Altruism: A Catholic View

A term formed by Auguste Comte in 1851, on the Italian adjective altrui, and employed by him to denote the benevolent, as contrasted with the selfish propensities. It was introduced into English by George H. Lewes in 1853 (Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences, 1, xxi), and popularized thereafter by expounders and advocates of Comte’s philosophy. Though used primarily, in a psychological sense, to designate emotions of a reflective kind, the immediate consequences of which are beneficial to others, its important significance is ethical. As such it defines a theory of conduct by which only actions having for their object the happiness of others possess a moral value. Anticipations of this doctrine are found in Cumberland’s “De Legibus Naturae” (1672), and in Shaftesbury’s “Inquiry concerning Virtue and Merit” (1711). Comte, however, is the founder of the Social Eudaemonism, based on Positivism, to which the name of Altruism is given. Comte’s system is both ethical and religious. Not only is the happiness to be found in living for others the supreme end of conduct, but a disinterested devotion to Humanity as a whole is the highest form of religious service. His ethical theory may be epitomized in the following propositions.

  1. The dominion of feeling over thought is the normative principle of human conduct, for it is the affective impulses that govern the individual and the race.
  2. Man is under the influence of two affective impulses, the personal or egoistic, and the social or altruistic.
  3. A just balance between these two is not possible, one or other must preponderate.
  4. The first condition of individual and social well-being is the subordination of self-love to the benevolent impulses.
  5. The first principle of morality, therefore, is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.

To bring about the reign of altruism Comte invented a religion which substituted for God an abstraction called Humanity. To this new supreme being, worship was to be paid, especially in its manifestations and representatives, woman, namely, and the benefactors of the race.

Comte's alturism

Comte’s alturism

The religious part of Comte’s system was never acceptable to more than a few of his adherents. It was too extravagant, and as he himself confesses, it transcended position science. Even Littré, one of the earliest, ablest, and most ardent of his followers, disavowed it. In England, it is true, it has one advocate of prominence, Frederic Harrison. Practically, however, it has ceased to attract any attention. The main defects of Comte’s ethical system are those that are common to all forms of Eudaemonism: its norm of morality is relative and contingent; it possesses no principles by which the quality of its subject-matter, social happiness, may be defined; its imperative imposes no moral obligation. Its special defects are mainly those of Positivism, which denies or ignores any reality beyond external facts, and recognized no law except the successions, coexistences, and resemblances of those phenomena. Hence it can set before us no summum bonum outside the region of sense. It confounds physical law with moral law, the fact that the affective faculty moves to action sufficing to make it also the norm of action. It, moreover, contracts the field of morality, and immorality as well, by making purely personal virtue or vice non-ethical. The English school of Altruists differs from the French in appealing to psychology for their facts, and in interpreting them by the principles of evolution. Comte based his system on a theory of cerebral physiology borrowed with modifications from Gall. Littré found the origin of morality in two primary physiological needs, nutrition, and reproduction, and in their transformation into the conflicting impulses of egoism and altruism. Both rejected the evolutionary hypothesis, and looked with disfavour on psychology. The representative exponent of English altruism is Herbert Spencer. The leading features of his system are these:

  • Conduct becomes ethical in the latest stages of evolution, when it assumes social aspects, when namely its tendency is to raise the aggregate happiness of the community.
  • The sense of duty originates in egoistic feelings of utility. But these in the process of evolution are modified by experience which associates personal happiness with social, political, and religious well-being and their sanctions. These associated experiences are recorded in the brain, and by hereditary transmission, and accumulation in successive generations they finally become certain faculties or moral intuitions, which we mistake for the voice of a superhuman authority.
  • The conflict between egoism and altruism is not to be removed by giving preponderance to either, since pure egoism and pure altruism are both fatal to society; but by compromise of their respective claims such that the final result will be general altruism, as distinguished from the altruism that ministers to the egoistic satisfaction of others only, whether these others be individuals, or the community impersonally conceived.
  • This reconciliation can only be reached when society is perfectly evolved; when namely we are so constituted that our spontaneous activities are congruous with conditions imposed by our social environments and social relations are so complete in their adjustments that altruism will not be associated with self-sacrifice, nor egoism with disregard for others.
  • Hence the distinction between Absolute Ethics which formulates the behaviour of the completely adapted man in completely evolved society, and Relative Ethics which enjoins only what is relatively right, or least wrong. The former services as a standard by which we estimate divergences from right; the latter by which we guide ourselves, as well as we can, in solving the problems of real conduct. By absolutely right conduct is understood, of course, that which produces pleasure unalloyed with pain; by relatively right conduct, that which has any painful concomitants or consequences.
Hands Hold Holding Embracing Cradling Cherish

