The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Altruism is either a practice or habit (in the view of many, a virtue) as well as an ethical doctrine.

Altruism can refer to:

  • being helpful to other people with little or no interest in being rewarded for one's efforts (the colloquial definition). This is distinct from merely helping others.
  • actions that benefit others with a net detrimental or neutral effect on the actor, regardless of the actor's own psychology, motivation, or the cause of her actions. This type of altruistic behavior is referred to in ecology as Commensalism.
  • an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help others, if necessary to the exclusion of one's own interest or benefit. One who holds such a doctrine is known as an "altruist."

The concepts have a long history in philosophical and ethical thought, and have more recently become a topic for psychologists, sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. While ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields lead to different perspectives on altruism.


Altruism in philosophy and ethics

The word "altruism" (French, altruisme, from autrui: "other people", derived from Latin alter:"other") was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to serve the interest of others or the "greater good" of humanity. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste, that "[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely." As the name of the ethical doctrine is "altruism," doing what the ethical doctrine prescribes has also come to be referred to by the term "altruism" --serving others through placing their interests above one's own. Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf, while not explicitly asserting an obligation clearly praises what Comte mandates by making a similar claim: "The Aryan is not greatest in his mental qualities as such, but in the extent of his willingness to put all his abilities in the service of the community. In him the instinct of self-preservation has reached the noblest form, since he willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it."

Other philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, have argued that the ethical doctrine is demeaning to the individual and that no such moral obligation actually exists. Nietzsche asserts that altruism is predicated on the assumption that others are more important that one's self. He also says that it was very uncommon for people to consider the sacrifice of one's own interests for others as virtuous until after the advent of Christianity.

Advocates of altruism as an ethical doctrine maintain that one ought to act, or refrain from acting, so that benefit or good is bestowed on other people, if necessary to the exclusion of one's own interests (Note that refraining from murdering someone, for example, is not altruism since he is not receiving a benefit or being helped, as he already has his life; this would amount to the same thing as ignoring someone). A person who embraces altruism, as an ethical doctrine, is known as an "altruist." The ethical doctrine of altruism is in contrast to ethical egoism, which prescribes that one's actions ought to further one's own interests regardless of the interests of others.

Altruism in ethology and evolutionary biology

In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one presumes that natural selection acts on the individual. Natural selection, however, acts on the gene pool of the subjects, not on each subject individually. Recent developments in game theory have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:

The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similaraties to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.

Altruism in psychology and sociology

If one performs an act beneficial to others with a view to gaining some personal benefit, then it is not an altruistically motivated. There are several different perspectives on how "benefit" (or "interest") should be defined. A material gain (e.g. money, a physical reward, etc.) is clearly a form of benefit, while others identify and include both material and immaterial gains (affection, respect, happiness, satisfaction etc.) as being philosophically identical benefits.

According to psychological egoism, while one can exhibit altruistic behavior, one cannot have altruistic motivations. Psychological egoists would say that while one might very well spend one's life benefitting others with no material benefit (or a material net loss) to herself, one's most basic motive for doing so is always to further her own interests. For example, it would be alledged that the foundational motive behind a person acting this way is to advance her own psychological well-being. Critics of this theory often reject it on the grounds that it is non-falsifiable; in other words, it is designed in such a way as to be impossible to prove or disprove.

In common parlance, however, altruism usually means helping another person without expecting material reward from that or other persons, although it may well entail the "internal" benefit of a "good feeling," sense of satisfaction, self-esteem, fulfillment of duty (whether imposed by a religion or ideology or simply one's conscience), or the like. In this way one need not speculate on the motives of the altruist in question.

Humans are not exclusively altruistic towards family members, previous co-operators or potential future allies, but can be altruistic towards people they don't know and will never meet. For example, humans donate to international charities and volunteer their time to help society's less fortunate.

It strains plausibility to claim that these altruistic deeds are done in the hope of a return favor. The game theory analysis of this 'just in case' strategy, where the principle would be 'always help everyone in case you need to pull in a favor in return', is a decidedly non-optimal strategy, where the net expenditure of effort (tit) is far greater than the net profit when it occasionally pays off (tat).

