What is Altruism?
Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular worldviews, though the concept of “others” toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. In an extreme case, altruism may become a synonym of selflessness, which is the opposite of selfishness.
The word “altruism” was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in French, as altruisme, for an antonym of egoism. He derived it from the Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning “other people” or “somebody else”.
Altruism in biological observations in field populations of the day organisms is an individual performing an action which is at a cost to themselves (e.g., pleasure and quality of life, time, probability of survival or reproduction), but benefits, either directly or indirectly, another individual, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action. Steinberg suggests a definition for altruism in the clinical setting, that is “intentional and voluntary actions that aim to enhance the welfare of another person in the absence of any quid pro quo external rewards”. In one sense, the opposite of altruism is spite; a spiteful action harms another with no self-benefit.
Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty, in that whilst the latter is predicated upon social relationships, altruism does not consider relationships. Much debate exists as to whether “true” altruism is possible in human psychology. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as “benefits”.
The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it is usually contrasted with egoism, which claims individuals are morally obligated to serve themselves first. Effective altruism is the use of evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others.
The Notion of Altruism
The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought. The term was originally coined in the 19th century by the founding sociologist and philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, and has become a major topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), 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. In simple terms altruism is caring about the welfare of other people and acting to help them.
Marcel Mauss’s book The Gift contains a passage: “Note on alms”. This note describes the evolution of the notion of alms (and by extension of altruism) from the notion of sacrifice.
Alms are the fruits of a moral notion of the gift and of fortune on the one hand, and of a notion of sacrifice, on the other. Generosity is an obligation, because Nemesis avenges the poor and the gods for the superabundance of happiness and wealth of certain people who should rid themselves of it. This is the ancient morality of the gift, which has become a principle of justice. The gods and the spirits accept that the share of wealth and happiness that has been offered to them and had been hitherto destroyed in useless sacrifices should serve the poor and children.
- Compare Altruism (ethics) – perception of altruism as self-sacrifice.
- Compare explanation of alms in various scriptures.
In the science of ethology (the study of animal behaviour), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Researchers on altruistic behaviours among animals have been ideologically opposed to the sociological social Darwinist concept of the “survival of the fittest”, under the name of “survival of the nicest”—not to be confused with the biological concept of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Insistence on such cooperative behaviors between animals was first exposed by the Russian zoologist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Theories of apparently altruistic behavior were accelerated by the need to produce theories compatible with evolutionary origins. Two related strands of research on altruism have emerged out of traditional evolutionary analyses, and from game theory respectively.
Some of the proposed mechanisms are:
- Reciprocal altruism
- Selective investment theory – a theoretical proposal for the evolution of long-term, high-cost altruism
- Sexual selection, in particular, the handicap principle
- Direct reciprocity (repeated encounters)
- Indirect reciprocity (for example, reputation)
- Strong reciprocity
- Kin selection
- Group selection
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.
Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D’Or Hospital Network (J.M.) provided the first evidence for the neural bases of altruistic giving in normal healthy volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006, they showed that both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food and sex. However, when volunteers generously placed the interests of others before their own by making charitable donations, another brain circuit was selectively activated: the subgenual cortex/septal region. These structures are intimately related to social attachment and bonding in other species. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
Another experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in 2007 at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina suggests a different view, “that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it”. In the study published in the February 2007 print issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers have found a part of the brain that behaves differently for altruistic and selfish people.
The researchers invited 45 volunteers to play a computer game and also to watch the computer play the game. In some rounds, the game resulted in the volunteers winning money for themselves, and in others it resulted in money being donated to a charity of the volunteer’s choice. During these activities, the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants’ brains and were “surprised by the results”. Although they “were expecting to see activity in the brain’s reward centers”, based on the idea that “people perform altruistic acts because they feel good about it”, what they found was that “another part of the brain was also involved, and it was quite sensitive to the difference between doing something for personal gain and doing it for someone else’s gain”. That part of the brain is called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC).
