Altruism explained including the definition
Altruism: in this article you will find a practical explanation of Altruism. Next to what it is (definition and meaning), this article also highlights several definitions, several fields of study i.e. Psychology, Anthropology and Neurobiology, examples of altruism. Other topics which this article highlights are types of altruistic behaviour, the positive impact of this philosophy, the negative aspects and the criticism. Enjoy reading!
What is Altruism?
Definition of Altruism
The word altruism was popularised by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, in French as altruisme, for an antonym of egoism. He derived it from the Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from the Latin alteri, meaning other people or someone else.
Altruism is the action of acting for the benefit of others, where the welfare of others is prioritised, leaving aside one’s own interests. To make it clearer to understand; it is caring about the welfare of others and acting to help them.
Altruism, at its core, is the selfless and compassionate act of prioritizing the well-being of others above one’s own interests.
It involves a genuine concern for the welfare of others and actively taking actions to support and assist them. In a world often driven by self-interest, altruism stands as a powerful force that promotes empathy, kindness, and generosity.
It encompasses acts of kindness, whether big or small, that aim to alleviate suffering, promote happiness, and create positive impact in the lives of others.
Altruism reflects the innate capacity within us to care for and uplift our fellow human beings, fostering a sense of connection and collective well-being.
Meaning of Altruism
Practically, altruism develops the following:
- Social connections
These social states are activated when a person is handling in an altruistic way. Altruistic behaviour, the evolution of altruism, the impact it has and the criticism it has been given will be discussed in this article.
Altruism has been defined and redefined by several fields of study. Among these are: psychology, sociology, anthropology and neurobiology. The implications and definitions in each field will be taken into account.
Altruism and Psychology
According to the International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences, psychological altruism is a motivational state that desires to increase the well-being of others. This can concern all types of well-being, from physical health to mental health. Psychological altruism is different from psychological egoism, which is the motivation to increase one’s own well-being.
It is universal knowledge that psychology deals with the behaviour of human beings and why they behave in certain ways in different situations. It also deals with those “mental demons” and moral judgment, which make people act positively negatively.
Psychological altruism is evoked by the empathic desire to help someone who is suffering. Feelings of concern and understanding for the other means that empathy-induced psychological altruism can be genuinely selfless.
Altruistic behavior therefore been investigated psychologically. The focus was to find out why a person acts without motives of self-interest, for example to feel good, in helping others. It has also been debated much, because wanting to help others without receiving anything in return is something that other psychologists disagree with, as many argue that human beings are in many cases selfish.
Anthropology and Altruism
Altruism from an anthropology point of view is the moral and ethical notion of helping others using the cooperation of social welfare. It could be called the duty one has towards another human being to help him/her when he/she is in a difficult moment or in need of cooperation.
Examples of altruism
Imagine you are on a bus, and an elderly person arrives and needs a seat to rest while the journey is in progress. Many of those present may offer the chair to the elderly person. This would be helping a complete stranger, but the human being in such a situation does not act indifferently as he or she is acting in the interest of social and moral well-being.
Other, everyday examples of altruism are:
- holden open a door for a stranger
- donating clothes to a shelter
- playing music for elderly people with dementia in assisted living spaces
- delivering food to people with limited mobility
Neurobiology studies where altruism originates. Research has shown that the brain actually develops in a certain way, making some people more altruistic than others.
Psychologist and neuroscientist Abigail Marsh has researched altruism and why some people develop it more than others. People who are more altruistic:
- Can easily recognise the fear that other people feel
- Are better at detecting when someone is in danger
The brain has a part called the amygdala (emotional system of the brain). It activates expressions of fear and therefore human beings can act to protect or benefit another human being who feels fear.
Therefore, it can be concluded that human beings have the hardware to help others, but not all human beings develop it. Psychopaths have a smaller amygdala and therefore cannot react to the pain and suffering of others.
These “extraordinarily altruistic” beings, as Marsh calls them, have acts of extreme altruism which make them more compassionate than other human beings, not only with their immediate family group, but also with strangers, people who are not part of their social circle.
