The Path to Altruism: The desire to help others without consideration for ourselves is not just a noble ideal. Selflessness raises the quality and elevates the meaning of our lives, and that of our descendants; in fact, our very survival may even d

MATTHIEU RICARD

Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk who resides at Shechen Monastery in Nepal, holds a doctorate in molecular genetics and runs 130 humanitarian projects through his organization Karuna-Shechen.

JAN 3, 2014

The Path to Altruism

SHECHEN, NEPAL – “Cooperation,” the Harvard University biologist Martin Nowak has written, is “the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities.” As mankind now tries to solve new, global challenges, we must also find new ways to cooperate. The basis for this cooperation must be altruism.The desire to help others without consideration for ourselves is not just a noble ideal. Selflessness raises the quality and elevates the meaning of our lives, and that of our descendants; in fact, our very survival may even depend on it. We must have the insight to recognize this, and the audacity to say so.

Humanity faces three monumental challenges: ensuring everyone decent living conditions, improving life satisfaction, and protecting our planet. Traditional cost-benefit analysis struggles to reconcile these demands, because they span different time frames. We worry about the state of the economy from year to year; but we consider our happiness over the course of a lifetime, while our concern for the environment will mainly benefit future generations.

But an altruistic approach requires few trade-offs. 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.

This vision of the world may seem idealistic. After all, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology have often claimed that humans share an essentially selfish nature. But research over the past 30 years indicates that true altruism does exist and can extend beyond kin and community to encompass the welfare of humans generally – and that of other species. Moreover, the altruist does not have to suffer for his good deeds; on the contrary, he often benefits indirectly from them, while the selfish actor often creates misery for himself as well as others.

Studies have also shown that an individual can learn to be altruistic. Neuroscientists have identified three components of altruism that anyone can develop as acquired skills: empathy (understanding and sharing the feelings of another), loving kindness (the wish to spread happiness), and compassion (a desire to relieve the suffering of another).

Societies, too, can become more altruistic (and may even enjoy an evolutionary advantage over their more selfish counterparts). Research on the evolution of cultures suggests that human values can change more quickly than our genes. Thus, if we are to engender a more caring world, we must first recognize the importance of altruism – and then cultivate it among individuals and promote cultural change in our societies.

Nowhere is the need to cultivate this recognition clearer than it is in our economic system. The unrealistic pursuit of endless quantitative growth places intolerable strains on our planet and widens inequalities. But reversing that growth would create other problems; forcing people to compete for diminishing assets and resources would spread unemployment, poverty, and even violence.

So a balance must be struck: the global community must lift 1.5 billion people out of poverty, while the excesses of the world’s richest consumers – which cause the vast majority of ecological degradation – must be limited. We need not impose more taxes to achieve this, but we can persuade the wealthy that the eternal pursuit of material gain is both unsustainable and unnecessary for their own quality of life.

This concept of “sustainable harmony” can be promoted by publishing indices of personal well-being and environmental preservation, alongside standard GDP data. The government of Bhutan, for example, already accounts for the “social wealth” and “natural wealth” of its people, in addition to its GDP figures.

We could also establish a stock exchange, alongside traditional securities markets, comprising so-called ethical organizations, such as social enterprises, cooperative banks, microcredit agencies, and fair-trade groups. Several initiatives – for example, in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom – have already taken small steps in this direction.

Small steps lead to big changes. As the value of altruism becomes increasingly obvious, the new approach will spread through the economy, benefiting all of society, future generations, and the planet, too.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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