[Article revised on 9 August 2020.]
Altruism is unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
Like ‘empathy’, ‘altruism’ is a modern term, coined by the philosopher Auguste Comte (d. 1857) from the French autrui, which itself derives from the Latin alteri [other people].
The classical, historical notion that most nearly approaches altruism is almsgiving, which derives from the Greek eleos [pity] and means ‘to give charity’. In Christian theology, charity is, properly speaking, the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men.
Another, less flattering, motivator of altruism is fear or avoidance. In this case, altruism is an ego defence, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with her problems and anxieties by stepping outside herself and helping others. By concentrating on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as nursing and teaching may be able to push their own needs into the background, where they can more readily be ignored or forgotten. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress, akin to ‘empty nest syndrome’, when this role is suddenly removed from them. It could be argued that this kind of defensive altruism is not true altruism, not least because of the eventual personal costs.
But putting these complications to one side, altruism has many benefits for the altruist. Carrying out an altruistic act leaves us with a feeling of euphoria, the so-called helper’s high. In the longer term, altruism is associated with better mental and physical health and greater longevity. Kinder people are happier, and happier people are kinder, establishing a virtuous circle of altruism.
On a more social level, altruism serves as a signal of cooperative intentions, and also of resource availability and, by extension, of mating or partnering potential. It also opens up a debt account, encouraging others to reciprocate with resources and opportunities that are potentially of much greater value to us than those that we felt able and ready to part with.
More broadly, altruism helps to establish and maintain the social fabric that nurtures and protects us, that keeps us alive and, more than that, makes our life worth living.
No surprise, then, that many psychologists and philosophers argue that there can be no such thing as true altruism, and that so-called empathy and altruism are mere tools of selfishness and self-preservation. On this account, the acts that people call altruistic are performed because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction, the expectation of honour or reciprocation, or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if none of the above, then at least because they alleviate unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted.
This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely for its faulty, circular logic: ‘People who perform altruistic acts benefit from those acts, therefore, altruistic acts are performed for the benefit of the people who perform them.’
The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or validation or satisfaction. Accordingly, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some small and inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then un-determining.
Only one question remains: how many so-called altruistic acts can meet these criteria for true altruism?
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.