According to some, it is difficult to believe that these behaviors are solely explained as indirect selfish rationality, be it conscious or sub-conscious. Mathematical formulations of kin selection, along the lines of the prisoner's dilemma, are helpful as far as they go; but what a game-theoretic explanation glosses over is the fact that altruistic behavior can be attributed to that apparently mysterious phenomenon, the conscience. One recent suggestion, proposed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, was initially developed when considering the problem of so-called 'free riders' in the tragedy of the commons, a larger-scale version of the prisoner's dilemma.

In game theory terms, a free rider is an agent who draws benefits from a co-operative society without contributing. In a one-to-one situation, free riding can easily be discouraged by a tit-for-tat strategy. But in a larger-scale society, where contributions and benefits are pooled and shared, they can be incredibly difficult to shake off.

Imagine an elementary society of co-operative organisms. Co-operative agents interact with each other, each contributing resources and each drawing on the common good. Now imagine a rogue free rider, an agent who draws a favor ("you scratch my back") and later refuses to return it. The problem is that free riding is always going to be beneficial to individuals at cost to society. How can well-behaved co-operative agents avoid being cheated? Over many generations, one obvious solution is for co-operators to evolve the ability to spot potential free riders in advance and refuse to enter into reciprocal arrangements with them. Then, the canonical free rider response is to evolve a more convincing disguise, fooling co-operators into co-operating after all. This can lead to an evolutionary arms races, with ever-more-sophisticated disguises and ever-more-sophisticated detectors.

In this evolutionary arms race, how best might one convince comrades that one really is a genuine co-operator, not a free rider in disguise? One answer is by actually making oneself a genuine co-operator, by erecting psychological barriers to breaking promises, and by advertising this fact to everyone else. In other words, a good solution is for organisms to evolve things that everyone knows will force them to be co-operators - and to make it obvious that they've evolved these things. So evolution will produce organisms who are sincerely moral and who wear their hearts on their sleeves; in short, evolution will give rise to the phenomenon of conscience.

This theory, combined with ideas of kin selection and the one-to-one sharing of benefits, may explain how a blind and fundamentally selfish process can produce a genuinely non-cynical form of altruism that gives rise to the human conscience.

Critics of such technical game theory analysis point out that it appears to forget that human beings are rational and emotional. To presume an analysis of human behaviour without including human rationale or emotion is necessarily unrealistically narrow, and treats human beings as if they are mere machines.

Beginning with an understanding that rational human beings benefit from living in a benign universe, logically it follows that particular human beings may gain substantial emotional satisfaction from acts which they perceive to make the world a better place.

Altruism in politics

If one is an adherent to the ethical doctrine called altruism (that people have an ethical obligation to help or further the welfare of others), it can become a moral justification for forcing, or advocating forcing, altruistic behavior on other individuals. In the realm of politics, the altruist may employ an agent in the form of government to enforce this supposed moral obligation. This is not to say that an ethical altruist will necessarily force this on anyone. An altruist may allow others the freedom to behave in a manner they believe to be immoral or selfish. In other words, their ethical doctrine would not manifest itself politically. For example, Lysander Spooner, in Natural Law, says: "Man, no doubt, owes many other moral duties to his fellow men; such as to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, protect the defenceless, assist the weak, and enlighten the ignorant. But these are simply moral duties, of which each man must be his own judge, in each particular case, as to whether, and how, and how far, he can, or will, perform them."

In most societies, some political action is often justified by positing the ethical doctrine. Politicians and others frequently assert that individuals have a moral obligation to help others as a justification for the creation of taxation-funded government programs aimed at benefiting the "needy." Examples may include transfer payments, such as social welfare, and programs such as socialized healthcare or public education. Less obvious things such as a law that motorists pull over to let emergency vehicles pass may be justified by some by appealing to the altruism ethic.

Many individuals do not accept that a moral obligation to help others exists, therefore government programs that are instituted by appeal to the ethical doctrine are often the subject of much controversy. These individuals assert that pronouncements of such an obligation are unfounded and, as result, insist that helping others should be a matter of free personal choice. Various political ideologies have points of contention that revolve around this issue.

Also, as politicians are often expected to set their own interests aside and serve the populace, when they do not they may be criticized as defaulting on what is believed to be an ethical obligation to place the interests of others above their own.

External links


  • Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. (23 October 2003). The nature of human altruism. In Nature, 425, 785 – 791.
  • Comte, August, Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891)
  • Hitler, Adolph, Mein Kampf
  • Neitzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil
  • Spooner, Lysander, Natural Law
  • Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness

Last updated: 06-02-2005 12:55:05
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