Re-envisioning Altruism: Toward a World Where Everyone is a Changemaker

by Jordan Arel

Final Paper

Presented to the faculty of Senior Project Seminar II in the BA Contemplative Psychology Department of Naropa University in partial fulfillment for the degree of Bachelor of Arts

Naropa University

December 2016

Re-envisioning Altruism: Toward a World Where Everyone is a Changemaker

by Jordan Arel


 Jordan Arel                                                              



 Emy Yates

 Peer Reader


 Jason Appt, MA         

 Core Faculty

Copyright 2016 by Jordan Christopher Arel

All rights reserved


I would like to acknowledge the deep well of inspiration and support that the Senior Seminar II class at Naropa has given me during the writing of this thesis, especially my solemate,” Emy, and instructor, Jason.

Your feedback and encouragement have been indispensable.

Dad, you are the one who first inspired me to engage with the world in a deeper way (and continues to do so,) and to you I will always be indebted. Mom, thank you for always being here for me and supporting me every step of the way.

And finally, I want to thank Megan Christensen and everyone at Watson University. Without you, I would have no idea how amazingly powerful the paradigm of social entrepreneurship has the potential to be.


I want to dedicate this senior thesis to all up-and-coming young social entrepreneurs. Your dedication to making this world a better place is what will truly make the difference in the future of humanity. Let’s make it amazing.

Table of Contents

Abstract………………………………………………………………………………………..      7

Preface………………………………………………………………………………………….      8

Introduction……………………….………….…..………………………………………………    12

Summary of Previous Definitions….…………..………………………………..……………….   16

            Ethan Levy……………………………………………………………………………..   16

            Altruism is Generative………………………………..…………………………..…….   17

                        An evolutionary-biological metaphor ….………………………………..………   20

                        Synergism transcends individualism and collectivism.……………….………… 21

            Altruism is Self-Serving…………………………………….………………..…………  22

Social Entrepreneurship: Altruism of the Future? ……………………………………………… 24

            Bill Drayton and Ashoka………………………………………………………….……  25

What Altruism Looks Like……………………………………………………………..………   27

            Self-Care……………………….………………………….…………………..………..   28

            Self-Education and Self-Development………..……………………………..…………  28

            Supporting other Changemakers………………………………………………………..  28

Creating Systemic Altruism………………………………………………..…………………….  29

            Utilizing Education…………………………………………………………………………  29
                        Transformative action institute.………………..…………….…..…………….   30
                        Roots of empathy………………………………………………………………..  31

                        Cicy zhang………………………………………………………………………  32

Conclusion………………………….………………………………………………..…………  33

References…………………………………………………………………………..…………..  36


In a world which is changing at an accelerating rate, we face unprecedented difficulties. The only solution is to create a society which is altruistic, but not altruism as conventionally defined. This new altruism is unique in that it is not self-sacrificial but deeply generative. It consists of generating innovative social solutions which produce benefit to all, including the altruistic actor. This change must be systemic, meaning based in systems, and so sustainable. This systemic change will come about by altering the educational systems which influence our youth. We can give them the worldview that they can change the world in a positive way, and the tools to actually make this change. These are the tools of social entrepreneurship.

Keywords: altruism, systemic, social entrepreneurship, paradigm shift, education


            Soft but brilliant sunlight shines through the lofted windows of my dad’s homey living room.

            “So God put us here to show each other as much love as possible?” I repeat to my dad, awed by the immensity and excitement of such a mission.

            “That’s right,” smiled my dad, in his usual, warm, and instructive tenor. Pride shown through his bright, brown eyes, filling me with joy, a trademark of our relationship. “God’s wish for us is that we treat each person exactly as we would like to be treated.”

            These words would ring in my small, brilliant, curious seven-year-old head for days that turned into weeks and months and years. I mulled over the doctrine of Christianity night after night, knowing that if I was to really be a good Christian I must bring other people to the love, wonder, and salvation of Jesus Christ just as I had been. But before doing that, I had to really understand what faith was, how I could be sure I was doing the right thing and so teach others with the same certainty, how I could know everything I had been taught about God was true, know that I was on the right mission, and use that knowledge and certainty to bring others to the same path.

            As I understood Christian beliefs better and better, and knew more and more about the world I lived in, it was increasingly difficult to understand how what I was taught to believe could be true. If there are so many religions, how do I know mine is right, just because I was born into a family and culture that practices this particular one? If sheer number of believers proves Christianity’s divine anointment, then what about the time in history when Christianity was a minority? Are Christians really the most loving people in the world? Do our beliefs really make more sense historically and in terms of logical consistency? What about the internal inconsistencies? Most of all, how can an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God, send its creation to burn for an eternity in hell, just for believing the wrong thing—when it appears that what the vast majority of people believe is almost entirely a product of culture anyways?

            On my ninth birthday, I received the present I had asked for from my dad. It was a book he had recently read three times which he considered one of the greatest spiritual books he had read to date. The book was Eckhart Tolle’s psycho-spiritual New-Age classic, The Power of Now. The Power of Now opened my mind to a whole new world of spiritual thought. A new dimension had arisen in how I understood spirituality.

