Selfish, Altruistic, or a Mixture of Both?

Reflections on Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism and the Debate about Human Nature

I’ve recently finished reading an excellent book called Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. This book by a French Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard offers a passionate argument, buttressed by the insights of Buddhism and Western science, for the existence and transformative power of true altruism: genuine concern for the well-being of others, untainted by self-centered motives. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it. Here, though, rather than summarizing or reviewing the book as a whole, I want to share some reflections on a major topic that both this book and A Course in Miracles address: human nature, and how our view of human nature impacts our efforts to build a better world.

Of course, views of human nature have been many and varied throughout history, and what I share here will in no way cover those views in all their variety and complexity. But, speaking broadly and following a major line of argumentation in Ricard’s book, I want to talk about two contrasting views that have been prominent in the West. Ricard himself expresses these views this way:

One of the biggest questions debated in Western civilization is whether we are born good and predisposed to cooperate with each other before society corrupts us, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed, or born selfish, indisposed to help each other and only taught by society how to behave in a more civil way, as Thomas Hobbes asserts. (Altruism, 208)

Ricard’s book is essentially an extended argument for the “born good and predisposed to cooperate…before society corrupts us” view; indeed, immediately following the line cited above, he presents “research carried out over the past thirty years” that in his view “weighs in favor of the former hypothesis” (Altruism, 208). The research he cites is fascinating, though I think there’s a different way to interpret it, as will become clear as we proceed. For now, I’d like simply to say a bit more about these two views.

First, there is the view that human beings are born evil or selfish. The prototypal story in this way of seeing things is the Adam and Eve story of original sin, which says that human beings and nature are in a fallen state, and what we need to do is fight against that inherent evil as best we can and hope for God to somehow save us from it. Even as many thinkers began to leave religion behind in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, this dark view of human nature and of the world remained in many forms: the above Hobbesian view of human beings as self-centered creatures who need a Leviathan (an autocratic state) to keep them under control, evolutionary views of nature as a realm “red in tooth and claw” governed by the “survival of the fittest,” the Freudian view in which our selfish and conflicting impulses need to be tamed by socialization, Richard Dawkins’s depiction of the world as an arena in which “selfish genes” endlessly replicate themselves, etc.

Second, there is the view that has gained traction more recently: the view that human beings are born good or altruistic. The prototypal story in this way of seeing things is some version of the pre-fall Eden of pristine nature; indeed, the (now) Episcopalian priest Matthew Fox wrote a popular book titled Original Blessing. In this view, as the title of Fox’s book suggests, what we need to do is clear out the evils introduced by modern society so we can get back to our original pristine state of harmony and oneness with nature and each other. This view gained steam with thinkers like Rousseau, and it too has taken many forms: the nineteenth-century Romantic glorification of the state of nature and primitive man as a “noble savage” superior to us depraved moderns, libertarian political views that say everything would be great if we just got government out of the way, evolutionary views that emphasize the role of cooperation (which, as Ricard notes, is actually a significant theme in the works of Darwin), the New Age exaltation of the world as the gloriously interconnected “Gaia,” etc.

So, we have two prominent views of human nature here, and while both acknowledge the darkness and the light of human experience, they see the relationship between these two elements quite differently. One view says that we are inherently evil and selfish, so we need civilization to make us good. The other says that we are inherently good and altruistic, so we need a major overhaul of our evil (or at least deeply flawed) civilization to rediscover that we’re good. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but most people’s views of human nature do tend to tilt in one of these directions or the other.

Where does A Course in Miracles stand on the question of human nature? (Here, I’m using “human nature” to refer to the nature of human beings on earth, rather than to what the Course regards as our true nature.) I believe that the Course, as it does on so many issues, goes in a direction all its own here. I want to suggest that from the Course’s standpoint, both evil/selfishness and good/altruism are deeply embedded in human nature and in the world—neither is, at its root, a product of human society—but that fortunately, the good/altruism side is more deeply embedded. Indeed, the good news according to the Course is that the evil and selfish side is ultimately an illusion that will eventually be undone completely by the good and altruistic side, which is at the heart of reality itself.

