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Altruism is an unselfish interest in helping someone else. It is a motivation that emphasizes the welfare of others while minimizing or ignoring the individual's own welfare. 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. Different perspectives on altruism can arise from using narrow or broad definitions of self-interest. At one extreme, self-interest is limited to material benefits for the actor, while at the other extreme, self-interest includes psychological rewards.

Table of contents
1 Altruism in philosophy and ethics
2 Altruism in ethology and evolutionary biology
3 Altruism in psychology and sociology
4 Afterword

Altruism in philosophy and ethics

The word was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism. Advocates of altruism as an ethical doctrine assert that one's actions ought to further the welfare of other people, ideally to the exclusion of one's own interests. Altruism is distinguished from ethical egoism, according to which one's actions ought to further one's own interests.

In practice, altruism is the performance of duties to others with no view to any sort of personal gain for one's efforts. If one performs an act beneficial to others with a view to gaining affection, respect, reputation, or any form of gratitude or remuneration then it is not an altruistic act. It is in fact a selfish act because the principal motivation was to reap some benefit for oneself. The desire of this benefit exists equally whether it is psychological, emotional, intellectual, or material - each form of desirable benefit is philosophically identical as a motivation.

Hence, people may be seen participating in what externally appears to be altruistic behavior. In fact it is frequently not the case that the behavior is altruistic. The behavior, in most cases, may be termed rational selfishness. Rational selfishness may often make adherents appear as if they are acting altruistically, but in fact, due to the motivation behind the act, it is quite the opposite. Rational selfishness is driven by a rational and reasoned desire to benefit by following one's own personal system of values.

According to psychological egoism, while one can be 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.

In common parlance, however, altruism usually means helping another person without expecting a 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. Because no proof is available supporting the act of altruism as defined above, it might be best to label the act as "apparent altruism." In this way one need not speculate on the motives of the "do-gooder."

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 (biology) of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one accepts that natural selection acts on the individual. Recent developments in game theory have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:

An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime molds, 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.

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. 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). Although there is no reason to expect any species to exhibit optimal traits in any particular respect, especially when that species has recently experienced radical changes in its environment, it would be unusual from an evolutionary point of view for a species specifically to develop an entirely new and prominent faculty without any historical selection pressure for that faculty.

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.


If all this is true, and altruism has simply evolved as an optimum solution to a game-theoretic problem, what then for ethics? Is right and wrong just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes so they can survive and reproduce in a society of self-interested agents? This is a meta-ethical question that straddles the boundary between biology and philosophy.

The view is credited to former Harvard sociobiologist, and now Rutgers University anthropologist, Robert L. Trivers. Robert Trivers's current work involves a study of symmetry in school children in Jamaica.


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