Finally, at eleven years old, I read Eckhart’s second book, A New Earth, which brought me to a whole new understanding of what God is and what Christianity is. What I cared about was God, not a belief system that surrounded God. And if I truly had faith in God, then what was important was not what anybody believed, but the most fundamental good thing that can be done for God—serving others. Following the Golden Rule. And the best thing I could do for people was no longer to bring them to believe in Jesus Christ. The best thing I could do for people was to bring them to happiness, to Truth, to love; to knowing for themselves that the deepest happiness they could receive was also in understanding Truth and in finding the deepest possible meaning in life, that of serving others.

From then on, my mission was not guided by a desire to bring people to some belief about God, but to the truth of God, a deep connection to the greatest spiritual truth within, and the kind of life that naturally followed from that connection; a genuinely altruistic life.

Fast-forward twelve more years. I am now a twenty-three-year-old senior at Naropa University, and struggling to put together my ideas of what will make the world a good place, the culminating, grand formulation I am going to present as my senior thesis. What is the fundamental unit, the way of living which each human being must achieve in order to create a world that is fundamentally sustainable, fundamentally happy, and fundamentally loving?

I have become disillusioned with the answers spirituality has given me over the last fourteen years. Even if every person could be in touch with something deeper, find deep happiness, and embody love in their daily lives, how will the big problems and issues in the world be solved? I consider writing my thesis just on happiness. I do believe that the most happy a person can be is in helping others. But this doesn’t seem to hold true for everyone, as many people find their happiness in selfish ways. What about love? If everybody is loving, wouldn’t that make the world a good place? But that isn’t quite it either. Love in that sense is so simple, and the world is only becoming more complex.

Where is the emphasis on creative, critical thinking? Where is the innovation and teamwork that pushes people towards the big solutions that are needed? Most of all, where is the altruism; where is the drive to fulfill not only one’s own needs, or even the drive to fulfill the needs of others in one’s immediate surroundings, but to go out and help all the people in the world who are struggling and suffering, those people who need it most? That’s when I encounter Watson University.

I had heard about Watson University about a year prior, but had not had time at that point to really get into it. Watson is a small, extraordinary university, founded in Boulder, Colorado in 2013. It only has about 25 young scholars, but they are some of the best and brightest, specially selected up-and-coming social entrepreneurs from all over the world. Watson scholars come in with an idea aims that aims to solve a social or environmental problem that they want to make reality, and oftentimes with a venture already well under way. Watson gives scholars the tools they need to make their social entrepreneurial dreams come true, or to improve and scale an already existing social enterprise. When given the opportunity to do an internship at the site of my choosing for another class, Watson is one of the first thoughts that come to my mind.

I have the crazy idea that I could interview some of the scholars at Watson, and find out what makes them so altruistic, which I could then use in my thesis. My instructor, Valerie Lorig, encouraged me in proposing this idea, and Megan Christensen, the VP of Search at Watson, accepts me as an intern and also accepts the idea to do the interviews. If it wasn’t for Valerie’s endless possibilities thinking, and Megan’s entrepreneurial can-do spirit, this amazing opportunity may never have come to fruition.

As I am finally settling into conducting the interviews with the scholars, my ideas of altruism are shattered. I realize that I need to come to a whole new way of thinking about altruism and what it means to help other people. One of the work-studies who I worked alongside at Watson asks a question about emissions trading, and Megan answers that Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, was one of the main players in creating emissions trading. Something about how Megan describes this character sounds intriguing, and as I start to listen to his YouTube videos, I realize that he and his foundation have already created a framework and have been hard at work for many years toward creating a compelling vision of exactly what I am trying to create. He calls this vision the Everyone a Changemaker World. Finally I am coming to an understanding of what a new vision of altruism might really look like. This is the final piece I need to create my thesis.

Re-envisioning Altruism: Toward a World

Where Everyone is a Changemaker

            The world we live in is changing faster and faster (Drayton, 2013), and the way we relate to the world must change to reflect this. Among the most important considerations for modern society is our attitude toward altruism. Altruism is a term which was invented by Auguste Comte in the 1830s, and it essentially means caring for others (Morrison & Severino 2007). While altruism has always been an important moral element of society (Goodman, 2014), it is a concept that needs some updating to accommodate our increasing interconnectedness, technological advancement, and both the creative and destructive potentials that come with these. A new definition of altruism is needed in order to empower each and every ordinary citizen to realize and actualize their extraordinary potential. The challenge is to forge a mindset which harnesses this accelerating interconnectedness and technology and uses it as a force for social innovation, rather than just for increasing hedonistic materialism and consumption.

            For the purposes of this paper, altruism is defined as any action that creates or supports generative solutions to society’s challenges. This directly challenges existing formulations of altruism which are based on the self-sacrificial nature of the altruistic behavior, or the behavior’s origin in the psychological motivation of wanting to be of service to others. The problem with these definitions is that they are restrictive, and they elevate altruism to a sort of super-human act of morality. This new definition of altruism is empowering because it does not restrict altruism by saying that it requires self-sacrifice, nor is having a purely selfless motive important. What is important is that the altruistic action targets real-world change in a way that is generative. Generative means that these solutions seek to transform systems and generate value in a way that is sustainable, by taking advantage of market-based solutions to social and environmental challenges.

            Altruism, thus defined, is essential as humanity continues in the twenty-first century. Humanity poses an increasingly great threat to the planet, and such radically generative and innovative action may be the only behavior that can save us from several sources of impending doom. Global warming, the depletion of clean water, the depletion of oxygen-generating sources, and the potential of nuclear holocaust are a few examples of how the world is direly threatened by lack of altruistic behavior, hence, a lack of the solutions altruism could generate (Elgin, 1993).