To unpack this statement, let’s take a look at how the Course views both sides, starting with the evil/selfish side. The Course says that God is love, but that we, His Sons, made this world—and indeed the entire physical universe—out of our mad desire to be separate and different from Him and from each other. We made this world, it says, as an “attack on God” (W-pII.3.2:1). As a result, deep in the very fabric of this world-long predating human society—is a fundamentally evil and selfish drive that the Course calls the ego. We as human beings identify with this drive, which the Course calls “the evil self I made” (W-pII.303.2:2) and metaphorically depicts as the devil, whose will is “powerful, active, destructive and clearly in opposition to God” (T-3.VII.5:1). Therefore, far more of our decisions than we realize are self-centered attempts to gain at others’ expense—which is evil, whatever we may choose to call it. Yes, we do cooperate with each other as well, but unfortunately much of our “cooperation” is just selfishness in disguise. It is what the Course calls “giving to get” (T-4.II.6:5), a bargain in which we give in order to gain something better for ourselves.

And as I mentioned, the Course claims that this drive is woven deep into the very fabric of the world itself. The world we live in is soaked with the dynamic of entities selfishly gaining at the expense of others. It is, in my colleague Robert Perry’s phrase, a “circle of lunch,” in which all living things survive by eating other living things—but only for a little while, for the common lot of all is death. In the Course’s words, “so do all things live because of death. Devouring is nature’s ‘law of life'” (M-27.3:6-7). Ecological interdependence, so often celebrated in modern times, really boils down to the fact that everything needs to kill/consume/reproduce with other things to survive and keep the carnage going. Yes, there is plenty of cooperation, but this too is mostly “giving to get.” Things join in alliance against other things; they are allies in the war, but it is still a war. And until we fundamentally change our minds, the Course says, this nightmarish state of affairs will continue.

But in the Course’s view, there is also a whole other side to humanity and the world: the good/altruistic side. Precisely because God is love, He is pure generosity, and we as His Sons, created in His image, are at our deepest core as infinitely generous as He is. In a prayer addressed to God, the Course puts it this way:

You only give. You never take away. And You created me to be like You, so…I, too, must give.…I cannot lose, for I can only give, and everything is mine [and everyone else’s] eternally. (W-pII.343.1:3-6, 11)

Thus, even deeper than the illusory world driven by the ego-predating not only human society but the world itself—is a heavenly realm rooted in the fundamentally good and altruistic drive that the Course claims is an inherent aspect of our true identity, a fundamental aspect of reality itself. And though this is a nonphysical reality beyond the earth, this pristine reality of love and generosity can and often is reflected on earth. The Course is adamant that true altruism and genuine cooperation do happen here. We as human beings can get in touch with the innermost truth of our being, and when we do, that innate love and generosity is unleashed. In fact, this is the very path of A Course in Miracles, its way home to God: We are meant to devote our lives to offering miracles—purely altruistic expressions of love-and through this undo the ego and all its evil and selfish ways.

And the Course’s promise is that as we do this, the whole world will be transformed. As we see the world with loving spiritual vision, the inherent goodness underneath its forms will shine forth so brilliantly that “The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God’s perfection” (T-17.II.6:3). And since in the Course’s view not only human beings but all living things are Sons of God, the Course suggests that nature itself will be transformed into a more genuinely loving, cooperative, and truly interdependent place. The Course speaks movingly of the world’s transformation, and of the gratitude our brothers and sisters in nature will feel when they behold the light in us:

There is a light in you which cannot die; whose presence is so holy that the world is sanctified because of you. All things that live bring gifts to you, and offer them in gratitude and gladness at your feet. The scent of flowers is their gift to you. The waves bow down before you, and the trees extend their arms to shield you from the heat, and lay their leaves before you on the ground that you may walk in softness, while the wind sinks to a whisper round your holy head. (W-pI.156.4:1-4)

