From New World Encyclopedia

Altruism is the selfless concern for the welfare of others. Altruism is a core aspect of various religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and many others. Also, altruism is a key aspect of many humanitarian and philanthropic causes, exemplified in leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa.

Altruism can be distinguished from a feeling of loyalty and duty. Altruism focuses on a motivation to help others or a want to do good without reward, while duty focuses on a moral obligation toward a specific individual (for example, God, a king), a specific organization (for example, a government), or an abstract concept (for example, patriotism etc). Some individuals may feel both altruism and duty, while others may not. Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition.

"Psychological altruism" refers to behavior that benefits others and is only undertaken for that reason. In this sense, altruism is opposed to egoism. In the natural world, “Biological altruism” refers to the tendency of some organisms to behave in ways that benefit other creatures at a cost to themselves. Examples include worker bees caring for their queen and “helpers” of certain bird species that protect and nurture the young of other birds in the group. Altruism provides a good challenge for sociobiology and for simplistic interpretations of Darwin’s theory of evolution, because altruism demonstrates that organisms by sacrificing their individual lives can increase the reproductive fitness of the whole community.

The unifying point for both psychological and biological altruism is the family. The responsibilities of raising and protecting offspring create occasions and reasons for altruism in many species, and in human families as well. The matrix of family life demands and rewards altruism—from one spouse to another, from parents who make every effort to raise their children, from siblings who learn to share and support one another, and from children who learn to love and obey their parents. Psychological and biological altruism also share similarities at the community level, as parents model altruism to their children by the degree to which they dedicate themselves to community service as good citizens. Children raised in good families cultivate an altruistic character, the foundation for life-long altruism in all spheres of life.

Philosophical concerns relating to altruism include whether altruism is in fact possible; that is, whether people ever in fact do act for reasons other than their own best interests. Such philosophical concerns are primarily a product of Western culture, which nurtures in individuals a sense of identity as a separate and autonomous being. In this context, the issue is put into perspective by the view that altruistic actions express love, and love brings happiness to the giver as much as to the recipient. In cultures nurturing in individuals a sense of their identity as beings integrally connected to the family, larger community, and even to the natural world, philosophical concerns related to altruism would be significantly diminished or eliminated.

Origin of the term

The word "altruism" (derived from French autre "other," in its turn 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,

[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, who we are entirely.[1]

Both the name of this ethical doctrine and doing what the doctrine prescribes are referred to by the term "altruism" — serving others through placing their interests above one's own.

Altruism and religion

Most, if not all, of the world's major religions promote altruism as a core aspect of their teachings. Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and many others all assert the importance of altruism or promote and elevate altruistic behavior. For example, Christianity teaches one to "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27 NIV), and goes on to assert the importance of doing good for others without expecting anything in return.

The scriptures of most of the major religions abound in passages commending altruism; for example:

The best of men are those who are useful to others. (Hadith of Bukhari)
A man once asked the Prophet what was the best thing in Islam. He replied, “It is to feed the hungry and to give the greeting of peace both to those one knows and to those one does not know.” (Hadith of Bukhari)
In service to others lies the purest action. (Adi Granth, Maru, M.1, 992)
Do good to him who has done you an injury. (Dao De Jing 63)
The sage does not accumulate for himself.
The more he uses for others, the more he has himself.
The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own.
The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure. (Dao De Ching 81)
Those who are morally well adjusted look after those who are not; those who are talented look after those who are not... If those who are morally well adjusted and talented abandon those who are not, then scarcely an inch will separate the good from the depraved. (Mencius IV.B.7)
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2.3-4)

In practice, peacemakers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have made incredible contributions to humanity at the risk, or cost, of their lives.

Psychological altruism

Psychological altruism (sometimes called "real" altruism) refers to behavior that benefits others, often at a cost to the agent, which is undertaken for the sole motive of benefiting others. Behavior benefiting other people is not necessarily altruistic. For example, if one helped out another person with the motive of enhancing one’s own reputation, this behavior would not count as altruistic, but rather as an expression of self-interest.

The term "psychological altruism" with its claim to be "real" seems to exclude a somewhat different and widespread view of altruistic-like behavior that is common in folk traditions and embedded in the common sense of modern cultures: people are motivated by love to act in altruistic ways. Love, an impulse of heart widely excluded from scientific studies, offers a simple explanation and justification for behaviors about which philosophers and psychologists may agonize. The love of emotionally healthy parents for children is readily expressed in apparently altruistic behaviors from which the children, as they grow and become self-conscious, can learn the way that they should behave. Yet, the relations of giving and receiving love such as between a parent and child do not quite fit the mold of psychological altruism. The parent expending time, energy, and resources in supporting the child receives in return an immediate satisfaction and happiness in the giving and even more so if the child returns some expression of appreciation. In the long term the parent will may well gain even greater satisfaction and happiness if the child inherits the parents' traditions and also extends the lineage through marrying and becoming a parent to a new generation.