            Just as social problems are becoming more pressing, repetition-centered jobs are falling and becoming automated, not only in the physical realm but also in the mental realm (Drayton, 2013). Banking and determining eligibility for loans, for example, is an intellectual job which is becoming automated which will eliminate an enormous amount of work (Drayton, 2013). The good news is that there is a huge opportunity here, for us to move from repetition-centered work to social-solution innovation type work. It is possible to be inspired by the trauma that the world is suffering and to actually use it as fuel for becoming more empathic and more resilient, thus doing more good rather than letting these issues divide or undermine us (Staub & Vollhardt, 2008). The key is that we need to move now, to show that this is possible, to show how it is possible, and to teach children beginning in childhood the skills that will be necessary to be changemakers.

            To address these issues, it is essential to effect systemic change, that is, change in the very systems and structures of society. Only systemic change addresses the roots of these problems, not just the symptoms, and only systemic change is sustainable. But most of all, there is a specific kind of systemic change that is absolutely critical because it underlies and affects all systems. This type of change has to do with our very psychological orientation toward the world around us, and the need to restructure the systems that help us form that psychological orientation.

            The systems that affect our psychological orientation are primarily those that affect how we form our worldview and lifestyle from childhood, systems such as education. In turn, such psychological change can transform the many types of systems that we interact with, by changing the fundamental way in which we all relate to them. The system changes that result will be determined by the type of psychological change which is being targeted. What is necessary for society now is a systemic change that creates a new psychological attitude toward altruism.

            Existing views and ideas about altruism, however, are highly problematic and limiting for the new world that is arising. Therefore, the first step in creating systemic change for altruism is to create a new idealistic paradigm of altruism. It is essential to base our systems in such a schema of altruism in order to create a sustainable world. We must start by understanding the possibilities arising in our evolving world, and then create a framework within which we can actualize our optimal potential. Defining the characteristics of this new paradigm of altruism is the purpose of this paper.

            Until now, altruism has been defined, by psychologists and evolutionary biologists, as action that is self-sacrificial in nature. As the world becomes increasingly inter-connected, and as walls between the social-sector and the business-sector break down, social business and social entrepreneurship are making it so that altruism no longer has to equal self-sacrifice. New innovation in the way changemakers create change in the world has already shown that helping people can produce profit in addition to benefitting the social good (Drayton, 2013). Not only that, but positive psychology is shining a new light on altruistic action, revealing that in addition to being socially and personally profitable, it can also increase our physical well-being, and promote the deepest form of happiness (Post, 2011).

            Altruism, marked by this attitude of social innovation, must come about systemically because those who are successful social entrepreneurs are known to have a certain psychological profile (Drayton, 2013). This is not a psychological profile that our current educational system knows it should cultivate, or knows how to cultivate (Drayton, 2013). Our current educational system is modeled after the factory, and it was modelled in such a way so that it could produce factory workers (Drayton, 2013). Going forward, schools needs to be re-structured to teach skills such as empathy, teamwork, leadership, and changemaking skills (Drayton, 2013). Furthermore, change is only lasting and sustainable if it is based in a stable system which will self-reinforce if it is successful, so targeting education that is informed by and informs the upcoming paradigm-shift is essential.

            This paper begins by looking at a brief summary of evolutionary biological and psychological definitions of altruism, and discusses why these are inadequate for the new paradigm we are entering. It continues by looking at social entrepreneurship as a possible framework for the expression of this new altruism. Then, an explanation is given of what this new paradigm of altruism says about what altruistic action will actually look like in the world. Finally, there is a call for more research and innovation around what an education that induces this type of altruism might look like.

Summary of Previous Definitions

            The interdisciplinary nature of altruism means that there have been many attempts to define the term (Büssing, Kerksieck, Günther, & Baumann, 2013). Evolutionary biology says that altruism exists “when a behavior reduces the fitness of the actor but increases the fitness of the recipient” (West, Gardner, & Griffin, 2006, p. R482). Alternatively, psychological definitions tend to focus on internal intentions and motives of the altruistic actor (Hoffman, 2007). So why does this paper call for a definition that is social in nature, assessing benefit to society, rather than biological effects on fitness or internal states of intention?

            In short, these previous definitions are based on scarcity and limitedness for evolutionary biology, and questioning motivation and purity of intent for psychology. This re-envisioning of altruism is based on the idea that altruism can be generative, that is to say, a single person can create innovation that is socially valuable, and has a much greater benefit to society than cost to individual. Second, altruism is something which has a massive benefit to others, but it usually benefits the individual as well, and motivation is not as important as these results. After a brief example from one of the Watson interviews of why altruism may not fit into conventional definitions, evolutionary biology will be addressed, then psychology.

Ethan Levy

            Ethan is as mind-blowing as any of the Watson scholars. Even as a young boy, growing up in Baltimore, he was already trying to be an entrepreneur. At 7 he invented “Which, What, Who” (to satisfy his boredom), at 12 he started “Shoe4You” (to make money off his friend’s shoes), at 15 he started “swAP books” (to save money on books), at 16 he started “Yourteenagent” (to bridge the adolescent and professional world), and at 17 he started intramural sports (to continue the glorious days of gym). After a stint at Tulane University studying social entrepreneurship and international business, he started at Watson with his website “FailUp”, a platform which gave young entrepreneurs the power to formulate and display their ideas, vote on each other’s ideas for the ones they like the best, and accept failure as a step in learning what doesn’t work. He hoped it would be like “Facebook for entrepreneurs.” He now calls this idea naïve, and is attempting to understand the ‘entrepreneurial mindset’, which he hopes will give him insight into how to move forward in supporting entrepreneurs in their quest to innovate.