As we make that fundamental change of mind the Course aims to bring about—a change in which our identification with the darkness of the ego is replaced by our recognition of the light of our true nature—the Course’s ultimate promise is that this will (most likely a very long time from now) bring us back to the eternal realm of pure love and generosity that we never really left:

The world becomes a place of joy, abundance, charity and endless giving. It is now so like to Heaven that it quickly is transformed into the light that it reflects. And so the journey which the Son of God began has ended in the light from which he came. (W-pII.249.1:5-7)

Of course, I don’t know if this admittedly unconventional take on the way things are is true. But I have to say that it makes a lot of sense to me. It explains a lot, and it accords with what I have observed in the world and in my own experience. What if it is right? If it is, I see at least three significant problems with both the “human nature is evil/selfish” view and the “human nature is good/altruistic” view as I’ve discussed them here:

  1. Each view overestimates the side it advocates and underestimates the other side.
  2. Each view grants both sides a certain degree of permanence, so there will always be a conflict between them.
  3. Each view thus tends to make it more difficult for us to choose goodness and altruism unreservedly and permanently.

Let me say more about these three points, beginning with the first. A big problem with the “human nature is evil/selfish” view is that it blows the evil and selfishness out of proportion and doesn’t give the good/altruistic side its due. This elevation of our selfish instincts over our generous ones is so ingrained in the modern mind that it may seem like simple “realism.” However, according to actual research carried out in many disciplines, this view that we are born evil and selfish with no truly altruistic instincts is almost certainly false.

This is a place where Ricard’s book really shines: He presents hundreds of pages of evidence for true altruism, drawn from research in fields as diverse as evolutionary theory, genetics, brain research, psychology, economics, and political science, just to name a few. He confronts head on the many theories out there that enthrone and at times even celebrate selfishness as the central fact of existence. He shows that in many cases, these theories are more a product of unquestioned ideology than of careful research. He shares inspiring stories of people and even animals giving of themselves without being motivated by selfish gain, and he convincingly debunks claims that all such acts are just selfishness in disguise. In short, he emphatically claims that true altruism—genuine goodness—really exists, and as I contemplate this mountain of evidence, I find it difficult to disagree.

However, as laudable as this new emphasis on our generous and cooperative instincts may be, I think this “human nature is good/altruistic” view ends up with its own version of the problem I’ve expressed in my first point: It overstates the level of goodness and altruism in the world and doesn’t give the evil/selfish side its due. Now, in saying this, I don’t want to be unfair to advocates of this view. Ricard, for one, clearly takes the dark side seriously. He doesn’t just glibly dismiss it; on the contrary, he speaks eloquently about how to face it squarely with wisdom and compassion. Yet I do think that the position that we are born good and altruistic, with our evil and selfishness being mainly the product of human society, is also almost certainly false.

I think the research presented by Ricard supports the conclusion that we have an altruistic instinct deep down, but not that we have only an altruistic instinct deep down. Let’s face it: Even if advocates of the view that human nature is evil and selfish are driven to a certain degree by unquestioned ideology, they didn’t just pull this view out of thin air. There is a lot of darkness in our human experience and in the world around us—so much so that dark views of our nature and the nature of the world have been with us throughout human history. Whatever the ultimate truth of the matter, there does at least seem to be an evil and selfish drive in us that is much deeper than theories of human society can account for.

And in my opinion, what everyone in the good/altruistic camp seems to overlook is an idea central to the Course: Any world constructed like the one we currently live in—a world of separate individuals in finite space with limited resources, individuals encased in fragile and vulnerable bodies that depend on consuming other bodies to survive until they too inevitably die—has selfish attack built into the very system, long before humans ever come on the scene. I see this fact overlooked again and again as I read accounts of how wonderfully cooperative everything is. For instance, when Ricard cites evolutionary biologists’ accounts of animals cooperating to protect the group against predators, I can’t help but think, “But there are predators.” The evil and selfishness of humans, then, is not some aberration added to a previously good and cooperative system; it is, rather, an expression of that system, a system that runs much deeper than we want to admit. I’ve read countless attempts to redeem this system, but I personally find the Course’s view impossible to escape.

