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George Price’ tryst with Altruism


Does altruism/selflessness really exist? Where does true altruism/selflessness come from?  These were the questions that had occupied a brilliant, yet troubled, mind of George Robert Price, founder of “Price’s Equation” which is regarded by many as the most accurate mathematical, biological and evolutionary model for altruism.

In his quest to understand altruism, Price inevitably dissected many complex and timeless concepts as self-sacrifice and kindness, and eventually became so vexed by the selfish reasoning for kindness embedded in his own mathematical theory of altruism that he set out to prove the theory wrong by committing a seemingly endless number of “random acts of kindness” to complete strangers. It is said that he had spent the latter part of his life helping alcoholics and the homeless by sheltering them in his home. This lead to catastrophic consequences including theft of his valuable belongings. Yet, undeterred, he continued his “altruistic” endeavor until the day he was forced to move out of his house due to a construction issue. When he was unable to help the homeless any longer, he went into a deep depression and, finally, on January 6, 1975, he committed suicide.

George Robert Price (October 6, 1922 – January 6, 1975)

George Robert Price (October 6, 1922 – January 6, 1975)

The story of Price, can raise several question in minds of many. Like: Is altruism healthy? If it is then why did Price committed suicide? After all, suicide is often the result of an unhappy and/or unhealthy mind. Also by practicing altruism what good did Price beget?

His case was presented to me by an individual with an intention to depict the “virtues of selfishness”. But when I asked him if by being selfish has he attained the eternal happiness his response was: “At least I am not broke!” That may well be true, but selfishness is no guarantee for eternal prosperity, either!

To provide befitting answer to such questions I find Vedas and related Vedic scriptures, particularly Yoga Vashistha, more effective. Vedic ideas and ideals seeks humanity not just to pursue prosperity, but also wisdom. Wisdom, says Vedas, is the key to eternal bliss.

Yoga Vasistha declares “Only when we serve the very root of mind with non-conceptualization can we achieve wisdom and, through it, the absolute peace.” The greatest impediment in case of Price was his excessive bondage – first to science (or mathematics?) and then to religion. According to Vasistha, “Bondage is an eternal impediment for attaining peace” and “is caused through unwise ideas and thoughts.”

The “Modern Science” takes great pride in its accomplishments and yet, it has hardly been able to device ways to find ways to establish eternal peace; neither in the human mind nor in the world – at large. Besides, even though Price’s Equation could “describes how a trait (like altruism) or gene changes in frequency over time” it could hardly find the source of altruism itself. It is this quest through science and religion (Roman Catholicism) which failed him completely. It’s important to understand that neither science nor religion asks its followers to shun bondage. As a matter of fact they seek to thrive on bondage.

The root cause of Price’s pain is assumed by the “modern thinkers” to be his loss of wealth. According to Vedic seers and savants like Vashistha the root cause of all human pain is Bondage. Until humans are bound to objects, ideas or people they are sure to suffer pain. Freedom from bondage is the only path to the eternal happiness. 

To put it in a very subtle way Altruism is defined as “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” But Price was doing acts of kindness to prove a theory wrong by committing a seemingly endless number of random acts of kindness to complete strangers. Now, when you do something with some selfish motive (even if it’s not a material object) it’s so not Altruism. What Price did was with an clear selfish motive and was completely stupid in helping those in ways counterproductive not just to himself but also the one, he thought, was trying to help. He was bonded to an objective and bereft of wisdom. 

So remember: It’s not Altruism when you do some charity with the intent of getting publicity or to prove your “generosity”. Altruism is when you do good without ANY expectations or bonding. Given this it’s unwise to relate story of Price to Altruism and then say that altruism is vice and/or counter productive.

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