            When I mention how my thesis is about trying to understand ‘altruism,’ Ethan frowns and cocks his head to the side. At first I think maybe he is unfamiliar with the term, but then he goes into what was a deeply perplexing but extremely useful explanation of his hesitance. He says he does not really identify with being altruistic. To him, altruism is something distant, something saints achieve, something exalted and “probably something I should work on.” He says he just wants to help out entrepreneurs because he has been trying to be one, and empathizes with their struggle.

            This bothers me for a while. Until I realize that he is right; altruism, as previously defined, does not fit what he is doing. The projects he is working on could have a ripple effect that affects and helps so many people, yet he is not sacrificing himself in the process. What is important is the power of his innovative ideas, and the good they can do for society. Altruism as we know it does not give him the credit he deserves.

Altruism is Generative

            Evolutionary biology’s concern with altruism has mainly to do with genes and whether or not altruistic genes can really be passed on if they cause a reduction in the fitness of an organism (Dawkins, 1989). According to evolutionary biology’s point of view, the only time altruistic acts are likely to occur is when organisms are genetically related, meaning that altruism, while not helping an individual survive, will at least help that organism’s genetic material to be passed on via altruistically helping genetically related kin (Dawkins, 1989). While there are a few strong examples of activity that technically fit this definition of altruism in the animal kingdom, such as the hive and colony behavior of bees and ants (West et al., 2006), this paper gives an alternative to the biological question of whether human genes can or cannot be altruistic by appealing to the social construction of certain traits in human populations, suggesting that altruism is arising as just such a socially constructed trait.

            Examples of such traits which humanity already possess abound. One such example is language and literacy. A lineage of non-social organisms developing language and literacy on their own through pure force of natural selection is at a glance absurd. Without some driving force selecting for competency in communication and symbolism, no organism could possibly make significant strides toward such goals. And even if symbolic understanding of reality provided some marginal benefit to an organism in its goals of survival and reproduction, there would be no mechanism to pass down this symbolic reality without some broader form of social structure. Yet, it seems inevitable in the course of human evolution due to our complex society and highly relational and social nature that we have devised language and subsequently made literacy virtually mandatory in the post-industrialized world. And humanity has done so much quicker than evolution could explain, or our genes could catch up with.

            Essentially, we have cultivated language through many years of living together in society. We all share the benefits of a common alphabet, writing, and spoken communication, and so the practice of language proliferates and grows because of its beneficial social nature. Many things we have created rely on similar social forces, such as creating and spreading new inventions, having a government, and furthering science. Without invoking social forces, these would all be utterly incomprehensible for evolutionary biology. They simply cannot be explained purely in terms of genes and biological evolution because they are socially constructed. Altruism can similarly be produced in a stable and powerful manner by social forces.

            Regarding why this new definition of altruism transcends the ordinary limits of biology, it is important to understand that altruistic action can actually create more value for others than it costs oneself. Through social innovation and social entrepreneurship, which will be discussed shortly, the benefits we create for each other become exponential. Systemic change that improves a person’s life will make it so that that person can then be more effective in creating even more systemic changes, and so on. This ‘social economy’ is very different from a traditional ‘consumer economy.’

            In consumer economies, there is an assumption of limitedness, a zero-sum-game, in which each person fights for resources and to produce better products that will then be consumed by others. The hope for producers is that they will reach the top of the pyramid and accumulate the most capital possible, while consumers seek to consume as much as possible for the lowest price.

            In contrast, social economy has the potential to be based on abundance (Drayton, 2013). Rather than seeking to produce and consume as many goods as possible, social economy is about collaboratively solving as many social and environmental problems as possible. Social economy is not about competition but collaboration, as each person’s success contributes to the social good, making it possible for each other person to succeed more. One person founds the first library, another helps educate the undereducated, another devises implementation for solar-energy, yet another encourages new paradigms to create a systemic change in how we see altruism. Each person adds their synergy to the pot, and the result is an ever-expanding web of solutions (Drayton, 2013). Rather than trying to push each other down and climb to the top, this model moves toward an equilibrium in which every single person has enough empowerment to be changemaker for good in the system. Abundance and teamwork drive growth, rather than scarcity and competition.

            An evolutionary-biological metaphor. One picturesque metaphor for this shift in how the economy will function comes right from evolutionary biology itself.Much as single-cellular organisms formed into colonies, then made the quantum leap of becoming a unified, multi-cellular organism, humanity seems to be entering uncharted territory, and undergoing an extraordinary, never-before seen process. This is a bigger leap in development than we have ever seen before, and it is going to happen extremely fast (Drayton, 2013). The explosion of technology and the collapsing of walls between the business and social sectors are opening up the possibilities of humanity functioning in a whole new way (Drayton, 2013).

            This new way of functioning transcends old understandings of altruism versus egoism because this new kind of altruism is an emergent property of a radically different world system. Just as a multi-cellular organism cannot be understood and explained by a bunch of singular cellular organisms working together, humanity’s new arising behavior cannot be explained in terms of old understandings of single organisms working together as a group.