Now let’s turn to the problems expressed in my second and third points above: that each view gives both the evil/selfish side and the good/altruistic side a certain degree of permanence which leads to inevitable conflict between them, and that as a result it is more difficult for us to choose goodness and altruism unreservedly and permanently. This is easy to see in the case of those who say that human nature is evil and selfish. After all, this view claims that at our core we are basically monsters, and nothing we can do will fundamentally change this fact. Yes, the civilizing influence of human society can improve our behavior to some degree, but it will always be in tension with the darkness that really drives us. We are thus condemned to the constant state of anxiety that Freud spoke of, because there’s no real resolution to the problem of selfishness. We can strive to do better, but we’ll never really be able to choose goodness and altruism once and for all. Sadly, the battle will never end.

On the face of it, those who say that human nature is good and altruistic would seem to offer a way out of this battle. After all, if we are truly good and altruistic at our core, in theory it seems that eventually we could completely purge ourselves of the evil and selfishness generated by human society and usher in a golden age of altruism. But here we run into the same problem I discuss above: No matter how we try to minimize it, selfish attack is built into the very system of life on earth. The circle of lunch and all the things that come with it—attack, sickness, suffering, and death—are permanent features of life on earth. Yes, we can and should reduce the negative impacts of this by creating a more loving and cooperative human society. But in the end, we still have an inevitable tension between the darkness built into in the system and the light we are striving to make more manifest. Here too, we’ll never really be able to choose goodness and altruism once and for all. Again, the battle will never end.

This brings me back to A Course in Miracles. Again, I have no way of knowing with certainty that what the Course says is true. But I ask again: What if the Course is right? If it is, in my mind it offers satisfying solutions to all three of the problems I’ve highlighted:

  1. Its view gives both sides the weight they deserve. This enables us to not over—or underestimate either side.
  2. Its view grants only the good/altruistic side permanence, so the apparent conflict between the two sides can and will be ended.
  3. This view thus enables us to eventually choose goodness and altruism unreservedly and permanently.

Let me expand on all three points here, starting with the first. As I’ve said, I think a problem with both of the more conventional views we’ve discussed is that each claims that one side is deeply rooted, while the other side is a more superficial phenomenon generated largely by human society. This can lead to taking one of the sides too lightly, and therefore not sufficiently taking it into account. But in the Course’s view, both the darkness and the light in us arise from a far deeper place than we are usually aware of. Neither one is either overestimated or underestimated. Both are deep and powerful forces in us and in our world, and both therefore need to be given their full weight: We need to fearlessly face the full depths of our darkness and fearlessly let in the full brilliance of our light. The Course claims that doing both things is necessary to bring about the more loving, cooperative, and altruistic world that Ricard and others are so powerfully and movingly calling for.

Now to the second point: Another problem we’ve seen with both of the more conventional views is that because each grants both sides some sort of permanence, each sets up a battle between conflicting forces that can never be resolved. The Course’s view, however, resolves the apparent conflict by saying that only the good/altruistic side is ultimately real. Yes, human nature as it is expressed in this world has two deeply rooted sides, but one side is much more deeply rooted: Only the good side is rooted in reality. Therefore the conflict, though it must be squarely faced while we believe it is real, is ultimately a battle between reality and fantasy, which means it’s not a real conflict at all. As such, if we follow the loving way that the Course and so many other paths advocate, the battle can and will be ended in favor of the good.

This is such an inspiring view of how things are, and I think many people intuitively sense the truth of it. If I may speculate, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Ricard’s stance that we are at heart good and altruistic is itself based on an intuition of the Course’s view. Indeed, though I’ve expressed disagreement here with certain aspects of his position, I’m also very inspired by what his view and the Course’s have in common: at the deepest level, reality is loving, good, cooperative, and altruistic. I think there’s a lot of common ground to build on here. We agree on the heart of the matter.

