From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
In the second sense, Altruism is also the doctrine that says one ought to act, or refrain from acting, so that positive benefit or good is bestowed on other people, if necessary to the exclusion of one's own interests. The word was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism. Altruism is opposed to the doctrine of ethical egoism, according to which one's actions ought to further one's own interests.
Altruism can also refer to:
- being helpful to other people with little or no interest in being rewarded for one's efforts. (the colloquial definition)
- actions that benefit others with a net detrimental or neutral effect on the actor, regardless of the actor's own psychology, motivation, or the cause of her actions.
Altruism in philosophy and ethics
The word 'altruism' was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism. Advocates of altruism as an ethical doctrine assert that says one ought to act, or refrain from acting, so that positive benefit or good is bestowed on other people, if necessary to the exclusion of one's own interests (A positive benefit here refers to a benefit which that person did not have before the action was taken. For example, refraining from murdering someone is not bestowing a positive benefit but simply refraining from taking away his benefit of life). A person who embraces these principles is known as an "altruist." Altruism is distinguished from ethical egoism, according to which one's actions ought to further one's own interests.
If one performs an act beneficial to others with a view to gaining some personal benefit, then it is not an altruistic act. As noted above, there are several different perspectives on how "personal benefit" (or "self-interest") should be defined. A material gain (e.g. money, a physical reward, etc.) is clearly a form of personal 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 one can appear outwardly altruistic in the practical sense, one cannot have altruistic motivations. That is, while one might very well spend one's life helping others, one's motive for doing so is always the furthering of one's own interests. One claiming to be an altruist might derive great pleasure, for example, from helping others. That pleasure, according to this theory, is both the motive and the resulting benefit one gets from the act. Critics of this theory often reject it on the grounds that it is non-falsifiable; in other words, it is designed in such a way as to be impossible to prove or disprove.
In common parlance, however, 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.
Altruism in ethology and evolutionary biology
In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one presumes that natural selection acts on the individual. Natural selection, however, acts on the gene pool of the subjects, not on each subject individually. Recent developments in game theory have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:
- Kin selection including eusociality (see also "selfish gene")
- Reciprocal altruism, mutual aid
- Behavioral manipulation (e.g. by parasites)
- indirect reciprocity (e.g. reputation)
- bounded rationality (see e.g. Herbert Simon)
- strong reciprocity
- sexual selection
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 similaraties 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 psychology and sociology
These evolutionary mechanisms encounter problems when applied to the practice of altruism in humans. Humans are not exclusively altruistic towards family members, previous co-operators or potential future allies, but can be altruistic towards people they don't know and will never meet. For example, humans donate to international charities and volunteer their time to help society's less fortunate.
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 an agent convince his comrades that he really is a genuine co-operator, not a free rider in disguise? One answer is by actually making himself a genuine co-operator, by erecting psychological barriers to breaking his own 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.
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 in politics
If one is an adherent to the ethical doctrine called altruism, it can become his moral justification for forcing, or advocating forcing, altruistic behavior on other individuals. In the realm of politics, the altruist may employ an agent in the form of government to enforce this supposed moral obligation. This is not to say that an ethical altruist will necessarily force this on anyone. He may allow others the freedom to behave in a manner he believes to be immoral, in other words, his ethical doctrine would not manifest itself politically.
Altruism is a major factor in politics, because people who believe that individuals are morally obliged to bestow benefit upon others will promote particular governmental actions or entire political systems that enforce the supposed obligation. In most societies, positive political action is frequently justified by altruism.
Other things, like mandatory taxation used to support (for example) social welfare or public schools, a requirement that motorists pull over to let emergency vehicles pass, or other laws mandating that citizens specificly act to further the interests of others are frequently advocated by appealing to the ethical doctrine.
Often, politicians are criticized for acting in their own interest (by pork barrel spending, for example), rather than in the apparent interest of a wider group.
Definitions of self interest
Altruism can be seen as an unselfish interest in helping someone else or behavior that benefits someone else while affecting the actor detrimentally or neutrally. The former type of altruism is a motivation that emphasizes the welfare of others while minimizing or ignoring the individual's own welfare, while the latter is a description of behavior without regard to motivation. Altruism is also the namesake of an ethical doctrine that prescribes altruistic behavior. The concepts have a long history in philosophical and ethical thought, and have 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.
Different perspectives on altruism can arise from using narrow or broad definitions of self-interest. Many subscribe to the view that self-interest can be defined in terms of material benefits for the actor, while others argue that self-interest includes psychological rewards, such as the good feeling certain people may get when helping a stranger.
- What is Altruism? (Altruists International) (http://www.altruists.org/about/altruism)
- World Altruism & Non-Violent Change - Altruism in World Politics (http://www.altruist-alliance.org/index.html)
- Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. (23 October 2003). The nature of human altruism. In Nature, 425, 785 – 791.