Praying Hands

Spencer’s system is eudaemonistic and, therefore, subject to the defects already noted. Moreover, he reduces the moral imperative to a psychological constraint not differing in kind from other natural impulses. At best, even granting his evolutionary premises, he has only presented us with the genesis of conscience. He has not revealed the nature or source of its peculiar imperative. The fact that I know how conscience was evolved from lower instincts may be a reason, but is not a motive for obeying it. Lastly, the solution of the difficulty arising from the conflict between egoism and altruism is deferred to a future ideal state in which egoism, though transfigured, will be supreme. For the present we must be content to compromise, as best we may on a relative morality. Spencer’s own judgment of his system may be accepted. “The doctrine of evolution”, he says “has not furnished guidance to the extent I had hoped . . . some such result might have been foreseen.”

The Catholic teaching on love of others is summed up in the precept of Christ: Love they neighbour as thyself. The love due to oneself is the exemplar of the love due to others, though not the measure of it. Disinterested love of others, or the love of benevolence, the outward expression of which is beneficence, implies a union proximately based on likeness. All men are alike in this that they partake of the same rational nature made to the image and likeness of their Creator; have by nature the same social aptitudes, inclinations, and needs; and are destined for the same final union with God by which the likeness receive through creation is perfected. By supernatural grace the natural likeness of man to man is exalted, changing fellowship into brotherhood. All likeness of whatever grade is founded ultimately in likeness with God. Love, therefore, whether of oneself or of others is in its last analysis love of God, by partaking of Whose perfections we become lovable.

The conflict between self-love and benevolence, which is inevitable in all systems that determine the morality of an act by its relations to an agreeable psychological state, need not arise in systems that make the ethical norm of action objective; the ethically desirable and the psychologically desirable are not identified. Catholic ethics does not deny that happiness of some kind is the necessary consequence of good conduct, or that the desire to attain or confer it is lawful; but it does deny that the pursuit of it for its own sake is the ultimate aim of conduct. Apparent conflict, however, may arise between duties to self and to others, when only mediately known. But these arise from defective limitations of the range of one or other duty, or of both. They do not inhere in the duties themselves. The general rules for determining the prevailing duty given by Catholic moralists are these:

  • Absolutely speaking there is no obligation to love others more than self.
  • There is an obligation which admits of no exceptions, to love self more than others, whenever beneficence to others entails moral guilt.
  • In certain circumstances it may be obligatory, or at least a counsel of perfection, to love others more than self. Apart from cases in which one’s profession or state of life, or justice imposes duties, these circumstances are determined by comparing the relative needs of self and others.
  • These needs may be spiritual or temporal; the need of the community or of the individual; the need of one in extreme, serious or ordinary want; the need of those who are near to us by natural or social ties, and of those whose claims are only union in a common humanity. The first class in each group has precedence over the second.

Catholic ethics reconciles self-love and benevolence by subordinating both to the supreme purpose of creation and the providential ends of the Creator. It teaches that acts or self-love may have a moral quality; that sacrifice of self for the good of others may sometimes be a duty, and when not a duty, may oftentimes be an act of virtue. It distinguishes between precept and counsel. The Positivist can only give counsel, and in his effort by emphasis and appeal to sentiment to make it imperative, he destroys all ethical proportion. Because the Catholic doctrine does not confound moral obligations with the perfection of moral goodness it is often charged with laxity by those whose teaching undermines all moral obligation.

By Timothy Brosnahan

This article is borrowed from From The Catholic Encyclopedia


COMTE, Positive Polity, I, tr. Bridges (London, 1875-79); SPENCER, Principles of Ethics (London, 1892-93); STEPHEN, Science of Ethics (London, 1882); SIDGWICK, Methods of Ethics, IV, iii, and passim (5 ed., London, 1893); MARTINEAU, Types of Ethical Theories, I (3 ed., Oxford, 1898); CAIRD, The Social Philosophy of Comte (Glasgow, 1885); AQUINAS, Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, QQ, 25 and 26 (Basle, 1485; Paris, 1861); RICKABY, Aquinas Ethicus, loc. cit.; COSTA-ROSETTI, Philosophia Moralis, Thesis 99; MING, Data of Modern Ethics Examined, 15 (New York, 1897); MAHER, Psychology, 5 ed. (London, 1903).

About this page

  • APA citation. Brosnahan, T. (1907). Altruism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 1, 2012 from New Advent:
  • MLA citation. Brosnahan, Timothy. “Altruism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 1 May 2012
  • Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Clemmie Lucy Washington.
  • Ecclesiastical approbation.Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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