Altruism is the attitude that consists of according one’s regards to the Other (alter in Latin), personally or globally, as a principle of one’s choices and actions. Opposed to egoism, it implies sincere and unselfish concern for the well-being of others, expressed practically.
Its most current use is referred to interhuman relationships; in this sense, it can be attached to humanism. Altruism is indeed an extremely significant notion of great concrete consequences for the human societies.
There shouldn’t be confusion between the principle of altruism and the one of simple respect of the Other: Being respectful doesn’t necessarily imply taking under consideration the Other’s welfare for the definition of one’s behavior.
Another possible erroneous identification may occur between altruism and the ethical attitude founded on the principle of reciprocity, as expressed negatively already in the Hebraic Talmud of Babylon (Shabbat): “Don’t do to your fellow man what you would detest he did to you,” and positively in the Christian New Testament (Luke 5:31; Matthew 7:12): “What you would like people do for you, do it in the same way for them.”
Instead of these principles of “reasonable justice,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) thought that human actions should rather follow the principle of “natural goodness”: “Do your own good with the least possible harm for the Other.” However, this isn’t altruism, either: Not to harm is just to respect; no active consideration for the Other’s good is at play.
In fact, we may distinguish two sorts of altruism, to which we are giving here original appellations, for the sake of more clarity:
- The “egalitarian” altruism, where one is concerned of the well-being of the Other at the same level one cares about one’s own. This is the commonest way to conceive altruism. It is expressed paradigmatically by the capital Judeo-Christian command, present in the Old and the New Testament: “Love your neighbor as you love thyself” (Leviticus 18:18 and Matthew 22:39), as well as in the Islamic Koran: “Help ye one another in righteousness and piety” (Sourat 5:2).
- The “absolute” altruism, where one puts the Other’s good at a higher level than one’s own in the scale of the values and principles defining one’s actions. It is a more exceptional manifestation of altruism. Usually, it is considered as characterizing the ideal parent’s love toward their children. In more rare circumstances, it may be addressed to persons with which some other kind of loving relationship occurs (family, lovers, friends) or other larger common link (compatriots, people sharing the same ideas or beliefs). In the latter category may belong the “guardians” of the ideal Republic of Plato (428-348 BC), who were asked to put aside their personal happiness to occupy themselves with the welfare of the city, as well as some “national heroes or martyrs.
The most astonishing case is the one where no other relationship interferes than the common human status. Such an altruism becomes, for example, the motivation inspiring the actions of persons commonly called “heroes of humanity” (or even “saints,” if they are attached at the same time to a religious belief): One’s own life might be either literally sacrificed for the welfare of others or entirely dedicated to it (such as scientists choosing to work lifelong under hard conditions for discoveries that will help the concrete amelioration of others’ lives, or persons embracing a life deprived of comfort and completely oriented toward works of charity, the defense of human rights, or even the Boddhishatvas of the Mahayana Buddhism).
The Other to Which Altruism Is Addressed
Altruism is manifest in interpersonal relations. We think that it is appropriate to first develop a little further the crucial notion of the “Other” toward whom one may behave altruistically.
According to evolutional psychology, the notion of “Other” (or “alterity”) develops progressively for the human being as the latter defines more and more the limits of its own self (its “sameness”).
It is through our relationship with the Other that we are able to survive physically in our youngest age and to learn everything necessary for our psychological and social growth up to adulthood and till the end of our days. The particular individuality of each person is thus formed in constant interaction with the Other.
The Greek philosophers (6th century BC-6th century AD), who lived in societies where interpersonal dialogue was a considerable and crucial part of everyday life for private, public and intellectual matters, present the Other as a mirror of our soul. They have particularly underlined the importance of the Other for the awakening of the self-consciousness and of self-knowledge. The Greeks in general defined themselves through an opposition to the other people, called “Barbarians” (this didn’t imply any lack of culture accorded to them; on the contrary, we have many testimonies that there was a great esteem for the artistic and intellectual achievements of the neighboring Asian and Egyptian civilizations, toward which travels were made for the sake of learning: The term derives from the phonetical “bar-bar,” which was the impression given of the sound of languages one didn’t understand).
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) places the exceptional moment of the realization of self-conscience at the meeting with the conscience of the Other, in a dramatic clash.
For Plato and the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Other is considered moreover as an image of the divine and therefore should be respected as such. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thinks that the respect for the Other is founded precisely on the fact that the Other is a “person,” who should be seen as an “end in itself,” not as a “mean” for something else, like a simple object. The other persons limit our absolute freedom of action, because they are objects of our respect. Thus, the interpersonal relation with the Other also becomes the reason for the foundation of moral conduct on the notion of obligation.
