Do we prevent somebody being hurt by superstition or faith by rejecting and challenging those things? 

Is it mistaken to support organised religion in membership or donations?

If people do good because they are human, not because God prompts them then is it right to risk giving God any credit when they alone own their good?


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

What does he mean by altruism? Here is the answer he accepts:

For the altruist, the only thing that matters is the goal for the other person. It is not about you or how you feel or what you desire. Kristen Monroe (University of Irvine, California) spoke of how we must mean one thing only by the altruism word - doing things to help others and expecting or looking for nothing back and taking a risk of loss for ourselves to help that person. Good intentions are not enough - the goal of how you are supposed to help must be very clear and the clearer the better.

This is actually commanding you to do good and not just to do it but to do it and make the choice to keep any benefit to yourself out of your mind. It does not say why it is wrong to help x so you can feel you are a hero. We are never told the why. Altruism becomes a matter of being commanded by some authority - typically a human one which is why it backfires so much!

David Batson as a psychologist defines altruism as follows: "a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another's welfare." For him there are two altruisms. One is the goal of helping others - simple as that. The other is means altruism where you help others so that you feel happy and fulfilled. True altruism is according to him about the first.

Batson is the author of Altruism in Humans and insists that an altruistic action has to be motivated for if instinct takes over and you react fast that is too automatic to count as altruism or anything else. He says you have altruism and selfishness but the only thing that matters is the quality. Having a good quality motive to help makes you altruistic not the degree to which you are free from selfishness. It is about quality not quantity.

Pity can pose very well as altruism. But it usually is just a feeling and no action to help is taken. It is a game to look caring. Pity is hypocrisy for if John was suffering we would not take the suffering if we could instead of John on the basis that somebody has to take it. We would not say, "Better for me to take the suffering for John if I can for he does not want it and at least unlike him I can consent to it. Better to suffer out of choice than not to."

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 book argues that the suggestion that human nature is just selfish or always mainly selfish protects itself from evidence that it might be wrong by explaining away altruistic actions. For example, the soldier may die for his comrades for he wants to be thought of as a hero.

If somebody has a theory or doctrine and there is no way to show it is false or unlikely then it is clearly not just unscientific but anti-scientific. It is an ideology. It is about serving the idea not the truth.

But the same can be said if you assume that human nature is mainly unselfish even if it may be a very confused way of going about being unselfish.

The same can be said if you assume that human nature is mainly spiritual or about a desire for God.

Clearly ideology is bad, that is certain. It is selfish in a bad way.

If we need ideology to decide if human nature is mainly selfish or non-selfish that is actually proof that we should assume the former! To use a bad thing to show people are caring and genuine is proof that they cannot really be regardless of how they act.

He asks an important core question: Are we selfish because we respond to our own desire to help others? Are we selfish then?

So he decides that that seems to be ridiculous for it amounts to saying that if you don't want to help and the more you don't want to do it then that is all the better if you do it.

[Many see us as self-centred rather than selfish there. They say self-centred is you making it about you but selfish is what you would be if you were helping them in a way that makes you see them as inferior. So self-centred is close to selfish and selfish is just approaching others in a way that has no true respect for them.]

But it does not amount to saying that. That is a straw man argument. It amounts to listening to what the desire is saying and acting without acting out the desire. That takes huge self discipline. It is about trying to make it about the other person not what you desire or feel.

Other critics say you can only be motivated by your own desire to help and not by the other person's desire to be helped. This seems to define motivation as desire but its not the same thing. You can be motivated to do something that is necessary but which you absolutely hate doing.

A tendency to act and a desire to do it are not the same thing. A motivation is a reason for acting and is more about seeing what needs to be done not about how you feel about it.

Joseph Butler said that human nature cannot be pure selfish for whether you wish good for others or bad in both cases you are still interested in others and what is going to happen to them. So even the vindictive person is thinking of others - just not in the right or best way.

But since when is me thinking about my fat bank account showing I am not selfishly hoarding up money? The way I think is what makes me selfish!

For violence to be waged, it is believed that people must become more selfish 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 to a lack of altruism or to people not being altruistic enough.

Thus 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.

He talks about Ayn Rand.

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 against that is that at most it would make people self-centred but that is not the same thing as selfish.

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. But to that you can say that the issue is the KIND of selfishness not selfishness as such. If I am forced 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. Selfishness is what happens when you have an amplified and unrealistic idea of how great you are. It has 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!

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. Strangely 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 the reason a religion can murder left right and centre and still end up cherished like today's Catholic Church.

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?

Compassion is about wanting people to have benefits even if they don't deserve them so it involves judging. To want them to have benefits because they don't deserve them is not 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.

If there is no good then nobody can do it to me. The good I want cannot exist unless I and the rest of humanity let it or make it. So if I do good to others is that because I want to make good and strengthen it? Is my motive that I am doing it for me by doing it for another? A selfish person may give John medicine so that the medicine can be medicine for if there is no medicine or it does not work the person will not have it available for herself or himself. Good in a sense does good for us. Is that what it is all about? Yes. We all know that. So no matter how unselfish you are, you are trying to make and channel good. ME ME ME is there underneath it all.

The book cherishes this quote. Martin Luther King Junior said, "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it." That seems to encapsulate what a true man of peace would say. But look closely. Take a violent group. Do we leave it alone for it will come apart anyway and the members will eat each other alive? We will attack it and thus show that we do not really agree with King. And notice how the quote risks seeing the bad person as the cause of all the terrible things that happen to her or him but bad people are and can be victims too!! Its very judgemental. A mean spirit wants people to bring on themselves the bad things they deserve. It is people's favourite type of justice. Alarmingly it says, "The violent person is only trying to get rid of evil and bad." it blames bad things not human nature for violence! The Stalins of this world are just good men who are misunderstood! The quote is such rubbish that it is obvious the only way to curtail violence is to bring people together more and dropping out of us and not them schemes such as religion.

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 if you are selfish, is that punishment? Or is it just that the prayer is not real for real prayer seeks an unselfish relationship with God? It can be both. In both cases you are judged as unworthy as a person and as a person of prayer. 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.

The book makes a good 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!