An overlong but vigorous gloss on the Dalai Lama’s famous remark, “My religion is kindness.”
Former geneticist and longtime Buddhist monk Ricard (Happiness, 2012, etc.) sets out to prove that true altruism exists, but he winds up exploring nearly the whole of human nature. His task is compounded by the Hobbesian mood of the age, when the individualistic mode is one of “irresponsible selfishness and rampant narcissism, to the detriment of the well-being of all.” However, altruism means many things to many people. Ricard generally agrees with researchers who hold that it is the motivation and not the “intensity” involved that counts: for it to matter, in other words, altruism is less the instinctual sacrifice of throwing oneself atop a hand grenade in a foxhole than the self-negation that comes, in one of the author’s examples, with abandoning a promising white-collar career in order to dig wells for impoverished villagers. One great virtue of this virtuous book is Ricard’s ability to poke holes in received wisdom. For example, he observes that while some abused children become abusers as adults, more often, they decide to “do the opposite of their parents when they have children.” Sometimes, the author is imprecise: cutting down on meat consumption won’t really “prevent 14% of deaths in the world,” since all of us die; perhaps he means death will be forestalled in that many cases. Elsewhere, Ricard ranges too far in quest of examples; his revisiting of the Holocaust-era extermination squads Christopher Browning writes about in Ordinary Men (1992) draws perhaps the wrong conclusion, for the opposite of that murder would not be guilty weeping but instead a policeman’s taking the place of a victim. Still, Ricard’s book, full of good behavior on the part of humans—and other animals—is of a piece with Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) in suggesting that we don’t have to be rotten.
Inspirational in all the right ways but a challenge to get through it all.