Another example of altruism: people who donate a kidney to a stranger, without even knowing the person and who they will probably never meet, but who still want to help by donating their kidney.
The evolution of altruism
Effective altruism has been investigated for years because of the debate about whether there are people who are born with the tendency to help others as mentioned above or whether kinship selection increases the possibility of helping others or because of the trust that awakens the other human being to be able to help him or her.
Types of altruistic behaviour
This type of altruism is in favour of helping and giving benefits to the closest relatives of a person. This group is usually the direct family.
In this type of altruism, the human being does not act selflessly without wanting to get something in return.
Reciprocal altruism is based on a mutual give-and-take relationship. This means that a person is helped at the moment of need, but it is expected that in the future the person who was helped will be able to return the favour.
Also the people who receive the help feel obliged to return the help or favour when the time comes. Studies show that people can be more cooperative in helping if they trust the person, i.e. if there is a pre-established bond of trust that allows them to trust someone.
This means that altruism is a function of the group with which the person has already been affiliated, e.g. social groups involved in charity work, in which people with specific problems are supported.
Pure altruism is also known as moral altruism, meaning that one helps another person even when it is risky, without expecting anything in return.
Positive impact of altruism
- An altruistic person, according to studies, can improve mental health in the long term, as doing good deeds to help others makes you feel happy
- Improves romantic relationships, being kind and compassionate can lead to a better relationship with your partner and your inner circle
- It helps to improve relationships and social connections, understanding and helping others helps one’s own well-being and brings happiness and peace of mind
Negative aspects of altruism
- People who perform altruistic acts can put themselves in danger, such as when saving someone else’s life.
- They may put aside their health, social or financial needs in order to care for others.
- It can lead to a person being emotionally overwhelmed.
However, altruism is generally a positive force and is a skill to be developed and put into practice.
Criticism of Altruism
As mentioned throughout the article, altruism is helping other people for their benefit without expecting something in return. In this case, it would be pure altruism where acts of kindness are done without receiving benefits of one’s own. However, it has been much debated because many people do altruistic acts to comfort themselves.
Helping a person who is in difficulty in the hope that he or she will be able to return the help in the future is also considered an act of wanting to get something in return sooner or later. This is criticised and debated in the face of what is really the human being’s mental conception of what he or she prioritises and what his or her true desire is when helping others.
There are many ways to perform altruistic acts, from helping someone in the nuclear family to helping a complete stranger. These may be small or large, but they derive from gestures of compassion, benefit and protection.
Furthermore, it is clear that regardless of what these acts of helping are, they make it possible for human beings to cooperate with each other and to empathise with each other in difficult situations. These acts of kindness, solidarity and love are what make humans special from other species because they not only use their intellect to ration and create, but they also care for others and this is ultimately the value that gives meaning to the human race based on social relationships.
Altruism is the selfless act of benefiting others, prioritizing their well-being over personal interests. It involves caring and helping without expecting anything in return. Altruism has been studied in psychology, anthropology, and neurobiology. Psychologically, it is motivated by empathy and a desire to improve others’ well-being. Anthropologically, it is seen as a moral duty to assist those in need.
Neurobiology suggests that some individuals are more altruistic due to brain development. Altruism positively impacts mental health, relationships, and social connections. However, it can have negative aspects such as personal risks and neglecting one’s own needs. Critics debate the true motivations behind altruism.
Now It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Do you think altruism is necessary to have a peaceful balance in this world? Do you donate money to charity? Have you carried out other altruistic actions in your life? Do you want to share your experience? Do you have anything else to add or any suggestions?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425(6960), 785-791.
- Batson, C. D. (2011). Altruism in humans. Oxford University Press, USA.
- Khalil, E. L. (2004). What is altruism? Journal of economic psychology, 25(1), 97-123.
How to cite this article:
Ospina Avendano, D. (2021). Altruism. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/sociology/altruism/
Original publication date: 27/09/2021 | Last update: 07/05/2023
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