What is Altruism?

Almost everyone wants to be an altruist, and most of us lament the fact that we are not more altruistic than we are. Non-altruists feel an urge to justify their behavior to the rest of us, and perhaps they show a little altruism in doing even that. In this entry we discuss what is this phenomenon called altruism that is so valued by (almost) everyone and its core meaning universally agreed.

Altruism is a fundamentally simple idea, which in its broadest sense, means promoting the interests of the other. It is derived from the French term altruisme, coined by August Comte in the nineteenth century: it combined the Latin alter with ui translated “to this other,” meaning to care for others.

  • Altruism is a general phenomenon that refers to a motive for helping behavior that is primarily intended to relieve another person’s distress, with little or no regard for the helper’s self-interest. Altruistic help is voluntary, deliberate, and motivated by concern for another person’s welfare. When help is given for altruistic reasons, the one offering the help does not expect repayment, reciprocity, gratitude, recognition, or any other benefits.

Altruism is a simple idea that involves taking the interests of the other as one’s own; it is often identified with the Golden Rule (present in many religious and ethical traditions ) —do unto others as you would have them do unto you. William Scott Green defines altruism as “intentional action ultimately for the welfare of others that entails at least the possibility of either no benefit or a loss to the actor.”

Historical Background of Altruism

Questions about the nature and importance of altruism have a long history in moral philosophy. For example, the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, who ministered to a traveler’s wounds at personal cost while expecting nothing in return, has become synonymous with the idea of selfless giving. Among social psychologists, interest in altruism grew in response to early studies of helping behavior. Those studies tended to focus on the act of helping itself, that is, whether or not one person gave help to another person.

As researchers sought to identify the motives responsible for acts of helping, it became apparent that two major classes of motives could underlie helping: egoistic and altruistic.

Egoistic vs Altruistic Motives

Egoistic motives are concerned chiefly with benefits the helper anticipates receiving. These might be material (repayment, the obligation for future favors in return), social (appreciation from the recipient, public recognition), or even personal (the gratifying feeling of pride for one’s actions).

Altruistic motives, on the other hand, focus directly on the recipient’s need for assistance and involve sympathy and compassion for the recipient. A key debate has contrasted altruistic motivation with one particular type of egoistic motive, sometimes called distress reduction.

  • Witnessing another person’s distress can be profoundly upsetting. And if the helpful act is motivated first and foremost by the desire to relieve one’s own upset feelings, the act would be seen as more egoistic than altruistic.

The difference is that whereas altruistic helping focuses on the recipient’s need (“You were suffering and I wanted to help”), egoistic helping focuses on the helper’s feelings (“I was so upset to see your situation”).

The distinction between egoistic and altruistic motives for helping behavior has sometimes been controversial. One reason is that altruistic explanations do not lend themselves to the kinds of reward-cost theories that dominated the psychological analysis of motivation during the mid-20th century. These theories argued in essence that behavior occurs only when it maximizes the actor’s rewards while minimizing his or her costs, a framework that does not facilitate altruistic interpretations of helping.

Nevertheless, it is clear that acts of helping often involve great personal cost with little or no reward; one need only consider the behavior of individuals who rescued Jews from Nazi persecution Opens in new window or Tutsis from the Rwandan genocide Opens in new window to realize that helping often does take place for altruistic reasons.