In the next stage, the scientists asked the participants some questions about type and frequency of their altruistic or helping behaviours. They then analysed the responses to generate an estimate of a person’s tendency to act altruistically and compared each person’s level of altruism against their fMRI brain scan. The results showed that pSTC activity rose in proportion to a person’s self-reported level of altruism. According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it. “We believe that the ability to perceive other people’s actions as meaningful is critical for altruism”, said lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley.
The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences defines psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare”. Psychological altruism is contrasted with psychological egoism, which refers to the motivation to increase one’s own welfare.
There has been some debate on whether or not humans are truly capable of psychological altruism. Some definitions specify a self-sacrificial nature to altruism and a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors. However, because altruism ultimately benefits the self in many cases, the selflessness of altruistic acts is brought to question. The social exchange theory postulates that altruism only exists when benefits outweigh costs. Daniel Batson is a psychologist who examined this question and argues against the social exchange theory. He identified four major motives for altruism: altruism to ultimately benefit the self (egoism), to ultimately benefit the other person (altruism), to benefit a group (collectivism), or to uphold a moral principle (principlism). Altruism that ultimately serves selfish gains is thus differentiated from selfless altruism, but the general conclusion has been that empathy-induced altruism can be genuinely selfless. The empathy-altruism hypothesis basically states that psychological altruism does exist and is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering. Feelings of empathic concern are contrasted with feelings of personal distress, which compel people to reduce their own unpleasant emotions. People with empathic concern help others in distress even when exposure to the situation could be easily avoided, whereas those lacking in empathic concern avoid helping unless it is difficult or impossible to avoid exposure to another’s suffering. Helping behavior is seen in humans at about two years old, when a toddler is capable of understanding subtle emotional cues.
In psychological research on altruism, studies often observe altruism as demonstrated through prosocial behaviors such as helping, comforting, sharing, cooperation, philanthropy, and community service. Research has found that people are most likely to help if they recognize that a person is in need and feel personal responsibility for reducing the person’s distress. Research also suggests that the number of bystanders witnessing distress or suffering affects the likelihood of helping (the Bystander effect). Greater numbers of bystanders decrease individual feelings of responsibility. However, a witness with a high level of empathic concern is likely to assume personal responsibility entirely regardless of the number of bystanders.
Many studies have observed the effects of volunteerism (as a form of altruism) on happiness and health and have consistently found a strong connection between volunteerism and current and future health and well-being. In a study of older adults, those who volunteered were significantly higher on life satisfaction and will to live, and significantly lower in depression, anxiety, and somatization. Volunteerism and helping behavior have not only been shown to improve mental health, but physical health and longevity as well. One study examined the physical health of mothers who volunteered over a 30-year period and found that 52% of those who did not belong to a volunteer organization experienced a major illness while only 36% of those who did volunteer experienced one. A study on adults ages 55+ found that during the four-year study period, people who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying. After controlling for prior health status, it was determined that volunteerism accounted for a 44% reduction in mortality. Merely being aware of kindness in oneself and others is also associated with greater well-being. A study that asked participants to count each act of kindness they performed for one week significantly enhanced their subjective happiness. It is important to note that, while research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring about happiness, it has also been found to work in the opposite direction—that happier people are also kinder. The relationship between altruistic behavior and happiness is bidirectional. Studies have found that generosity increases linearly from sad to happy affective states. Studies have also been careful to note that feeling over-taxed by the needs of others has conversely negative effects on health and happiness. For example, one study on volunteerism found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health than helping had a positive one (although positive effects were still significant). Additionally, while generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for people to appreciate the kindness they receive from others. Studies suggest that gratitude goes hand-in-hand with kindness and is also very important for our well-being. A study on the relationship happiness to various character strengths showed that “a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being.”