This leads finally to the third point, which to me is the best of news: The Course’s view, I believe, enables us to eventually choose goodness and altruism unreservedly and permanently. Why? We’ve already seen some of the reasons above. One is that if the Course is right, it enables us to unabashedly affirm the good and at the same time to unflinchingly acknowledge the evil. In my mind, this gives us the proverbial best of both worlds. Because it affirms the power of goodness, it gives us inspiration and hope that our quest for love and light will not be in vain. Because it does not deny the power of evil, it enables us to pursue that quest with an open-eyed, unromanticized respect for what we’re up against—the ego may be illusory evil, but it is evil. This combination of genuine hope and fearless honesty will, I believe, take us much more quickly to the goal we seek.

Another reason we’ve seen above is that if the Course is right that ultimate reality is only good, then the seeming battle can and will be ended in favor of the good. How can a “battle” between eternal truth and ephemeral illusion end otherwise? However much we may feel tempted to give in to the devil whispering in one ear, the angel whispering in the other is ultimately easier to choose, because what that angel says is the truth. We can’t lie to ourselves forever; the glory of our loving reality has a compelling power that in the end we simply cannot resist. It is the only thing we truly desire, however much we may think otherwise. It is God’s Will as well as our own true will. If all this is so, how can we not ultimately choose goodness and altruism without reservation and for all time? The choice is inevitable. As the Course says, “A happy outcome to all things is sure” (W-pII.292:Heading).

I want to end this piece by very briefly addressing a final question: How can we bring this happy outcome about? What do we need to do? Here I see more accord between the path Ricard lays out and the path of the Course. Ricard has many prescriptions for bringing about a more altruistic world in his book, but they seem to me to fall into two broad categories:

  1. The inner work: mind training through various exercises (including meditation) aimed at cultivating love, wisdom, compassion, and altruism
  2. The outer work: extending the fruits of this changed mind through expressions of love, wisdom, compassion, and altruism to all beings, especially in our relationships with other human beings

Ricard’s broad prescription, which he personally lives out mainly through his Buddhism, is very similar to the broad prescription offered by A Course in Miracles. Adding a bit of Course terminology, I’d put it this way:

  1. The inner work: mind training through various exercises (including meditation) aimed at cultivating miracle-mindedness, a state of mind characterized by love, wisdom, compassion, and altruism
  2. The outer work: extending the fruits of this changed mind through miracle doing—extending miracles, “expressions of love” (T-1.I.1:4), wisdom, compassion, and altruism to all beings, especially in our relationships with other human beings

Let me comment briefly on the last phrase I used in both of these prescriptions: “especially in our relationships with other human beings.” Throughout this piece, I’ve maintained that human society is not the fundamental cause of either our selfishness or our altruism, so it may sound odd to give it such a prominent role here. Yet as ironic as this may be, I think human society does have a prominent role in our awakening to goodness and altruism, and indeed the preeminent role. According to the Course, the problem started with the primordial choice of God’s Sons (way back before there was a physical universe) to separate from God and from each other, and therefore the solution comes down to the choice to reunite with God and with each other. And in this world, human society is the primary arena for this choice-a choice we make day by day, moment by moment, with everyone we encounter.

In the end, as both Ricard and the Course make clear, everything comes down to this power of choice. Yes, each of us has a mixture of both selfishness and altruism in us; as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” But we can choose which side of our human nature to commit to, cultivate, and make manifest in the world. We can look at both sides honestly and from that honest perspective choose the good that is at the heart of our being. We can choose, moment by moment, to live lives of extraordinary goodness, lives that reflect the true altruism that is our eternal inheritance from God.

I thank our brother Matthieu Ricard for giving us such an inspiring reminder of our deepest reality and the power we possess to access that reality, change ourselves, and change the world. What are we waiting for? Let us roll up our sleeves and get busy giving!

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
If you enjoyed this article, you might like this one!
To learn more about our community of A Course in Miracles students, visit Course Companions.