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Altruism is selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and central to many religious traditions. In English, this idea was often described as the Golden rule of ethics. In Buddhism it is considered a fundamental property of human nature.

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 towards a specific individual (for example, a 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.

The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought, and has 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 ethics[]

Main article: Altruism (ethics)

The word "altruism" (derived from French autre "another", 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, 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.

Philosophers who support egoism have argued that altruism is demeaning to the individual and that no moral obligation to help others actually exists. Nietzsche asserts that altruism is predicated on the assumption that others are more important than one's self and that such a position is degrading and demeaning. He also claims that it was very uncommon for people in Europe to consider the sacrifice of one's own interests for others as virtuous until after the advent of Christianity. Ayn Rand argued that altruism is the willful sacrifice of one's values, and represents the reversal of morality because only rationally selfish ethics allow one to pursue the values required for human life.

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).

Altruism in ethology and evolutionary biology[]

In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Recent developments in game theory (look into ultimatum game) 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 similarities 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 act. There are several different perspectives on how "benefit" (or "interest") should be defined. A material gain (for example, 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 people can exhibit altruistic behavior, they cannot have altruistic motivations. Psychological egoists would say that while they might very well spend their lives benefitting others with no material benefit (or a material net loss) to themselves, their most basic motive for doing so is always to further their own interests. For example, it would be alleged that the foundational motive behind a person acting this way is to advance their own psychological well-being ("good feelings"). Critics of this theory often reject it on the grounds that it is non-falsifiable; in other words, it is impossible to prove or disprove because immaterial gains such as a "good feelings" cannot be measured or proven to exist in all people performing altruistic acts. Psychological egoism has also been accused of using circular logic: "If a person willingly performs an act, that means he derives personal enjoyment from it; therefore, people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment". This statement is circular because its conclusion is identical to its hypothesis (it assumes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment, and concludes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment).

The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that when an individual experiences empathy towards someone in need, the individual will then be altruistically motivated to help that person; that is, the individual will be primarily concerned about that person's welfare, not his or her own.

In common parlance, 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 do not know and will never meet. For example, some humans donate to international charities and volunteer their time to help society's less fortunate. It can however be argued that an individual would contribute to a charity to gain respect or stature within his/her own community.

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, sometimes called Homo economicus. Another objection is that often people donate anonymously, so that it is impossible to determine if they really did the altruistic act.

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.

Comparison of altruism and tit for tat[]

Studying the simple strategy "Tit for tat" in the iterated prisoner's dilemma problem, game theorists argue that "Tit for tat" is much more successful in establishing stable cooperation among individuals than altruism, defined as unconditional cooperation, can ever be.

"Tit for tat" starts with cooperation in the first step (as altruism does) and then just imitates the behaviour of the partner step by step. If the partner cooperates, then he rewards him with cooperation, if he does not, then he punishes him by not cooperating in the next step. For example one country could offer another a free trade deal on the condition that it is returned by the second country (tit for tat); or alternatively it could offer it unconditionally (altruism). However, the second country may take advantage of this unconditional offer and continue with tariffs, farming subsidies etc.

Confronted with many strategies that try to exploit or abuse cooperation of others, this simple strategy surprisingly proved to be the most successful (see The Evolution of Cooperation). It was even more successful than these abusing strategies, while unconditional cooperativity (pure altruism) was one of the most unsuccessful strategies. Tit for tat will not harbour exploiters or abusers because of its capactiy to punish.

Confronted with altruistic behaviour, Tit for tat is indistinguishable from pure altruism. Confronted with purely selfish behavior, Tit for tat replies in kind, effectively negating its capacity for cooperation. When the Tit for tat strategy plays against itself, just one instance of selfish behavior will cause it to forever defect, or not behave cooperatively. From this phenomenon the strategy of Generous Tit for tat was born. Generous Tit for tat is based upon the previous model of Tit for tat with one distinction - it includes "forgiveness". Since Tit for tat often ends up defecting against itself indefinitely, Generous Tit for tat, after it has defected a number of times, will spontaneously cooperate. When playing against itself, Generous Tit for tat is not vulnerable to accidental defection and will always end in altruism.

In the context of biology, the "Tit for tat" strategy is very similar to reciprocal altruism or Mutual Aid (one of the earliest proponents of it being considered a basic natural behaviour was Peter Kropotkin).

Altruism and love (the problem of love)[]

In philosophy, the problem of love questions whether the desire to do good for another is based solely on the outward ability to love another person because the lover sees something (or someone) worth loving, or if a little self-interest is always present in the desire to do good for another.

The problem arises from an analysis of the human will and is often debated among Thomistic philosophers. The "problem" centers on Thomas Aquinas's understanding that human expressions of love are always based partly on love of self and similtude of being: “Even when a man loves in another what he loves not in himself, there is a certain likeness of proportion: because as the latter is to that which is loved in him, so is the former to that which he loves in himself.” See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Bros., 1948), I-II, Q. 27, Art. 3, rep. obj. 2.)