“Sociologists have long been concerned with how to build the good society” (“Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity”. American Sociological Association.). The structure of our societies and how individuals come to exhibit charitable, philanthropic, and other pro-social, altruistic actions for the common good is a largely researched topic within the field. The American Sociology Association (ASA) acknowledges Public sociology saying, “The intrinsic scientific, policy, and public relevance of this field of investigation in helping to construct ‘good societies’ is unquestionable” (“Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity”. ASA). This type of sociology seeks contributions that aid grassroots and theoretical understandings of what motivates altruism and how it is organized, and promotes an altruistic focus in order to benefit the world and people it studies. How altruism is framed, organized, carried out, and what motivates it at the group level is an area of focus that sociologists seek to investigate in order to contribute back to the groups it studies and “build the good society”.
Main article: Evolutionary Origin Of Religions
Most, if not all, of the world’s religions promote altruism as a very important moral value. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism and Sikhism, etc., place particular emphasis on altruistic morality.
Altruism figures prominently in Buddhism. Love and compassion are components of all forms of Buddhism, and both are focused on all beings equally: the wish that all beings be happy (love) and the wish that all beings be free from suffering (compassion).
“Many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and the need for them lies at the very core of our being” (Dalai Lama).
Since “all beings” includes the individual, love and compassion in Buddhism are outside the opposition between self and other. It is even said that the very distinction between self and other is part of the root cause of our suffering. In practical terms, however, because of the spontaneous self-centeredness of most of us, Buddhism encourages us to focus love and compassion on others, and thus can be characterized as “altruistic.” Many would agree with the Dalai Lama that Buddhism as a religion is kindness toward others.
Still, the very notion of altruism is modified in such a world-view, since the belief is that such a practice promotes our own happiness:
“The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes” (Dalai Lama).
In the context of larger ethical discussions on moral action and judgment, Buddhism is characterized by the belief that negative (unhappy) consequences of our actions derive not from punishment or correction based on moral judgment, but on the law of karma, which functions like a natural law of cause and effect. One simple illustration of such cause and effect would be the case of experiencing the effects of what I myself cause: if I cause suffering, I will as a natural consequence experience suffering; if I cause happiness, I will as a natural consequence experience happiness.
In Buddhism, karma (Pāli kamma) is strictly distinguished from vipāka, meaning “fruit” or “result”. Karma is categorized within the group or groups of cause (Pāli hetu) in the chain of cause and effect, where it comprises the elements of “volitional activities” (Pali sankhara) and “action” (Pali bhava). Any action is understood to create “seeds” in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result (Pāli vipaka) when they meet with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsāra; others will liberate one to nirvāna.
Buddhism relates karma directly to motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between “good” and “bad”, but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance; so a well-intended action from an ignorant mind can easily be “bad” in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the “actor”.
In Buddhism, karma is not the only cause of everything that happens. The commentarial tradition classified causal mechanisms governing the universe as taught in the early texts in five categories, known as Niyama Dhammas:
- Kamma Niyama — Consequences of one’s actions
- Utu Niyama — Seasonal changes and climate
- Biija Niyama — Laws of heredity
- Citta Niyama — Will of mind
- Dhamma Niyama — Nature’s tendency to produce a perfect type
See also: Ahimsa in Jainism
The fundamental principles of Jainism revolve around the concept of altruism, not only for humans but for all sentient beings. This religion preaches the view of Ahimsa – to live and let live, thereby not harming sentient beings, i.e. uncompromising reverence for all life. Jainism considers all living things to be equal. The first Thirthankar, Rishabh introduced the concept of altruism for all living beings, from extending knowledge and experience to others to donation, giving oneself up for others, non-violence and compassion for all living things.
Jainism prescribes a path of non-violence to progress the soul to this ultimate goal. Jains believe that to attain enlightenment and ultimately liberation, one must practice the following ethical principles (major vows) in thought, speech and action. The degree to which these principles are practiced is different for householders and monks. They are:
- Non-violence (Ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (Satya)
- Non-stealing (Asteya)
- Celibacy (Brahmacharya)
- Non-possession or non-materialism (Aparigraha)
A major characteristic of Jain belief is the emphasis on the consequences of not only physical but also mental behaviors. One’s unconquered mind with anger, pride (ego), deceit, greed and uncontrolled sense organs are the powerful enemies of humans. Anger spoils good relations, pride destroys humility, deceit destroys peace and greed destroys everything. Jainism recommends conquering anger by forgiveness, pride (ego) by humility, deceit by straight-forwardness and greed by contentment.
