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Definition: altruism from The Penguin English Dictionary

unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others

altruist noun altruistic /-ʹistik/ adj altruistically /-ʹistikli/ adv [French altruisme from autrui other people, ultimately from Latin alter other (of two)].

Summary Article: Altruism from The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science

Altruism refers to a specific form of motivation for benefiting another. Some biologists, economists, and psychologists speak of altruism as a form of behavior (e.g., costly helping or helping with no external reward). However, such use fails to consider the motivation for the behavior, which has historically been crucial for altruism.

Comte (1851/1875) coined the term altruism in juxtaposition to egoism, and, soon thereafter, it became prominent in philosophy. To the degree that one’s ultimate goal in benefiting another is to increase the other’s welfare, the motivation is altruistic. To the degree that the ultimate goal is to increase one’s own welfare, with increasing the other’s welfare being an instrumental means to reach this goal, the motivation is egoistic. Accordingly, altruism may be defined as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare. Egoism may be defined as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing one’s own welfare. In these definitions, “ultimate goal” refers to a state one is seeking in a given situation, not to a metaphysical first for final cause. A person can have multiple ultimate goals, so altruistic and egoistic motives can co-occur.

Dictionary definitions of altruism reflect this motivational focus. They typically define altruism as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others” (e.g., Webster’s, 1990). However, for scientific use it seems best to avoid the term “unselfish” for two reasons. First, unselfish has clear evaluative connotations because of its juxtaposition to selfish, a term that implies undue or immoral attention to one’s own welfare. Altruism, as defined, is not necessarily moral; indeed, it may lead one to violate one’s own moral standards if doing so increases the welfare of the other toward whom one is altruistically motivated (see Batson, Kline, Highberger, & Shaw, 1995). Second, to speak of “unselfish concern” can lead to the assumption that self-sacrifice or net cost to self is a necessary component of altruism. This is not the case. Increasing the other’s welfare, not decreasing one’s own, is the focus of altruism.

Over the past 50 years, the term altruism has been widely used in biology, where it has at times been suggested that altruism is contrary to natural selection and therefore cannot exist. Making a useful distinction, Sober and Wilson (1998) point out that these biologists are referring to evolutionary altruism—behavior by one organism that reduces its reproductive fitness relative to the reproductive fitness of others. Evolutionary altruism is quite different from what is normally meant by altruism as just defined, which Sober and Wilson call psychological altruism. The existence of psychological altruism does not depend on the existence of evolutionary altruism.

The Egoism-Altruism Debate

Clearly, humans devote much time and energy to helping others. Is this evidence of psychological altruism? Most proponents of altruism say, not necessarily. Proponents of universal egoism go further. They say, necessarily not—that everything we do, no matter how noble and beneficial to others, is directed toward the ultimate goal of self-benefit. They point out that even when helping involves material or physical cost, we may benefit by getting social and self-rewards (praise, esteem) and avoiding social and self-punishment (censure, guilt). Proponents of altruism do not deny these self-benefits, nor do they deny that the motivation for helping is often egoistic. However, they claim that at least some of us, to some degree, under some circumstances, help with an ultimate goal of benefiting the person in need. They point out that even though we get self-benefits from helping, these benefits may not be the reason we helped. Rather than an ultimate goal, the self-benefits may be unintended consequences.

Helping another person—even at great cost to oneself— may be altruistically motivated, egoistically motivated, or both. To know which it is, we must determine whether benefit to the other is (1) an ultimate goal and any self-benefits are unintended consequences (altruism) or (2) an instrumental means to reach the ultimate goal of benefiting oneself (egoism). To do this, we first need to identify a likely source of altruistic motivation.

The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis

In both earlier philosophical writings and in more recent psychological work, the most frequently mentioned likely source of psychological altruism is an other-oriented emotional reaction to seeing another person in need. This emotional reaction has variously been called compassion, empathy, empathic concern, pity, sympathy, and tenderness. It is other-oriented in the sense that it involves feeling for the other—feeling sorry for, distressed for, concerned for the other. We can also feel direct, self- oriented sorrow, distress, or concern when we are faced with a distressing situation, including seeing someone in need. The direct distress experienced at witnessing another person in distress—sometimes called “personal distress”—is distinct from other-oriented empathic concern for that person (Batson, 1991). To use the same terms for both other-oriented and self-oriented emotional reactions to seeing another in distress invites confusion. The relevant psychological distinction must be based not on whether terms like “sad” or “distressed” are used but on whose welfare is the focus of the emotional response—the other person’s welfare or one’s own.

The proposal that empathic concern felt for someone in need produces altruistic motivation to relieve that need has been called the empathy-altruism hypothesis (Batson, 1991). In the past several decades, more than 30 experiments have tested this hypothesis against various egoistic alternatives (see Batson, 1991, for a partial review and Batson, in preparation, for a more complete review). Although still controversial, results have been remarkably supportive of the empathy-altruism hypothesis, suggesting that psychological altruism—motivation with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare—is within the motivational repertoire of most humans.

See also

Affiliation Need; Morality; Prosocial Behavior.

  • Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social- psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Batson, C. D. (In press). Altruism in humans. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Batson, C. D., Klein, T. R., Highberger, L., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1042-1054.
  • Comte, I. A. (1875). System of positive polity (Vol. 1). London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others: The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Webster’s desk dictionary of the English language (1990). New York: Portland House.
    University of Kansas
    Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

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