Psychological egoism

Psychological altruism is opposed to psychological egoism. Psychological egoism is an empirical hypothesis about human behavior. It holds that every human has only one ultimate goal: His or her own good (where this good can variously be defined as welfare, happiness, or pleasure). While psychological egoism in general allows for action that does not accomplish its goal of maximizing self-interest, as well as action that is at odds with one’s intentions (a weak will), most forms of psychological egoism rule out both altruistic behavior and acting solely out of respect for duty.

One basic philosophical concern relating to altruism is whether it is in fact possible. Since egoism is opposed to altruism, arguments for psychological egoism are arguments against the possibility of altruism. Psychological egoism is motivated in various ways: egoistically motivated actions are sometimes thought to follow from widespread and frequent observations of self-interested behavior in others, and culture may motivate people to act according to their self-interest through rewards and punishments. Acts appearing altruistic can often be shown to be motivated by self-interest.

In contrast with egoism, psychological altruism says that human beings do sometimes act for the interests of others out of a genuine concern for their well being, such as in the example of a soldier throws himself on a grenade in order to prevent other people from being killed. His motivations for this act of self-sacrifice could be surmised to have been a desire to save the lives of his fellow soldiers and at the same time to support the battle in which they and he were engaged. Such an action based on such a motivation would qualify his act as altruistic.

When faced with examples of altruistic behavior such as these, egoists may try to defend their position by arguing that the soldier’s action, although it appears to be altruistic, ought to be explained by some more fundamental self-interested motive. Perhaps the soldier believes in an afterlife in which he will be rewarded ten-fold for his apparently selfless act on earth, or perhaps, if he had not hurled himself on the grenade, he would be overcome by guilt and a concomitant sense of self-loathing. In both cases then, he would have been motivated by his self-interest to act in this apparently selfless manner.

Critics of the egoist views would likely counter that, while the particular explanation might explain how many instances of apparent self-sacrifice could in fact be motivated by egoistic concerns, it does not necessarily cover all cases. The psychological egoist would have to argue that all instances of ostensible altruistic behavior are in fact motivated by self-interested desires. If the soldier in the example were to survive and claim directly that his action was truly altruistically motivated, the egoist would have to respond that the soldier is either lying or deceiving himself, a position that would render egoism trivially true and un-falsifiable, since no empirical instance could in principle disprove the hypothesis. In such a case, egoism would provide no useful information and therefore would fail as an empirical theory.

Psychological altruism in its historical context

All ancient ethical theories are forms of eudaimonism, conceiving of human persons as fundamentally directed toward their individual eudaimonia, or (in its common English translation) happiness. It might seem to follow from this that ancient ethics cannot accommodate altruism, because it conceives of each person as ultimately focused on his or her individual well being.

This appearance may be deceiving, however, because all the main writers—such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics—emphasize the importance of civic virtues, such as justice, as essential components of individual eudaimonia. If one conceives of the virtue of justice as involving a disposition to respect the interests of one’s fellow citizens because of one’s regard for the importance of these interests, it is easy to see that someone with the virtue of justice will behave altruistically. Given that the main ancient writers conceive of justice as an indispensable component of the good life, it follows that they also regard altruism as a component in the happy life. On Plato’s version of this idea, the altruistic person, in the sense of the just person is someone who acquires and preserves a state of psychological harmony, which is necessary (and perhaps sufficient) for the attainment of happiness (Republic).

Although Epicurus is a hedonist and conceives of the good life as the life of maximal pleasure, this is not, necessarily, incompatible with altruism. It is open for Epicurus to argue that practicing justice, and other forms of altruism, are ultimately productive of pleasure. This would be to invoke the commonplace that altruism is often advantageous, when it motivates others to respond in kind. However, it is difficult to see how this could amount to a justification of "real altruism," that is, altruistic behavior undertaken from altruistic motives. Rather, it seems at most to justify acting in ways that appear to be altruistic. Indeed, Epicurus admits that one should abstain from actions that harm others, only in return for a similar undertaking from them. The motivation for adhering to the social contract is thoroughly egoistic.