The principle of non-violence seeks to minimize karmas which limit the capabilities of the soul. Jainism views every soul as worthy of respect because it has the potential to become Siddha (Param-atma – “highest soul”). Because all living beings possess a soul, great care and awareness is essential in one’s actions. Jainism emphasizes the equality of all life, advocating harmlessness towards all, whether the creatures are great or small. This policy extends even to microscopic organisms. Jainism acknowledges that every person has different capabilities and capacities to practice and therefore accepts different levels of compliance for ascetics and householders. The “great vows” (mahavrata) are prescribed for monks and “limited vows” (anuvrata) are prescribed for householders. In other words, the house-holders are encouraged to practice the five cardinal principles of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and non-possessiveness with their current practical limitations while the monks have to observe them very strictly. With consistent practice, it will be possible to overcome the limitations gradually, accelerating the spiritual progress.
Altruism was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. From biblical to medieval Christian traditions, tensions between self-affirmation and other-regard were sometimes discussed under the heading of “disinterested love,” as in the Pauline phrase “love seeks not its own interests.” In his book Indoctrination and Self-deception, Roderick Hindery tries to shed light on these tensions by contrasting them with impostors of authentic self-affirmation and altruism, by analysis of other-regard within creative individuation of the self, and by contrasting love for the few with love for the many. Love confirms others in their freedom, shuns propagandas and masks, assures others of its presence, and is ultimately confirmed not by mere declarations from others, but by each person’s experience and practice from within. As in practical arts, the presence and meaning of love becomes validated and grasped not by words and reflections alone, but in the making of the connection.
Though it might seem obvious that altruism is central to the teachings of Jesus, one important and influential strand of Christianity would qualify this. St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, II:II Quaestio 25, Article 4 states that we should love our neighbour more than our ourselves. His interpretation of the Pauline phrase is that we should seek the common good more than the private good but this is because the common good is a more desirable good for the individual. ‘You should love your neighbour as yourself’ from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 22 is interpreted by St Thomas as meaning that love for ourselves is the exemplar of love for others. He does think though, that we should love God more than ourselves and our neighbour, taken as an entirety, more than our bodily life, since the ultimate purpose of love of our neighbour is to share in eternal beatitude, a more desirable thing than bodily well being. Comte was probably opposing this Thomistic doctrine, which is present in some theological schools within Catholicism, in coining the word Altruism, as stated above.
Many biblical authors draw a strong connection between love of others and love of God. In 1 John 4 it is stated that for one to love God one must love his fellowman, and that hatred of one’s fellowman is the same as hatred of God.
Thomas Jay Oord has argued in several books that altruism is but one possible form of love. An altruistic action is not always a loving action. Oord defines altruism as acting for the good of the other, and he agrees with feminists who note that sometimes love requires acting for one’s own good when the demands of the other undermine overall well-being.
German philosopher Max Scheler distinguishes two different ways in which the strong can help the weak, one which is a sincere expression of Christian love, “motivated by a powerful feeling of security, strength, and inner salvation, of the invincible fullness of one’s own life and existence” and another which is merely “one of the many modern substitutes for love, … nothing but the urge to turn away from oneself and to lose oneself in other people’s business.” At its worst, Scheler says, “love for the small, the poor, the weak, and the oppressed is really disguised hatred, repressed envy, an impulse to detract, etc., directed against the opposite phenomena: wealth, strength, power, largesse.”
