Altruism refers to both a practice or habit (in certain philosophies, a virtue) as well as a philosophical doctrine.

Altruism, in its non-zoological context, is defined as:

  • Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Altruism in psychology and sociology

Altruism the doctrine is the view that one's actions ought to further the interests or good of other people, ideally to the exclusion of one's own interests. The word was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism. Altruism is distinguished from ethical egoism, according to which one's actions ought to further one's own interests.

Altruism, in practice, is the performance of duties to others with no view to any sort of personal gain for one's efforts. If one performs an act beneficial to others with a view to gaining affection, respect, reputation, or any form of gratitude or remuneration then it is not an altruistic act. It is in fact a selfish act because the principal motivation was to reap some benefit for oneself. The desire of this benefit exists equally whether it is psychological, emotional, intellectual, or material - each form of desirable benefit is philosophically identical as a motivation.

Hence, people may be seen participating in what externally appears to be altruistic behaviour. In fact it is frequently not the case that the behaviour is altruistic. The behaviour, in most cases, may be termed rational selfishness. Rational selfishness may often make adherents appear as if they are acting altruistically, but in fact, due to the motivation behind the act, it is quite the opposite. Rational selfishness is driven by a rational and reasoned desire to benefit by following one's own personal system of values.

According to psychological egoism, while one can be outwardly altruistic in the practical sense, one cannot have altruistic motivations. That is, while one might very well spend one's life helping others, one's motive for doing so is always the furthering of one's own interests. One claiming to be an altruist might derive great pleasure, for example, from helping others. That pleasure, according to this theory, is both the motive and the resulting benefit one gets from the act.

Individuals instilled with a belief that serving others is their "duty" may, contrary to the idea of psychological egoism, begin the habit of performing "truly" altruistic actions out of this sense of duty only. Some feel that even this can be construed as self-interest; the benefit might be the perceived avoidance of the anticipated feelings of guilt which may arise in th case of non-fulfillment of the perceived duty. In any case, there are those who rely on their sense of duty to direct them to what they perceive to be virtuous behaviour. In practice this frequently leads resentment of those for whom they are performing their duties.

Some believe that altruist behaviour becomes an impossibility, as people inevitably follow their own interests one way or another. However, this is refuted by the fact that children and young adults are known to make life choices out of an overwhelming sense of duty to the expectations of authority figures, their family or friends, in denial of their own wishes.

In common parlance, however, altruism usually means helping another person without expecting a 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. Because no proof is available supporting the act of altruism as defined above, it might be best to label the act as "apparent altruism." In this way one need not speculate on the motives of the "do-gooder."

Altruism in ethology and evolutionary biology

In the science of ethology (the study of behaviour), altruism refers to behaviour by an individual which appears to benefit another. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one accepts natural selection. Analysis of apparently altruistic behaviours in animals shows that they are not inconsistent with natural selection due to the following mechanisms:

Altruism has also been one of the last (and most deeply embedded) thorns in the side of evolutionary theory, but recent developments in game theory have suggested explanations with an evolutionary context. These models postulate that if humans evolved, then so did human minds, and if minds evolved, then so does behaviour - including, according to these models, altruistic tendencies.

Theories of eusociality and the undoubted advantages of kin selection have made good progress in this direction, but they are far from unproblematic. Altruistic behaviour isn't solely a case of 'tit for tat' or 'benefit related genes'. Humans are 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. Humans donate to international charities, volunteer our time to help society's less fortunate. According to this postulate, it strains plausibility to claim that these altruistic deeds are done in the hope of a return favour. This 'just in case' strategy where the principle would be 'always help everyone in case you need to pull in a favour 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 soley 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 behaviour can be attributed to that apparently mysterious phenomenon, the conscience.

However, some point out that the conscience is just another aspect of our mental behaviour, so there must be some evolutionary explanation for their existence. One recent suggestion, proposed most eloquently 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 favour (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. This may be how some societies have evolved, but it seems a far cry from a genuine altruistic conscience.

In this evolutionary arms race, how best might an agent convince his comrades that he really is a genuine co-operator, not a free rider in disguise? One answe is by actually making himself a genuine co-operator, by erecting psychological barriers to breaking his own 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. And we ought to expect evolution to find good solutions. 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, seems to cover all the angles. It explains how a blind and fundamentally selfish process can come up with the genuinely non-cynical form of altruism that we witness in our consciences.

If all this is true, and altruism (read: morality) has just evolved as an optimum solution to a game-theoretic problem, what then for ethics? Is right and wrong just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes so they can survive and reproduce in a society of self-interested agents? This is a meta-ethical question that straddles the boundary between biology and philosophy.

copyright © 2004