows, however, that this emphasis on our feelings of self-worth only results in narcissism, and in individuals who don’t function properly in the real world – the exact opposite of a successful person. There’s nothing wrong with believing in yourself, but artificially inflated feelings of self-worth are disastrous. This has been sufficiently shown by people like Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenger, known for his books Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic.’

Collaboration is progress

Ricard realizes that neoliberal ways of thinking weigh heavily upon today’s world. At the same time, he’s witness to an explosive growth of non-governmental organizations. These movements thrive, not on maximizing individual needs, but precisely on the understanding ‘that the realization of our own humanity, necessarily implies a voluntary commitment to the welfare of others.’

‘Working together, instead of exploiting one another, is the only way forward.’

His personal hope is that human evolution, which has always selected that which is useful to discard that which is harmful, will purge neoliberalism from human civilization. ‘Working together, instead of exploiting one another, is the only way forward.’

But is the world really heading in this direction? Within the European Union, for instance, people seem more concerned with playing catch-up with a hyper-liberal America than with trying to globalize the welfare state. Ricard understands that there is a problem, and not only with the establishment. ‘Research shows that the use of words like “I”, “me” and “myself” are actually increasing in the media landscape, even in Scandinavian countries.’

Yet, he continues to believe that the future revolution will come from within civil society itself. ‘In the eighteenth century, neither kings nor aristocracy brought about the revolution, even if they were powerful and dominant. They were pushed aside by the merchants. Today, those merchants and powerless politicians will have to make room for NGOs, organizations and movements where people fight for the welfare of others on a voluntary basis and free of charge.’

He refers to what happened after the earthquake in Nepal. Lots of small organizations delivered more and speedier help than most governments could offer. ‘My organization collected more than 3,5 million euros. The French government gave 1 million euros, which is alright, but it pales in comparison to what people can accomplish on their own.’

From the viewpoint of his own effective altruism, this example leads to the question of which specific cause benevolent people should put their efforts into: acting in the place of impotent government, or changing political power so government can (once again) fully exert its role?

‘It’s not an either-or situation’, says Ricard. ‘As more and more people make an effort for the environment, political parties are forced to give that issue more attention. In other words, at some point, the growing movement of civil society has to transition into clear voting behavior. But this doesn’t necessarily fit in well with the left-right pattern we are inclined to employ in political discussions. I campaign for issues that are classically leftist, such as international solidarity, but also for family harmony, which is a classically conservative topic. The political spectrum has to change, and the same goes for national sentiments. I consider myself to be a Frenchman, of course, but I also consider myself to be a world citizen. And the latter carries far more weight than the first.’

The cooperative economy is growing fast

The altruism of the twenty-first century is primarily taking shape in the growth of cooperative movements, in real microcredits, in crowdfunding …, according to Ricard. ‘The cooperative economic sector already accounts for 7 percent of the world economy today and it is the fastest growing sector’, he notes enthusiastically.

‘The cooperative economic sector already accounts for 7 percent of the world economy today and it is the fastest growing sector’

But if he uses these instruments to measure success, it would logically follow that the entire capitalist economy of the past two-hundred years can be viewed as one enormous success – not only because it created an immense amount of wealth, but also because it brought welfare to a whole lot of people.

Ricard: ‘The kind of success I’m talking about here, isn’t about maximizing self-interest, but about strengthening public interest. The biggest success of capitalism has been that it has increased inequality in society – if you want to call that a success.’

‘But I do not mean to turn this into a black-and-white story. The world is not a parable of the Evil versus the Good Angels. At a given moment in history, market-driven capitalism may have presented itself as a better solution to the problems of poverty than an inefficient state economy led by strangling bureaucracy. But continuing on from that, this same market economy needs to be adapted, especially if it is itself becoming inefficient or even counterproductive to the fight against poverty because of the inequality it produces.

The Chinese system is horrendously oppressive, but at the same time, you cannot deny that it managed to free more people from poverty at the end of the 20th century than any other system did. It’s akin to chemotherapy: a destructive intervention that can have a healing effect. Therefore: the challenge time and again is to improve reality as it exists today, for everyone involved.’

Altruism: The power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World is published by Little, Brown and Company. 864 pp. ISBN 978 03 162 0824 6

A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion is published by Shambhala. 304 pp. ISBN 978 16 11 8030 51

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