Islam and Sufism
Main article: I’thar (Altruism)In Sufism, the concept of ‘ithaar’ (إيثار) is the notion of ‘preferring others to oneself’. For Sufis, this means devotion to others through complete forgetfulness of one’s own concerns. The importance lies in sacrifice for the sake of the greater good; Islam considers those practicing i’thar as abiding by the highest degree of nobility. This is similar to the notion of chivalry, but unlike the European concept there is a focus on attention to everything in existence. A constant concern for Allah results in a careful attitude towards people, animals, and other things in this world. This concept was emphasized by Sufi mystics like Rabia al-Adawiyya who paid attention to the difference in dedication to Allah and dedication to people. 13th century Turkish sufi poet Yunus Emre explained this philosophy as “Yaratılanı severiz, Yaratandan ötürü” or “We love the creature, because of The Creator”. In practice, for many Muslims, i’thar is only practiced during specific Islamic holidays. However, i’thar is still an Islamic ideal, to which all Muslims should strive to adhere at all times.
Judaism defines altruism as the desired goal of creation. The famous Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook stated that love is the most important attribute in humanity. This is defined as bestowal, or giving, which is the intention of altruism. This can be altruism towards humanity that leads to altruism towards the creator or God. Kabbalah defines God as the force of giving in existence. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in particular focused on the ‘purpose of creation’ and how the will of God was to bring creation into perfection and adhesion with this upper force.
Modern Kabbalah developed by Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, in his writings about the future generation, focuses on how society could achieve an altruistic social framework. Ashlag proposed that such a framework is the purpose of creation, and everything that happens is to raise humanity to the level of altruism, love for one another. Ashlag focused on society and its relation to divinity.
Altruism is essential to the Sikh religion. In the late 17th century, Guru Gobind Singh Ji (the tenth guru in Sikhism), was in war with the Moghul rulers to protect the people of different faiths, when a fellow Sikh, Bhai Kanhaiya, attended the troops of the enemy. He gave water to both friends and foes who were wounded on the battlefield. Some of the enemy began to fight again and some Sikh warriors were annoyed by Bhai Kanhaiya as he was helping their enemy. Sikh soldiers brought Bhai Kanhaiya before Guru Gobind Singh Ji, and complained of his action that they considered counterproductive to their struggle on the battlefield. “What were you doing, and why?” asked the Guru. “I was giving water to the wounded because I saw your face in all of them,” replied Bhai Kanhaiya. The Guru responded, “Then you should also give them ointment to heal their wounds. You were practicing what you were coached in the house of the Guru.”
It was under the tutelage of the Guru that Bhai Kanhaiya subsequently founded a volunteer corps for altruism. This volunteer corps still to date is engaged in doing good to others and trains new volunteering recruits for doing the same.
Advaita Vedanta differs from the view that karma is a law of cause and effect but instead additionally hold that karma is mediated by the will of a personal supreme god. This view of karma is in contradiction to Buddhism, Jainism and other Indian religions that do view karma as a law of cause and effect.
Swami Sivananda, an Advaita scholar, reiterates the same views in his commentary synthesising Vedanta views on the Brahma Sutras, a Vedantic text. In his commentary on Chapter 3 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda notes that karma is insentient and short-lived, and ceases to exist as soon as a deed is executed. Hence, karma cannot bestow the fruits of actions at a future date according to one’s merit. Furthermore, one cannot argue that karma generates apurva or punya, which gives fruit. Since apurva is non-sentient, it cannot act unless moved by an intelligent being such as a god. It cannot independently bestow reward or punishment.
Main article: Altruism (ethics)
There are a wide range of philosophical views on man’s obligations or motivations to act altruistically. Proponents of ethical altruism maintain that individuals are morally obligated to act altruistically. The opposing view is ethical egoism, which maintains that moral agents should always act in their own self-interest. Both ethical altruism and ethical egoism may be contrasted with utilitarianism, which is the view that every individual’s well-being (including one’s own) is of equal moral importance.
Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions and to act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based upon their values. It is the broad, evidence-based and cause-neutral approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity. Effective altruism is part of the larger movement towards evidence-based practices.
While a substantial proportion of effective altruists have focused on the nonprofit sector, the philosophy of effective altruism applies more broadly to prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives which can be estimated to save lives, help people, or otherwise have the biggest benefit. People associated with the movement include philosopher Peter Singer, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, Cari Tuna, Ben Delo, Oxford-based researchers William MacAskill and Toby Ord, professional poker player Liv Boeree, and writer Jacy Reese.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia