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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, 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.
Thomas Jay Oord distinguishes between absolute altruism and relative altruism. Absolute altruism involves acting for the benefit of others with no benefit for the actor. Relative altruism involves acting primarily for the benefit for others, even when the actor may receive some benefit as well. Oord argues against absolute altruism and in favor of regarding altruism in its relative form.
Altruism in 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.
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:
- Behavioural manipulation (for example, by certain parasites that can alter the behavior of the host)
- Bounded rationality (for example, Herbert Simon)
- Kin selection including eusociality (see also "selfish gene")
- Memes (by influencing behavior to favour their own spread, for example, religion)
- Reciprocal altruism, mutual aid
- Sexual selection
- Reciprocity (social psychology)
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 politics
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.
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 particular 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).
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 economics. 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.
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 was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel. 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 on 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. If love, which confirms others in their freedom, shuns propagandas and masks, assurance of its presence 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 become validated and grasped not by words and reflections alone, but in the doing.
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 Theologia, I:II Quaestion 26, Article 4 states that we should love ourselves more than our neighbour. 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 ourself 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, now part of mainstream Catholicism, in coining the word Altruism, as stated above.
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 similitude of being: â€œEven 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.â€ 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 se ipsum [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).
- Batson, C.D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. (23 October 2003). The nature of human altruism. In Nature, 425, 785 – 791.
- August Comte, Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891)
- Oord, Thomas Jay, Science of Love (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2004).
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil
- Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Philosophy of Poverty (1847)
- Lysander Spooner, Natural Law
- Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue
- Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Towards a Caring Society: Ideas into Action. West Port, CT: Praeger, 1995.
- The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02121-2
- The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1990), second edition -- includes two chapters about the evolution of cooperation, ISBN 0-19-286092-5
- Robert Wright, The moral animal, Vintage, 1995, ISBN 0-679-76399-6.
- 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 
- 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.
- Philosophy and Religion
- The Sciences
- Biological Altruism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt State University
- "Altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency" in Nature
- Greater Good magazine examines the roots of Altruism at the University of California, Berkeley
- In Society
- Altruists International A group to re-establish altruism as a social norm.
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