In the modern period, Thomas Hobbes is generally agreed to have endorsed psychological egoism, and therefore, to have denied the reality of altruism. The strategy of reinterpreting apparently altruistic motives so that they reappear as egoistic (e.g. understanding the soldier’s act of self sacrifice as motivated by a desire for reward in the after life), discussed in the last section, derives from Hobbes. Hobbes’s psychological egoism came under heavy attack by the Earl of Shaftsbury, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume. They argue that human beings are capable of altruism, since they naturally have desires for their own good and for that of others (“private good” and “public good”). In the vocabulary of the day, there are principles of benevolence and self-love, where, roughly speaking, benevolence is a desire for the happiness of others, whereas self-love is a desire for one’s own happiness. In this way, Hobbes’ critics tried to show that benevolence, pity, and sympathy are as natural as self-love.

One of the most sophisticated defenses of altruism in the modern period is found in the writings of Joseph Butler, a contemporary of Hume. Butler analyzes humanity’s nature into a hierarchy of motivations, and tries to show that self-love cannot be the only element in human motivational system. He argues, against Hobbes, that even though the satisfaction of desires produces pleasure, this does not entail that pleasure is the object of those desires. Taking pleasure in one’s actions is compatible with altruistic motives. That someone experiences pleasure upon helping another person in need does not show that he or she acted in order to attain this pleasure.

Since the time of Hobbes and Butler, the context for assessing altruistic actions has changed radically, as is apparent in an episode in the writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776. In the Declaration, the assertion that human beings are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was originally phrased by the author, Thomas Jefferson, as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of public happiness." 'Public' was deleted when Benjamin Franklin argued that it was redundant, as everyone would know that 'happiness' here meant 'public happiness.'

Biological altruism

“Biological altruism” refers to the tendency of some organisms to behave in ways that benefit other creatures at a cost to themselves. Biological altruism is widespread in the natural world. Examples include sterile worker bees devoting their whole lives to caring for their queen, and the “helpers” of certain bird species guarding the nests and care for the young of other breeding pairs. The sterile bees are born with zero reproductive fitness, but the helper birds are behaving in a way that seems sure to reduce their reproductive fitness.

Evolutionary biologists are interested in altruism because it seems to contradict certain basic tenets of Darwin’s theory of evolution, or more particularly, his proposed mechanism of evolution, natural selection operating at the individual level. Natural selection may be illustrated as follows. Imagine that in a population, say a population of horses, an individual is born possessing a new gene, via mutation or recombination, which results in a new characteristic. Assume too that this characteristic serves to enhance its fitness; i.e., with the characteristic the individual is more likely to survive and reproduce. For example, one might imagine that this gene enables the horse to run faster than its peers so it can better outrun predators; it is therefore more likely to survive longer and to reproduce more. The next generation inheriting the gene will have a competitive advantage, and hence will also be more likely to survive and reproduce. In this way, the “slower” gene will be eliminated from the population of horses, and replaced by the “faster” gene.

In evolutionary biology, benefit is measured in terms of reproductive fitness, units of heredity, or expected number of offspring. When an organism behaves altruistically, it reduces its own reproductive fitness, and increases the reproductive fitness of other organisms. For example, when the "helper birds" guard the nest of another breeding pair, they make it more likely that they will be killed by predators, and more likely that the offspring of other breeding pairs will survive. Consequently, they make it less likely that they will pass on their own altruistic genes in comparison with other birds that do not display similar altruism. So it seems that natural selection ought to favor selfish birds, and to eliminate altruists from the genetic pool. Given the mechanism of natural selection, one would not expect altruism to occur in nature.

Altruism and group selection

There are various attempts to reconcile the existence of biological altruism with the mechanics of natural selection. Firstly, as Darwin himself pointed out, if natural selection operates not only at the individual level but also at the level of groups, then altruistic behavior may be expected. Altruistic behavior could make a group more likely to survive even if the individual’s reproductive fitness is diminished.

One notable difficulty with Darwin’s group selection explanation of altruism is the problem of "subversion from within" as articulated by Richard Dawkins in his selfish gene model. Imagine that in a group of birds with altruistic genes, one mutant bird with a selfish gene is born. This selfish bird will be a "free rider" because it will have an advantage in reproductive fitness in virtue of the altruism of the other birds. Consequently, its selfish gene is more likely to be reproduced, and, over time, one would expect a selfish mutant gene to dominate over the altruistic gene. A counter to this model would be the consideration that if groups are benefited by altruism within the group, then a more altruistic group may well hold a selective advantage over a second group weakened by the individual with the selfish gene.

Kin selection and reciprocal altruism

Two other attempts to reconcile the existence of altruism with natural selection are “kin selection” theories, and theories of “reciprocal altruism." According to the “kin selection” theory, altruists will not necessarily be at a reproductive disadvantage if they are careful about how they direct their altruism. If they behave altruistically only toward their relatives (kin), they will enhance the likelihood that their genes continue, because their relatives have the same genes as they do. This explains how the altruistic gene can perpetuate itself. Altruistic genes reduce the reproductive fitness of individuals, but increase the fitness of their kin, who carry the same (altruistic) genes as they do.

