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Home to Professor Peter Singer, Princeton has a special connection to effective altruism, a global movement to maximize the good we do over the course of our lives. For an event titled “In Conversation About Altruism,” Professor Singer invited two guests, Matthieu Ricard and Julia Wise, to share their unique perspectives on what it means to be an altruist. Ricard, originally a molecular biologist, is a now a Buddhist monk and the founder of a non-profit called Karuna Shechen, which runs a variety of humanitarian programs in India, Nepal and Tibet. He is the author of Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Wise is an effective altruist who, along with her husband Jeff Kaufman, donates fifty percent of her income to effective charities. Wise also writes about altruism on her blog, “Giving Gladly.”
The event began with a discussion of Ricard’s life and beliefs as a Buddhist monk and his understanding of what it means to be an altruist. He touched on his experiences with meditation, happiness, and freedom from material desires, providing rich insight into the Buddhist perspective on our relationships to fellow human beings and their suffering. Ricard also gently rejected the title of “happiest man in the world,” which has famously been ascribed to him for many years. He did, however, describe an experience he had while living in the Himalayas with no electricity and possessions, in which he asked himself what material comforts he would want if he could have them, and laughed when he realized he could think of none. For Ricard, achieving this sort of purity is deeply linked to becoming the sort of person who takes pleasure in altruism.
Later, Wise, an altruist from a young age, introduced her own perspective, focusing on the notion that certain people by pure chance possess vastly more resources than others and on her feeling of responsibility to help rectify this imbalance. She also addressed the relationship between her altruism and her role as a parent, and her intention to give her children what they need but not to spend money on superfluous items for them when that money could do more good elsewhere. She described the positive influence parenthood has had upon her altruism, as she can now experience a deeper empathy with the mothers whose children can be saved by the malaria nets and other resources she finances through her donations.
The event was followed by a reception, during which Ricard and Professor Singer signed copies of their books. After the reception, a dinner was held in Prospect House for invited guests, during which the conversation on altruism expanded to other disciplines, including religious, scientific, philosophical perspectives. Some topics explored were the biological bases of altruism, whether there is a single moral standard of how much we should give, and what it means to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering. At the end of the dinner, Professor Singer commented that rigorous discussions on such relevant issues are difficult to come by.
-Laura Ong '17