1995 – V

Altruism, Ethics, & Compassion

Dharamsala, India
October 2-6, 1995

Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature An edited selection of dialogues from this conference has been published as Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature.

This meeting focuses on the study of altruism and compassion in Western science. We address these topics from a highly multi-disciplinary perspective since altruism and compassion are clearly significant for both the social and life sciences. A historical perspective on the role of compassion in science and the bias in the study of negative rather positive psychological states in the behavioral sciences is first considered. The role of altruism in evolutionary biology is examined and its relevance to understanding human motivation is discussed. The characteristics that determine whether people help other people in need will be the focus of another presentation.

A related topic, and one central to the contemporary world situation, concerns the conditions that give rise to genocidal violence. The ingredients that are essential to positive socialization and the cultivation of altruism and compassion in children are also examined. Finally, what is the relevance of altruistic motives to economic behavior? There is a class of economic problems in which selfish motives, assumed by most economics to underlie all significant economic behavior, are found to be self-defeating.

Scientific Coordinator

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin


Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet
Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D., Regents’ Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University
Robert Frank, Ph.D., Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, Cornell University
Anne Harrington, Ph.D., Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University
Eliot Sober, Ph.D., Vilas Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin
Ervin Staub, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Geshe Thupten Jinpa
B. Alan Wallace


October 2, 1995

Presentation: Science and Compassion — Conceiving the Relationship
Anne Harrington, Ph.D.
This conference’s proposed dialogue on compassion may be conceived as involving an exchange of theoretical views between Tibetan Buddhism and Western science on human nature and its capacities. If so, the dialogue on the Western side might begin by asking about the significance of the fact that the Western sciences of life and mind have historically paid much less attention to the human capacity for loving and caring emotional states than they have to the human capacity for violent, destructive behavior. Indeed, Western science has often assumed that human beings are “naturally” violent and selfish. Alternatively, we may suppose that the topic of this meeting invites an exchange of views on the practices embodied in Buddhism versus science respectively, and how far each are explicitly directed towards the cultivation of compassion. Many scientists once argued that the discipline of the scientific method itself was morally elevating, and that cultivation of scientific rationality would save humanity from its own dark and selfish tendencies, and promote right action. The case of medical science in Nazi Germany provides us with an opportunity to explore reasons for questioning this belief. Having looked at theory and practice separately, we may conclude our attempt to conceive the relationship between science and compassion by asking what relationship exists between scientific theories of human nature on the one side, and science’s understanding of its practical role in society on the other. How can science combine an interest in learning more about compassion with a commitment to instantiating ideals of compassion in its own research practices?

Discussion theme:
Comparison of Western scientific and Tibetan Buddhist theories of the “natural” state of human beings, and their different sense of what must be done to cultivate higher moral thinking and action; what Western science might learn from Tibetan traditions to become more compassionate.

October 3, 1995

Presentation: How are Biological Evolution and Psychological Altruism Related?
Elliott Sober, Ph.D.
Evolutionary biologists use the concepts of altruism and selfishness to describe the effects that a behavior has on an organism’s fitness-its ability to survive and reproduce. A mindless creature can be an evolutionary altruist, if it helps another individual at cost to itself. The everyday concepts of altruism and egoism are quite different; they describe the psychological motives that people have in acting as they do. The theory of psychological egoism says that human beings have as their only ultimate goal the improvement of their own situation; this theory denies that people ever have altruistic ultimate motives. Psychologists and philosophers have debated whether psychological egoism is the correct theory of human motivation. This presentation will begin with some history, describing why the issue of evolutionary altruism has been important in biology. We will then consider whether evolutionary considerations can help clarify the psychological problem of motivation. If our minds are the product of natural selection, does this tell us anything about whether psychological egoism is likely to be true?

Discussion theme:
How should psychological altruism be defined? If people help each other solely because helping makes them feel good, does this mean that people are egoistically or altruistically motivated? Can the question of what our ultimate motives are be resolved by observing how people behave? If not, is it possible to resolve this question at all? If evolution has led parents to want to take care of their children, is this desire likely to be based on purely egoistic motives, or is it more plausible for it to include a genuinely altruistic concern?

October 4, 1995

Presentation: Responsibility and Inclusive Caring in Altruistic Helping and Group Violence
Ervin Staub, Ph.D.
The first part of the presentation will look at research on helping behavior in emergencies, when someone is suddenly in pain or danger. It will focus on how circumstances and personal characteristics lead witnesses or “bystanders” to feel more or less responsible for the welfare of another, and on how everyday social rules can inhibit helping. The second part will provide an analysis of the origins of genocidal violence. It will consider social conditions like difficult life conditions, cultural characteristics like the devaluation of another group, the psychological processes that arise and generate violence, the evolution of increasing violence by perpetrators and the role of bystanders. The third part will describe “positive socialization” of children in the home and in “caring schools” required for the development of valuing others’ welfare and altruistic action, and for the capacity to oppose destructive policies and practices by one’s group.

Discussion theme:

  1. Tibetan Buddhist and Western notions about overcoming the differentiation between “us” and “them;”
  2. Positive socialization for inclusive caring by love, guidance, discipline and learning by doing and by monastic/spiritual training. How can the effects of negative socialization be later overcome? How can compassion and feelings of responsibility be fostered in individuals and nations, so that they become active bystanders who try to stop group violence?

October 5, 1995

Presentation: Empathy-Related Emotional Responses
Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D.
Psychologists have found that various empathy-related emotional responses such as sympathy and personal distress relate differently to the performance of prosocial behavior (e.g., helping, sharing). Research concerning the link between sympathy and children’s prosocial behavior is briefly examined. Then aspects of the family environment that have been associated with sympathy and personal distress will be reviewed, as will research on the socialization of prosocial behavior in children.

Discussion theme:
What does Buddhism have to say about the socialization of empathy and prosocial behavior? What role do emotion and cognition play in prosocial develpment (emotion versus cognition). What role does the concept of karma play (if any) in blaming victims for their problems? Can emotional regulation and meditational techniques be used to foster sympathy rather than personal distress?

October 6, 1995

Presentation: Can Altruism Survive in Competitive Environments?
Robert H. Frank, Ph.D.
According to many Western biologists and other behavioral scientists, competition has assured that narrow self-interest is the only important human motive. In this presentation, we will challenge this prevailing view by describing an important class of economic and social problems in which selfish motives turn out to be self-defeating. Drawing on evidence that reliable nonverbal signals of character exist, we will explain how cooperative predispositions might survive in — and, indeed, even be nurtured by — competitive environments. This account is at once in harmony with the Western view that self-interest underlies all action and, at the same time, with the Buddhist view that there can be great advantage in transcending our selfish tendencies.

Discussion theme:
In evolutionary terms, altruists gain advantage by being able to identify, and interact selectively with, one another. Implicit in this view is the need to avoid interacting with opportunists. What does the Tibetan Buddhist tradition say about avoiding people of bad character?

Evolutionary accounts stress the advantage not only of altruistic motives but also of vengeful ones, as a means to deter aggression in circumstances in which mere threats would otherwise not be credible. How does the Tibetan Buddhist tradition deal with the problem of deterring aggression?