“Kin selection” theories do not explain all instances of altruistic behavior found in nature because some creatures behave altruistically toward non-relatives. It is here that the theory of “reciprocal altruism” provides a more general explanation for biological altruism. The basic idea underlying “reciprocal altruism” is a simple one: “If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.” Altruistic genes may not be eliminated by natural selection if altruistic behavior makes it more likely that other creatures will respond in kind. The loss in reproductive fitness due to altruistic behavior is compensated by the increase in reciprocal behavior of those creatures that are inclined to return the favor.

Constants of altruism

What is the relation between psychological and biological altruism? Biological altruism is identified based on the result of an action and cost to the giver without consideration of motives: Does a particular action benefit the recipient while exacting a cost to the giving individual. In contrast, psychological altruism is evaluated based on both the motive of and the cost to the giver. A selfishly motivated behavior by one person that benefits the recipient would not qualify as psychological altruism, nor would an altruistically motivated behavior that does not exact a cost to the giver qualify as psychological altruism. Logically then, psychological and biological altruism are independent concepts.

Beyond logical analysis, there is a common thread between psychological and biological altruism among birds, mammals, and humans. A common thread for altruism among different species lies in the concepts of family and community. Starting in the family—whether in elephants, starlings, wolves, orangutans, or humans—the young are cared for by parents sacrificing their own benefit in order to protect and nurture the offspring, without whom the species would soon terminate. Viewed from the reference of biological altruism, the behavior of the parents of all of these species, including humans, could be deemed as altruism because it benefits the young while exacting some cost on the parents.

Within the family structures of humans and possibly the great apes (if they are considered to be self-conscious), the child's first experience of being the recipient of altruistic behaviors would likely occur in the arms of a loving mother feeding the infant. Through the human's extended infancy and juvenile period the young would be thoroughly schooled in the full range of types of altruistic relations requiring the giving and receiving of love and support from and with parents, grandparents, and siblings. Such a family context and additionally with parents serving the broader community would then be a school for instructing the younger generation in the behaviors of altruism without which families, communities, and societies cannot endure.


  1. August Comte, Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891).

References and further reading

Psychological altruism

  • Butler, Joseph. 1900. "Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel." In The Works of Bishop Butler. J. H. Bernard, (ed.) London: Macmillan.
  • Comte, August. Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve. London: Kegan Paul, 1891.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan, Michael Oakeshott, ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hume, David. 1975. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. In Enquiries. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch, (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hutton, James D. Nov.-Dec. 2005, World & I: Innovative Approaches to Peace. Citizens—Not Customers—of the World Retrieved November 5, 2007.
  • Kavka, Gregory. 1986. Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691077185
  • Long, A.A., and D.N. Sedley. 1987. The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol 1 and 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521255619
  • Nagel, Thomas. 1970. The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691072310
  • Plato. 1997. Plato's Complete Works, John M. Cooper, ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. ISBN 0872203492
  • Slote, Michael Anthony. 1964. “An Empirical Basis for Psychological Egoism.” In Journal of Philosophy 61: 530-537.

Biological altruism

  • Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: John Murray.
  • Darwin, C. 1981. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691082782
  • Dawkins, R. 1989. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192177737
  • Dawkins, R. 1979. "Twelve Misunderstandings of Kin Selection," Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie. 51: 184-200.
  • Hamilton, W. D. 1970. "Selfish and Spiteful Behaviour in an Evolutionary Model," Nature 228: 1218-1220.
  • Hamilton, W. D. 1972. "Altruism and Related Phenomena, mainly in the Social Insects,' Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3: 193-232.
  • Maynard Smith, J. 1964. "Group Selection and Kin Selection," Nature 201: 1145-1147.
  • Maynard Smith, J., 1998. "The Origin of Altruism," Nature 393: 639-640.
  • Singer, Peter. 1981. The Expanding Circle. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0374234965
  • Sober, E. and D.S. Wilson. 1998. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674930460
  • Sober, E. 1988. "What is Evolutionary Altruism?" in New Essays on Philosophy and Biology (Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supp. Vol. 14), B. Linsky and M. Mathen, eds., Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Fiction and popular literature

A selection of literature in popular culture dealing with egoism and altruism:

  • Clavell, James. 1962. King Rat. London: Martin Joseph; Delta. ISBN 0385333765
  • Lavey, Anton Szandor and Peter H. Gilmore. 1969. The Satanic Bible. Avon. ISBN 0380015390
  • Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet. ISBN 0451191145
  • Rand, Ayn. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet. ISBN 0451163931

External links

All links retrieved July 23, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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