            In this globalization process, whose remarkable pace of acceleration is still so unbelievably brand-new, the new directions in which the world may go next are profoundly unfathomable. Yet, if we are to survive and thrive, these considerations are important, and most important of all, is to remember that nobody is separate from the process; each individual potentially may play a part in creating the future, especially at such a pivotal time in history.

            Because we now have such striking power to influence our environment, it is important that we direct our development as a species in a way that is deliberately constructive. Recognizing that our momentum in the direction of interconnectedness seems to be unstoppably strong, it seems advisable that we take a lesson from nature in how to make the transition from single-cellular to multi-cellular—at least insomuch as this metaphor is applicable.

            We have already developed incredibly specialized functions. This is one thing we excel at. Our communication systems for different parts of the ‘body’ of humanity to communicate need to be improved, and collaborative entrepreneurship gives some clues as to how this may be done. Rather than some top-down force coming in and directing change, a good way to do this is to observe what changes are already happening, what direction entrepreneurs are moving society in. It is then possible for networks of entrepreneurs to come together and collaborate toward the goals humanity is trying to achieve. This is the goal of some associations which have already arisen, such as Ashoka, which came up with the term collaborative entrepreneurship (Drayton, 2013).

            This new way that humanity is coming together as a single body comes with a host of challenges as well as opportunities. Both the challenges and the opportunities center around the need for us to all become altruistic in a new way. Altruism has the potential to unite us and make us more powerful together than we ever could be apart. It is important to understand, however, that this is not simply becoming more collectivistic and less individualistic. What is needed is to come into a society where everyone is empowered, where everyone is a changemaker, to create a society that is truly synergistic.

            Synergism transcends individualism and collectivism.  In the new world we are entering, one understands oneself to be not merely an individual, nor a cog in some collective machine, but a uniquely equipped creative being that must be a contributing part of an intricate system, through being a unified, optimally functioning individual.

It is time to move beyond the false dichotomy of individualism and collectivism, and moving into this new altruistic paradigm achieves this unity by helping individuals realize that they are an integral part of the world-system they live in. When one realizes that they are inseparable from this system, and that they in fact create this system through their thoughts, actions, and relationships, it becomes possible to create this system consciously and deliberately. Through this deep participation in the part one plays in creating the world they inhabit, individuality is not lost, rather their individual capacities are sharpened and tested in the most important way possible—contributing to the world in relationship to one’s widest conception of it, becoming a global citizen and relating to the entirety of one’s fellow humanity in all its current distress and possibility, in the most comprehensive, intelligent way that one can muster. In doing this, we can come to a place where the synergy of an altruistic society transcends what are assumed to be the limits of biology, through the social construction of this powerful new paradigm.

Altruism is Self-Serving

            Psychologists often focus on what motivates an action to determine whether or not that action is considered altruistic (Büssing et al., 2013). When an action’s main goal is to help temper burdening situations for another, or to help alleviate suffering, such action is considered altruistic (Büssing et al., 2013). It is important to note here that psychology is highly concerned with whether or not there is any reward or direct benefit, and sometimes even indirect benefit (Büssing et al., 2013). Some psychologists also address second-order satisfaction for the altruistic actor (Büssing et al., 2013). In second-order satisfaction or gratification, it is also a consideration whether or not an action is satisfying one’s self-concept or identity (Büssing et al., 2013). According to Batson (1990), preeminent researcher in the field of altruism, much of current psychology’s focus in altruism research is on whether or not altruism, thus defined, can even genuinely exist.

            Batson (1990) points out that most of psychology, since its inception, has held an implicit belief that, at best, helping others is just an indirect way of helping ourselves. The argument runs that we are social egoists, and able to value others only instrumentally, never as ends in themselves (Batson, 1990). Batson’s focus on this makes him strongly representative of the field of the psychological study of altruism, and his main argument is that humans can be genuinely altruistic via empathy, which intrinsically motivates altruistic action (Batson, 1990). Many of Batson’s experiments focus on showing that at least some altruistic action is rooted in empathy, which distinctly makes it altruistic, as opposed to being motivated by trying to relieve one’s own empathic distress, avoiding the guilt of not helping, or feeling good about oneself by helping (Batson, 1990).

            Again, this paper has a very different focus than the main focus of altruism research in psychology. Because psychology is so hyper-focused on the question of whether altruism exists or not, in the pure form of being motivated solely by the desire to help others, it misses the profound possibilities of altruism which are arising in today’s world. Altruism may actually be most sustainable when it produces direct benefit for the actor as well as the recipient, so excluding action that benefits the actor in addition to the recipient from the definition of altruism is severely limiting. While it is useful to understand how empathy promotes and strengthens altruism, future research needs to focus more on how empathy turns into creating innovative, generative solutions.

            The second major point about altruism is that it can be self-serving, rendering all of the sound and fury of the raging war as to whether or not true altruism psychologically exists a moot point.

            The emerging field of positive psychology has already started to show this. The highest form of gratification one can achieve is doing something meaningful with one’s life; a state of self-actualization in which one continually serves others (Post, 2011). People who achieve this are the happiest, healthiest people out there. Because most of psychological research has become highly reductionist, it misses much of the emergent and holistic view of altruism which puts altruism in the context of an entire way of life rather than an isolated incident. The desire to serve a greater purpose inspires and motivates people when things seem bleak and it is hard to find personal strength (Post, 2011).