A different approach of the way to conceive the Other, that is, as a separate reality and not just as an object of the ego’s conscience, is made by the phenomenologists, for example, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995), who is at the same time inspired by this school and by Judeo-Christianity, accords a greater importance to the Other than to the Self, against the “egology” of the previous philosophical theories on the subject. The Other has a meaning by himself, before the attribution of any meaning to him by ourselves. He comes to us like a revelation by generosity. This “face” to which we can’t escape represents an appeal to responsibility and justice and reveals us to ourselves. This philosopher has eminently analyzed abnegation and altruism.
To the antipodes of such a vision stands Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who accepts that the Other’s vision of myself brings up my self-conscience, but the Other exists only for himself, as liberty. The Other “is an ‘I’ that I’m not, which creates nothingness as an element of definite separation between the Other and myself.”
Is Altruism Natural?
In the interpersonal relation to the Other, is the human being naturally inclined to altruism or to egoism? This crucial question, from which depends largely the definition of the most appropriate ethical theory, has to be answered according to David Hume (1711-1776), only after a systematic research on human nature, inspired by natural science.
The evolutionist thesis concerning human species expressed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) has been used therefore as a foundation for the theories supporting as natural moral human thought and conduct, “socialized egoism,” “utilitarianism,” and “hedonism” (man’s natural priority is the pursuit of what is more useful or pleasant for himself, though without harming the Others).
According to the utilitarians, even altruist behavior is following “egoist strategies” inscribed in the human genes. Altruism toward others who possess the same genes (family) or who may also be altruists in return is the naturally selected optimal way for the survival of the species. In consequence, moral conduct isn’t the result of a personal free choice, but of a programmed natural reaction. According to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the welfare of a whole human community may be calculated and chosen on the basis of the greatest quantity of good or pleasant things accompanied by the least possible unpleasant things that men may expect from a common life.
These theories may arouse, and have aroused, many objections, for example: Only material goods are “measurable,” but there are many other things that are also considered as “good” by humans. All members of a society can’t have the same opinion on what is better for themselves and the whole of the community. We could add here: Even if it is true that altruism in parental and social relations is met also in other natural species, this doesn’t reduce such a behavior to a natural selection, as there are in human beings altruistic attitudes that don’t enter this scheme. As for an “altruism” that expects a return, could it still be called “altruism”?
As a more moderate solution, Adam Smith (1723-1790) accepts also a natural “sympathy” of the human being for other humans with whom he is in interference, in the sense of sharing the others’ passions.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) believes, though, that there is more in the feeling of sympathy we have toward the members of our species: On one hand, we don’t like to see the Other suffering, and therefore we avoid harming them; on the other hand, we take pleasure in doing good to the others.
Before him, Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) had supported that the goodwill toward the Other is in fact a kind of “commiseration,” or pity.
Pity, or the Buddhist “compassion,” or the Christian “charity” (translation of the Greek word agape, which means “love”), is indeed the source of altruism (on the condition that it doesn’t hide any feeling of “superiority” or of “self-satisfaction” for one’s “goodness”). An excellent description of this quality of unselfish good will toward the Other is given in the first “Letter to the Corinthians” of St. Paul, in the New Testament.
True friendship (philia in Greek) in its best form is also expressed as an absolute good will, addressed to the Other for what he is as a person, as Aristotle (384-322 BC) notes in his ethical works. The spontaneous movement of the “self” toward the other person, who is asking to be loved, is called “solicitude” by Paul Ricoeur (1913-), who places this fundamental ethical intention before the moral action.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), following Plato, underlines that caring for the other’s well-being without any wish for return is the characteristic of love, clearly distinguishing it from desire, which includes an egoistic will for possession.
After all these considerations, we think we may affirm that altruism should be considered as naturally coexisting with egoism in human nature, without being limited to a simple result of “natural selection.”
But altruism is preferable, even if this may sound like a paradox, as it is a “plus-nature,” says Vladimir Jankelevitch (1903-1985). For Emmanuel Levinas, the only way for us to approach the Infinite and to arrive at the highest fulfilment is to submit our “I” to the “You,” in an absolutely altruistic attitude.
New Contemporary Expressions of Altruism
We would like to conclude here by mentioning that during the last half of the 20th century, new expressions of altruism emerged. As communications and means of transfer have greatly developed, news about victims of natural disasters, diseases, transgressions of human rights, or armed conflicts travel around the globe quickly. We remark that many associations or individuals around the world show a great sensibility and eagerness to assist, in various ways, their fellow humans in need. We might call these altruistic attitudes at a global level concrete manifestations of a “universal altruism”—an unexpected aspect of the actual phenomenon of “globalization” and a supplementary argument for the innate altruism of the human species and its surprising greatness.
- Hume, D. (2000). A treatise on human nature: Being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects (D. F. Norton &
- J. Norton, Eds.). Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1739-1740)
- Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another (K. Blamey, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Smith, A. (1984). The Glasgow edition of the works and correspondence ofAdam Smith: Vol. I. The theory of moral sentiments. Glasgow: Liberty Fund. (Original work published 1759)