The French philosopher Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915) locates the philosophical problem in terms of a pure "ecstatic" or totally selfless love versus an egoistic, more self-interested love, beginning his examination from Aristotle's text (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9): Amicabilia quae sunt ad alterum vererunt amicabilibus quae sunt ad seipsum [The friendly feelings that we bear for another have arisen from the friendly feelings that we bear for ourselves]. See Pierre Rousselot, The Problem of Love in the Middle Ages: A Historical Contribution. Trans. Alan Vincelette (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ. Press, 2001).

Altruism and religion[]

Most, if not all, of the world's religions promote altruism as a very important moral value. Christianity and Buddhism place particular emphasis on altruistic morality, as noted above, but Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and many other religions also promote altruistic behavior.

Altruism in politics[]

Some opponents of the ethical doctrine called altruism (that people have an ethical obligation to help or further the welfare of others) argue that the doctrine is dangerous as it can lead to violations of individual liberty if the state enforces the principle. For example, David Kelley says, "If self-sacrifice is an ideal — if service to others is the highest, most honorable course of action--why not force people to act accordingly?" He believes this can ultimately result in the state forcing everyone into a collectivist political system.

With regard to their political convictions, altruists may be divided in two broad groups: Those who believe altruism is a matter of personal choice (and therefore selfishness can and should be tolerated), and those who believe that altruism is a moral ideal which should be embraced, if possible, by all human beings.

A prominent example of the former branch of altruist political thought is Lysander Spooner, who, in Natural Law, writes: "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." Things such as a law that motorists pull over to let emergency vehicles pass may also be justified by appealing to the altruism ethic. Finally, radical altruists of this branch may take things further and advocate some form of collectivism or communalism.

On a somewhat related note, altruism is often held — even by non-altruists — to be the kind of ethic that should guide the actions of politicians and other people in positions of power. Such people are usually 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.

See also[]

References & Bibliography[]

Key texts[]


  • Axelrod,R., The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, ISBN 0465021212
  • Batson, C.D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Comte, August, Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891)
  • Dawkins, R.The Selfish Gene, (1990), second edition -- includes two chapters about the evolution of cooperation, ISBN 0192860925
  • Macauley,J. and Berkowitz,L.(1970)(eds) Altruism and Helping Behaviour, New York: Academic Press.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil
  • Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Towards a Caring Society: Ideas into Action. West Port, CT: Praeger, 1995.
  • Oord, Thomas Jay, Science of Love (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2004).
  • Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness


  • Batson. C. D. (1991) .Evidence for altruism: toward a pluralism of prosocial motives. Psychological Inquiry, 2, 107-22.
  • Batson. C. D. (1998).Altruism and prosocial behavior, in D. T Gilbert, S. T. Fiske and C.Lindzey (eds) Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2. 4th edn. Boston, NIA: McGraw-Hill.
  • Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., Yin, J. et al. (1999) Two threats to the common good: Self-interested egoism and empathy and empathy-induced altruism, Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(1), 3-16.
  • Cialdini, Robert B. (1991) Altruism or Egoism? That Is (Still) the Question, Psychological Inquiry, 2(2). 124-6.
  • Bernstein. I.S. Crandall. C. and Kitayama, S. (1994) Some neo-Darwinian decision rules for altruism: Weighing cues for inclusive fitness as a function of the biological importance of the decision. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67. 77 3-89.
  • Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. (23 October 2003). The nature of human altruism. In Nature, 425, 785 – 791.
  • Krebs, D. L. (1991) Altruism and Egoism: A False Dichotomy?, Psychological Inquiry, 2(2). 1 17-9.
  • Kriegman, D. (1990) Compassion and altruism in psychoanalytic theory: An evolutionary analysis of self psychology. journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. 78, 342-67.
  • McAndrew, F. T. (2002) New evolutionary perspectives on altruism: multilevel-selection and costly-signaling theories, Current Directions in Psychological Science. I 1(2), 79- 82.
  • Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph, The Philosophy of Poverty (1847)
  • Shapiro, Y. and Gabbard, G. 0. (1994) A reconsideration of altruism from an evolutionary and psychodynamic perspective. Ethics and Behavior, 4(1), 23-42.
  • Simon, H. A. (1990) A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism, Science, 250, 1665-8.
  • Trivers, R. L. (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism, Quarterly Review of Biology. 46. 35-57.
  • Madsen, E.A., Tunney, R., Fieldman, G., Plotkin, H.C., Dunbar, R.I.M., Richardson, J.M., & McFarland, D. (2006) Kinship and altruism: A cross-cultural experimental study. British Journal of Psychology [1]
  • Wedekind, C. and Milinski, M. Human Cooperation in the simultaneous and the alternating Prisoner's Dilemma: Pavlov versus Generous Tit-for-tat. Evolution, Vol. 93, pp. 2686-2689, April 1996.
  • Zahn-Waxler, C. and Radke-Yarrow, M. (1982) The development of altruism: alternative research strategies. In: N. Eisenberg (ed.) The Development of Prosocial Behaviour, New York: Academic Press.
  • Packer, C. (1977) Reciprocal altruism in Papio anubi.s, Nature 265: 441-3.

Further reading[]

  • Silk, J.B. (2003). Cooperation without counting: the puzzle of friendship. In P. Hammerstein(Ed.), The Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Dahlem Workshop Report 90. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, pp. 37-54. Full text

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