            The fact that altruism is self-serving in these ways is especially important in the early stages of the upcoming paradigm, before altruism reaches a social endemic level. Until then, those who capitalize on altruism will be those who are the innovators, those who see that it is of benefit to both themselves and others and seize on the opportunity. The social sector is quickly growing but still small (Drayton, 2013), and because it is so wide open there are still many extraordinary possibilities available for those willing to take the plunge.

Social Entrepreneurship: Altruism of the Future?

            One field worth looking at to understand how altruism is being shaped as we move into the future is the emerging trend of social entrepreneurship. Bill Drayton, who popularized the term social entrepreneurship (Singh, 2013), liked to explain it with the analogy that  rather than giving a man fish or teaching him to fish, social entrepreneurs are the type of people who will not be satisfied until the entire fishing industry has been revolutionized (Drayton, 2013). Social entrepreneurship is defined by the fact that it seeks to address the fundamental roots of a problem and not just its symptoms; one might say it is about hand-ups rather than hand-outs (Durieux, 2011).

            Social entrepreneurs seek to bring about social and environmental good (Durieux, 2011). Sometimes this results in personal profits, sometimes it does not (Durieux, 2011). In social business, profits are not maximized, but only taken to sustain the enterprise and its social ends (Durieux, 2011). Benefit corporations, or ‘B-Corps’, are another model which put social and environmental benefit right in the corporate charters, alongside making a profit (Durieux, 2011). Traditional non-profits can also be a form of social entrepreneurship (Durieux, 2011). What each of these may have that make them truly social entrepreneurial is utilization of market-based solutions, which mean they do not have to be dependent on subsidies or grants (Verloop, 2014). Because social entrepreneurship addresses problems from a perspective that takes into account what the market for change is, the solutions can be applied broadly, called scalability (Verloop, 2014). They are sustainable and systemic, because they use innovation to find lasting solutions which strike as close to the root of the problem as possible (Verloop, 2014).

Bill Drayton and Ashoka

            Bill Drayton is an important force to understand in the world of social entrepreneurship. He started the prestigious Ashoka Foundation in the 1980s, which has grown to a membership of 3,000 fellows today (Singh, 2013). His foundation serves as a funding agent and support network for many of the best social entrepreneurs in the world. Within five years of becoming members, fifty-percent create policy change at the national level, and eighty-percent change the pattern in their field at a national level (Drayton, 2013).

            Bill Drayton’s model for the levels of change consists of four levels (Drayton, 2013). The first is direct service (Drayton, 2013). This level is something like being a teacher, therapist, or aid worker. One is directly helping others through their actions. The next level is scaled service, in which teams are generated so that more people are working together to make a change (Drayton, 2013).

            The third level is where social entrepreneurship really comes in (Drayton, 2013). This is the level of pattern change (Drayton, 2013). Changing a pattern means shifting the way that something is done within a field (Drayton, 2013). Pattern changes come from innovative solutions created by entrepreneurs (Drayton, 2013). By addressing entire systems rather than just particular aspects, pattern change is able to create sustainable change within a field (Drayton, 2013).

            The fourth and final level is framework change (Drayton, 2013). An example of a framework change is Bill Drayton and Ashoka’s primary mission, creating a world in which everyone is a changemaker (Drayton, 2013). At the level of framework change, it is not a particular pattern within a field that is changed, but the whole paradigm of a field, or in this case, the whole paradigm of society, which shifts (Drayton, 2013). The framework which Bill Drayton wants to create is one in which every person is raised from childhood to have the skills required to be a changemaker (Drayton, 2013). These skills include empathy, teamwork, leadership, and changemaking (Drayton, 2013).

            Empathy is the first and most important skill, because it is what the other skills are based off of, and it is the skill that gives the primary impetus to want to make a change (Drayton, 2013). Empathy gives one the capacity to understand that others are suffering, and gives one the intrinsic motivation to fix it. Teamwork allows one to work with others, which is essential because no large-scale change is ever made alone (Drayton, 2013). Leadership is the skill of guiding one’s team based on the goals determined by empathy, and changemaking are the entrepreneurial understanding and skill-set that directly addresses creating innovative solutions to social problems (Drayton, 2013).

What Altruism Looks Like

            An important consequence of the understanding of this paper’s exposition on the grim current state of the world and the necessity of paradigm shift is a fundamentally new understanding of what actually constitutes altruistic action. To really understand what helping others is, it is important to consider whether or not an action is likely to contribute, directly or indirectly, to creating a society which will have a fundamentally sustainable psychological paradigm.

            This view is highly counterintuitive. Helping people out of poverty into a system that is not sustainable may just be accelerating the destruction of the world. Reading a book about systemic change, or social entrepreneurship, on the other hand, may help inform a person on how they can create a radically better society, and so these could be deeply altruistic acts.

            Understanding the world and deliberately creating a better world are thus the most fundamental building blocks of altruism. There are few things one can do to ensure our future is a bright one, other than understanding what the world’s issues are, and creating systemic change to address them. In particular though, one can always do exponentially more good by showing others the benefits of being altruistic and offering them the tools to practice altruism. Because the world is extremely complex, there are also a few other considerations to make when considering what actions might be altruistic.


