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Matthieu Ricard argues that altruism is possible and that it helps both the individual and the rest of society. He also recommends some ideas connected with Zen Buddhism such as meditation and mindfulness. He collects a lot of scientific evidence and philosophical discussion to support his case. He casts his net wide and addresses many issues connected with altruism, and he gives a fair assessment of the views of other people. The writing, sentence by sentence, is clear and approachable. Each chapter is divided into sections that make it easier to engage with. There is a good deal of overlap between some of the chapters, but this makes them more self-sufficient, enabling readers to dip into those parts of the book that interest them.
One wonders what the publisher thought when they received the original manuscript, and how long it was. The finished book is 864 pages. Is this the edited version of a much longer work? Why were they willing to publish a book this long? Clearly some people are buying it, and it gets positive reviews on Amazon.com. But it is going to make a profit for them? I'd love to know.
One also wonders about who would want to read this book from start to finish. In the time it takes to read it, one could have done a great deal else, including acts of altruism. Is it morally reasonable to do this? The utilitarian calculation might come out against it. But even from an egoistic point of view, is reading this book a worthwhile way to spend one's time? Not really -- one can get much of the same information summarized much more succinctly elsewhere. There is a lot here that could be cut out, such as the discussion particular cases of altruism and threats to world peace, such as war and climate change. These are sufficiently far from the main topic of the book to make one ask oneself why the publisher's editor didn't insist that they be cut.
Altruism is essentially a journalistic work, summarizing the work of others in an informed work. It does present evidence, but the arguments are nearly always summaries of those given by others. When it comes to philosophy, Ricard's approach boils down to quoting a few views and saying which he agrees. There is very little detailed engagement in philosophical argument. That's not to say that he does not build a strong case for his view: he does. But he does little to advance the argument as it already stands.
Of course, some large books do an excellent job of summarizing the existing literature and illustrating it. Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree managed this and won high praise. But Solomon's themes were more original and surprising, and his thesis was more interesting. Ricard's theme that we should be kind and considerate to others and make the world a better place is hardly a surprising idea.
Dan Woren's performance of the unabridged audiobook is 30 hours long, and still leaves out the last 150 pages of acknowledgments, notes, and references. Woren manages to get through it without sounding like he is reading the phone book, providing some energy and conviction to the experience. Unfortunately, he reads quotations from foreign authors in the accents of their nationalities. This is nearly always a bad idea in any audiobook, and makes the supposedly profound words sound silly.
The most distinctive part of Altruism is its discussion of meditation and its benefits for one's character. But one might be better off going to Ricard's much shorter book Why Meditate: Working with Thoughts and Emotionsto find out about this topic.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches philosophy in NYC.