principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others

Altruism (or selflessness) is concern for the well-being of others. A truly altruistic act is something done completely for the benefit of another, without concern for the self. It usually involves sacrificing something (time, effort or possessions), with no expectation of receiving anything in return (including recognition for the act of giving). It is considered a virtue in many cultures and a basic aspect of most religions. It is the opposite of selfishness.

Giving to the poor is considered an altruistic action in many cultures and religions.

Altruism is different from acts done out of responsibility, loyalty or moral obligation towards a specific individual (such as a god, a king or a government). Whether "pure" altruism is possible has been debated by scholars for thousands of years. One theory says that no act of giving, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly selfless, because the person will receive personal gratification from it (that is, a feeling of satisfaction that they have done something good for another). Whether this theory is correct depends on whether such feelings qualify as a 'reward' or 'benefit'.

The word "altruism" was given by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in French, as altruisme, for an antonym of egoism.[1][2] He derived it from the Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning "other people" or "somebody else".[3]

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".[4] In one sense, the opposite of altruism is spite; a spiteful action harms another with no self-benefit.

The concept of altruism has long been studied in philosophy and ethics. The term was originally used in the 19th century by sociologist and philosopher of science, Auguste Comte. It has become an important topic for psychologists (especially those that study evolutionary psychology), evolutionary biologists and ethologists. The scholars of each field have developed different ideas about altruism. All agree that altruism is caring about the welfare of other people and acting to help them.

Evolutionary psychology

In the animal kingdom, worker bees demonstrate altruism when they attack other animals that threaten the hive. The bee stings and injects venom. Once it does this, the bee will die, but it willingly does this to defend the hive.

In the study of animal behaviour, altruism is seen in social animals when an individual willingly sacrifices itself for the better survival of the group.[5] There are several theories about how this behaviour has come about under evolution by natural selection.

  • Kin selection,[6] is a theory that animals and humans are more altruistic towards members of their own species than to species that are more distantly related. This has been confirmed in many studies.[7] See also: Eusociality: Theories of social evolution.
  • Vested interests. People are likely to suffer if their family, friends or allies suffer. Helping one's own family and friends may therefore eventually benefit the self. This is about cooperation. Extreme self-sacrifice for the group may happen if something threatens to kill the entire group.[7]
  • Reciprocal altruism.[8][9] A person is more likely to help another if there is a chance that the other person will help them in return, whether immediately or eventually. This is about reciprocity.[10] Many people cooperate if and only if others cooperate in return. Reputation may become important in this. A person with a good reputation for reciprocity have a higher chance of receiving help even from persons they have had no direct interactions with previously.[7]
  • Handicap principle. Acts of altruism are often used to show others what skills one has and what resources one has access to.[11] This may signal to others that the altruist could be valuable as a sexual partner. Women find altruistic men to be attractive partners.[7][12] In animals, research has found that good hunters have better success finding partners to reproduce with.[7] In humans, people who know that their acts will be seen sometimes even wastefully donate money they know are not needed by the recipient because it helps their reputation.[12]

These theories try to explain how evolution has shaped psychological mechanisms, such as emotions, that encourage altruistic behaviour.[7]

In religion

Buddhist monks collecting alms.

Most, if not all, of the world's religions promote selflessness as a very important moral value. It forms part of the central philosophies of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism and Sikhism, as well as many other religions.

Buddhism teaches love and compassion for all forms of life (ahimsa). Love is the wish that all beings be happy, and compassion is the wish that all beings be free from suffering. It considers all living things to be equal. Unlike most other religions, Buddhists believe that the consequences of our actions come not from punishments based on moral judgment, but from the law of karma (kamma). Karma is the natural law of cause and effect. In this law, we experience the effects of what we cause: if you cause suffering, then as a natural consequence you will experience suffering; if you cause happiness, then as a natural consequence you will experience happiness. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one in the wheel of samsāra; others will liberate one to nirvāna.[13][14]

In Sufism, the idea of īthār (selflessness) is defined as preferring others over yourself. For Sufis, this means devotion to others and completely forgetting concern for oneself. It teaches sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. Islam considers those practicing īthār as abiding by the highest degree of virtue.[15] In īthār, attention is focused on everything that exists except for the self.[16]



  1. "altruism (n .)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  2. Teske, Nathan (2009). Political Activists in America: The Identity Construction Model of Political Participation. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780271035468.
  3. Ciciloni, Ferdinando (1825). A Grammar of the Italian Language. London: John Murray. p. 64.
  4. Steinberg, David (2010). "Altruism in medicine: its definition, nature, and dilemmas". Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. 19 (2): 249–57. doi:10.1017/s0963180109990521. PMID 20226108. S2CID 30534335.
  5. Bell, Graham (2008). Selection: the mechanism of evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 367–368. ISBN 978-0-19-856972-5.
  6. Okasha, Samir. "Biological Altruism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Pat Barcaly. The evolution of charitable behaviour and the power of reputation. In Roberts, S. C. (2011). Applied Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199586073.001.0001. ISBN 9780199586073.
  8. Trivers, R.L. (1971). "The evolution of reciprocal altruism". Quarterly Review of Biology. 46: 35–57. doi:10.1086/406755. S2CID 19027999.
  9. R Axelrod and WD Hamilton (March 1981). "The evolution of cooperation". Science. 211 (4489): 1390–1396. Bibcode:1981Sci...211.1390A. doi:10.1126/science.7466396. PMID 7466396.
  10. Herbert Gintis (September 2000). "Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality" (PDF). Journal of Theoretical Biology. 206 (2): 169–179. doi:10.1006/jtbi.2000.2111. PMID 10966755. S2CID 9260305. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2022-04-06. Retrieved 2022-02-22.
  11. Zahavi, A. (1995). "Altruism as a handicap – The limitations of kin selection and reciprocity". Avian Biol. 26 (1): 1–3. doi:10.2307/3677205. JSTOR 3677205.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Wendy Iredal and Mark van Vugt. "Altruism as showing off: a signaling perspective on promoting green behaviour and acts of kindness". In Roberts, S. C. (2011). Applied Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199586073.001.0001. ISBN 9780199586073
  13. Davids, Rhys (2007). Buddhism. Lightning Source Incorporated. p. 119. ISBN 978-1-4067-5628-9.
  14. Padmasiri de Silva (1998). Environmental Philosophy and Ethics in Buddhism. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-312-21316-9.
  15. M (2004). Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism: Emerald Hills of the Heart. Rutherford, N.J.: Fountain. pp. 10–11. ISBN 1-932099-75-1.
  16. Neusner, Jacob (2005). Altruism in World Religions. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Univ. Press. pp. 79–80. ISBN 1-58901-065-5.

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