            One area of special importance to consider when aiming for altruism is self-care. It is a problematic cultural misconception that those who want to help others are self-sacrificial. By taking optimal care of oneself first, one’s capacity to help others is exponentially increased. This includes taking care of one’s mental, emotional, social, spiritual and physical health. It also means striving toward happiness and optimal functioning in all areas of one’s life, so that one’s altruism is proactive and not reactive. It is usually much easier to be rational and effective in helping others when one has a level of peace in one’s own life.

Self-Education and Self-Development

            While it may seem like the best thing to do is to immediately go out and start changing the world, there are other considerations that can be helpful to make an optimal impact. Educating oneself about the areas one seeks to make a change in is one such critical factor. This includes studying the past and what has been tried in the past, studying the problem, both in an academic sense, but perhaps more importantly in the sense of personal, careful, critical contemplation and examination of the issue.

            Another thing to consider is what kinds of skills and qualities will help one to make the kinds of changes that most need to be made. Sometimes this requires significant development, and so the most fundamental skill to develop is a growth mindset. This is a mindset in which one actively believes that they are able to achieve something if they put enough effort into it, and so put as much work into achieving that goal as is needed (Dweck, 2006).

Supporting other Changemakers

            Sometimes the best thing we can do to make powerful changes in the world is not in creating change directly, but in helping out others who are making even bigger changes than we could. Ashoka does this by giving its members a minimum amount of money so that they will be able to live without working, so that they can put their full efforts into making their social entrepreneurial ventures a reality (Drayton, 2013).

Creating Systemic Altruism

            It will be important to invoke a social entrepreneurial sort of spirit if we hope to inspire more altruism in the world. Research in psychology can provide a few clues for how to do this. However, due to the radical nature of this new paradigm of altruism, there are major leaps of thought required and a great degree of creativity and innovation must be involved in developing ways of targeting this goal. At this point, the most agreed upon direction seems to be through revolutionizing the educational system (Drayton, 2013). Yet there are few, if any, proven ways of educating children in a way that they will learn to be altruistic, as this paper defines altruism. This section of the paper will attempt to point out a few directions that seem promising or that are being explored by social entrepreneurs already.

Utilizing Education

            In order to shift toward a culture of altruism, the most important audience to target is children. While adult acceptance of such a radical paradigm shift would be ideal, it may not be feasible or practical to expect the vast majority of adults to make such a shift after having already learned to relate to the world in the current limited paradigm. Unless mainstream education can be radically transformed to better support altruism, it is unlikely that systemic altruism will become sustainably established (Drayton, 2013).

            What is first and foremost important is understanding what makes people move toward an altruistic paradigm, and what skills are required to be successfully altruistic. Studying populations of social entrepreneurs as Ashoka does might be a good place to start (Drayton, 2013). Another approach is to review the literature on the development of qualities such as empathy, teamwork, leadership, and altruism, though it is important to look closely at what is meant by altruism, as it often may not align with values that are altruistic in the sense that this paper proposes. Empirical research can be especially helpful in revealing general principles for further testing in real educational settings. For example, Farsides, Pettman, & Tourle (2013) found that media content that had altruistic examples was effective in increasing both elementary and college students’ altruism scores, but only if they personally reflected on the material. While the study’s definition of altruism did not exactly match this paper’s definition, there may be some correlation, and it may be useful to test if this principle would hold true in creating this type of altruism.

            A third place to look is at history, such as psychobiography of famous figures who served humanity, as Erikson did (Fadiman & Frager, 2013). Developing theories on what qualities are required for social entrepreneurs to be successful is the first step. Then, ways of teaching these qualities can be devised and tested.

            Transformative action institute. During his doctoral research, Scott Sherman investigated what strategies correlate with success and failure when people try to change the world (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.). He studied hundreds of case studies across many social causes, and what he found astounded him (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.). Many of the strategies he had been taught as a community organizer and a lawyer turned out to not be effective in solving social issues and conflicts (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.). In fact, these strategies are often counter-productive. They can actually create an ‘us versus them’ atmosphere where tremendous resources and energies are wasted in fighting, while solutions go undiscovered (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.). As a result, many good-hearted citizens who are working for democracy, the environment, health care, and other important causes become burnt out, exhausted, and overwhelmed (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.)..

            What Sherman realized through his research was that the people who were actually successful in creating real change were people who could transform enemies into allies, hatred into goodwill, and figure out how to have collaboration where before there was only conflict (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.). Those who were successful were coming up with win-win solutions that were beneficial to all stakeholders (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.). Sherman decided to call this set of tactics ‘Transformative Action’, and outlined three primary principles for success; exposing injustice, transforming animosity into goodwill, and creating innovative win-win solutions (Understanding Transformative Action, n.d.).

            Sherman’s institute further delineated six skills which they teach to help put this formula into action, which include resilience, creativity and innovation, empathy, emotional intelligence, transformative communication, and luck (What We Offer, n. d.). Organizations that have utilized Transformative Action’s curriculum include Ashoka, Watson, Unreasonable Institue, Educate!, Princeton, Yale, and Berkley (Home, n.d.). While the Transformative Action Institute does not explicitly have a mission of training youth in these findings, they have proved to be a great example of the first step in the chain, researching and devising training material that can help people become effective changemakers in the world. The next step is to really put these ideas into action by implementing ideas in educating children of all ages.

