March 2019 Philosophy Mini-Drive-In (Altruism)

Have you considered donating a kidney to a stranger? Would you run into a burning house to save a child? Have you taken an injured bird to a vet?   Why do we sacrifice our personal well-being to help others? 

Explaining altruistic behaviors has puzzled philosophers, psychologists, and biologists alike. Are we hardwired to be altruistic because we are a social and cooperative species? Is altruism merely a reaction to the misfortune of others, or are we altruistic on principle? Do we find evidence of altruism in non-human animals? Does altruism really exist?

In this TED Talk & Philosophy-inspired movie night facilitated by Thomas Baumeister, we explored questions about altruism through the practice of Socratic inquiry.  Primed by a TED talk film by scholar Matthieu Ricard, we looked at the nature of altruism, its function and evolution, and more.

Some questions that arose in the process included:

  • Does self-interest fluctuate by individual and culture?  If so, why and how?  
  • Would it be better to think about altruistic behavior on a continuum?  Is a narrow definition accurate or desirable?
  • Is altruism really just an ideal?  And, if so, even if it is desirable is it really attainableDoes it even exist?
  • How does motivation come into play — both internal and external?  What about unconscious motivations?
  • How are cooperation and competition related to altruism?  Can competition and altruism coexist?
  • Is it possible that becoming more altruistic requires a sort of deprogramming (i.e., perhaps we are born altruistic and we have become less so due to cultural factors?) . Or is it the other way around?
  • How might we cultivate altruism?
  • How do economic considerations factor into altruism?
  • How might shifting away from ‘self’ and ‘otherness’ and toward ‘oneness’ affect altruism?  Does altruism require this?
  • And more…

TED Talk Film & Synopsis

What is altruism?  According to Matthieu Ricard it’s “the wish that other people may be happy and find a cause for happiness.”  An integral part of nature present in human and non-human species alike, altruism is also a great lens for making decisions, both for the short and long term, and necessary to embrace if we desire a more positive and sustainable future.

About the Thinker

Matthieu Ricard (Nepali: माथ्यु रिका, born 15 February 1946) is a French writer, photographer, translator and Buddhist monk who resides at Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal.  
Matthieu Ricard grew up among the personalities and ideas of French intellectual circles. He received a Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute in 1972. He then decided to forsake his scientific career and instead practice Tibetan Buddhism, living mainly in the Himalayas.  
Ricard is a board member of the Mind and Life Institute — a non-profit org based n Charlottesville, NC focused on the field of contemplative sciences (also referred to contemplative neuroscience — where neuroscience, like fMRI’s, are used to study the effects of meditative practices on the brain).
He received the French National Order of Merit for his humanitarian work in the East with Karuna-Shechen, the non-profit organization he co-founded in 2000 with Rabjam Rinpoche that provides education, health, and social services to economically challenged and underserved people in India, Nepal & Tibet. Since 1989, he has acted as the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama.
For more information visit
(*Biography information Source:  Wikipedia*)

Other TED Talk Resources

Why do some people do selfless things, helping other people even at risk to their own well-being? Psychology researcher Abigail Marsh studies the motivations of people who do extremely altruistic acts, like donating a kidney to a complete stranger. Are their brains just different?


If you’re lucky enough to live without want, it’s a natural impulse to be altruistic to others. But, asks philosopher Peter Singer, what’s the most effective way to give? He talks through some surprising thought experiments to help you balance emotion and practicality — and make the biggest impact with whatever you can share.

Thank you to the Philosophy Learning & Teaching Organization (PLATO) for supporting philosophy in the community and helping us bring activities like these to the Helena community! 

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