            Roots of empathy. In order to pilot test approaches to get the development of altruism empirically proven and widely accepted, it is important to design simple, non-invasive approaches that can easily be applied alongside regular schooling (Gordon, 2005). Mary Gordon, a Canadian Ashoka fellow, educator, and social entrepreneur, has devised one such approach, called Roots of Empathy, which requires only one hour each month of school for three years (Gordon, 2005). A real live baby, called ‘the professor,’ is introduced to an elementary aged classroom, and the children are asked to try to interpret what the professor is saying, what it is feeling (Gordon, 2005). This has been proven to dramatically reduce bullying, and is hypothesized to increase empathy in the young children (Drayton, 2013). While this is not necessarily guaranteed to bring about altruism, it seems to be a step in the right direction. What is important is that this is just one example, and within Ashoka alone there are hundreds more (Drayton, 2013). Furthermore, what is especially notable is that 178 Roots of Empathy programs have already been implemented in 133 schools, across five provinces in Canada. Using social entrepreneurship, programs to educate children in a new way have a much greater chance of being adopted universally, because social entrepreneurs know how to strategically implement their ideas (Drayton, 2013).

            Cicy zhang. In interviewing scholars from Watson University, I am continually humbled and inspired by how much these young people have often already done to change the world. Cicy is one such inspiration. After studying for her college entrance exams in Beijing China, she failed to get into her dream college by only a few points. She had studied day and night for a full year, memorizing textbooks, and all that information she learned was ultimately for nothing. What was especially important about this disillusionment, however, is what she did with it. She realized that even for the students who did get into the college, the overly academic studying was still pointless. Inspired by this seeming obstacle, she and two friends started YouthPower, an organization that gives high school students a chance to design and implement their own social projects, usually related to environment and sustainability, cultural heritage protection, and aiding disabled groups. She is now at Watson to learn the skills needed to take her venture to the next level.

            At twenty-two years old, she and her team have already delivered over two hundred leadership training workshops, including some in more than twenty developing countries. Her venture has already served over ten thousand high school and college students, and she is hoping to get her methods integrated into mainstream Chinese education by leveraging initiatives China has recently set forth calling for more engaged, social-focused curriculum.

            I am struck in amazement by how on track social entrepreneurs are to creating the type of world we need. Cicy’s venture aims to help students develop empathy, problem-solving skills, and social skills. The leadership development model Cicy’s team has created includes leading a task—which cultivates decision making, project management, and innovation mindset; leading others—which cultivates team building, effective communication, and cross-cultural integration; and leading self—which cultivates self awareness, goal setting, and mindfulness. Cicy’s model and venture is just one example of how all the tools needed to be a changemaker can be included in education. What is required now is the social entrepreneurial spirit to make such a vision into universal reality.


            In the world we live in, we are at a tipping point, and it is as yet to be seen which way the scales will tip. Will we destroy the world, or will we make it into a kind of utopia? The answer lies in whether we can work together to find collaborative solutions to the world’s problems. This attitude of working towards finding solutions could be called altruism. But altruism must not be thought of as self-sacrifice; indeed this is not how many of the most altruistic people think of themselves. In a world where everybody is altruistic, everybody will be working to make the world a better place, and doing so in a sustainable way, as in social entrepreneurship. Solutions generate more social goods and resources for everyone, as well as the deepest feelings of a meaningful life. Altruism even boasts the benefits of producing physical, mental, and emotional well-being for the altruistic actor.

            Humanity has the extraordinary potential to come together in a unique new way, as a single organism. This may seem like a huge evolutionary leap, and perhaps it is. But the fact that our synergism transcends all previous definitions of individualism and collectivism make this leap worth making. We now have the potential to create a world better than could have ever been imagined, a world where the number of solutions outrun the number of problems, a world based on abundance rather than scarcity.

            Social entrepreneurship may be both the best example of such altruism and the best route and model we currently have to follow. Its trademark is that it seeks systemic, sustainable, market-based solutions to problems. Bill Drayton’s vision of social entrepreneurship is particularly compelling, in that it seeks to use social entrepreneurship itself to create an educational system that gives everyone the power to be a changemaker.

            Altruism, ultimately, means working toward just such a world. One lens is viewing altruism as having several levels, including direct service, scaled service, pattern change, and framework change. It is hard to say whether direct service, and even scaled service, really contribute to an altruistic world or just keep attempting to sustain an unsustainable world, so pattern change and framework change are essential goals in creating an altruistic world. These are also the goals of social entrepreneurship. It is also important to remember that self-care, self-education and self-development, and supporting other changemakers are also all powerful tools in the altruist’s tool belt, as they can help make oneself and other changemakers even more effective.

            What is most important in creating an altruistic world is to create an education system that supports it. This will produce altruism sustainably by generating it at a systemic level. While social entrepreneurs are just beginning to innovate and implement such educational structures, we can already see that the main steps are to first understand what skills are required for altruism, such as empathy and changemaking skills. The next step is to figure out how these skills can be taught in the classroom, and then to implement and spread them through social entrepreneurial strategy.

            Because the world is changing so fast, it is hard to say whether this approach to creating a better world by creating systemic altruism will stand the test of time. Until then, it is one of the most compelling approaches available. The best test of this theory is the test of time, and seeing whether social entrepreneurship continues to grow and provide the most powerful solutions to the world’s problems. It is yet to be seen whether education can really be designed in such a way that it produces such altruistic individuals. But more research and experimentation in such new schooling may be the most fruitful path to see if such altruism can be produced and whether its production can indeed change the world.


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