Find the word definition



Altruism or selflessness is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular worldviews, though the concept of "others" toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism or selflessness is the opposite of selfishness. The word was coined 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 Latin alteri, meaning " other people" or "somebody else".

Altruism in biological organisms can be defined as an individual performing an action which is at a cost to themselves (e.g., pleasure and quality of life, time, probability of survival or reproduction), but benefits, either directly or indirectly, another third-party individual, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action. Steinberg suggests a definition for altruism in the clinical setting, that is "intentional and voluntary actions that aim to enhance the welfare of another person in the absence of any quid pro quo external rewards".

Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty, in that whilst the latter is predicated upon social relationships, altruism does not consider relationships. Much debate exists as to whether "true" altruism is possible in human psychology. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as "benefits". The actor also may not be expecting a reward.

The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it is usually contrasted with egoism, which is defined as acting to the benefit of one's self.

Altruism (biology)

In biology, altruism refers to behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Altruism in this sense is different from the philosophical concept of altruism, in which an action would only be called "altruistic" if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. In the behavioural sense, there is no such requirement. As such, it is not evaluated in moral terms—it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness that determine whether the action is considered altruistic, not the intentions, if any, with which the action is performed.

The term altruism was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in French, as altruisme, for an antonym of egoism. He derived it from an Italian altrui, which in turn was derived from Latin alteri, meaning "other people" or "somebody else".

Altruistic behaviours appear most obviously in kin relationships, such as in parenting, but may also be evident among wider social groups, such as in social insects. They allow an individual to increase the success of its genes by helping relatives that share those genes. Obligate altruism is the permanent loss of direct fitness (with potential for indirect fitness gain). For example, honey bee workers may forage for the colony. Facultative altruism is temporary loss of direct fitness (with potential for indirect fitness gain followed by personal reproduction) example: Florida scrub jay helping at the nest, then gaining parental territory.

Altruism (ethics)

Altruism (also called the ethic of altruism, moralistic altruism, and ethical altruism) is an ethical doctrine that holds that the moral value of an individual's actions depend solely on the impact on other individuals, regardless of the consequences on the individual itself. James Fieser states the altruist dictum as: "An action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent." Auguste Comte's version of altruism calls for living for the sake of others. One who holds to either of these ethics is known as an "altruist."

The word "altruism" (French, altruisme, from autrui: "other people", derived from Latin alter: "other") was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catéchisme Positiviste, that:

[The] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely."

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that for Comte's altruism, "The first principle of the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts." Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says "The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase : Live for others."

Various philosophers define the doctrine in various ways, but all definitions generally revolve around a moral obligation to benefit others or the pronouncement of moral value in serving others rather than oneself. Philosopher C. D. Broad defines altruism as "the doctrine that each of us has a special obligation to benefit others." Philosopher W. G. Maclagan defines it as "a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows...Altruism is to...maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue."

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English


▪ For reciprocal altruism in mobile animals, as demonstrated by packer in baboons, more is needed.
▪ The criteria for reciprocal altruism seem fulfilled as the interactions seem based upon expectations of reciprocation.
▪ In reciprocal altruism individuals are not required to have any particular genetic relatedness with one another.
▪ So, it looks like a promising case for a bit of reciprocal altruism.
▪ But pervasive as this behavior may be, we do have moments of generosity and altruism.
▪ But there is another way to ensure that altruism pays: reciprocity.
▪ It requires an altruism not commonly associated with the nature of big time politics.
▪ Love, altruism - just pretty words.
▪ Some have therefore concluded that behaviour in this category can not be termed altruism at all.
▪ While charity and altruism are great, they do not show up often enough to sustain a society.
Douglas Harper's Etymology Dictionary


1853, "unselfishness, opposite of egoism," from French altruisme, coined or popularized 1830 by French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), from autrui, from Old French altrui, "of or to others," from Latin alteri, dative of alter "other" (see alter). Apparently suggested to Comte by French legal phrase l'autrui, or in full, le bien, le droit d'autrui. The -l- is perhaps a reinsertion from the Latin word.\n\nThere is a fable that when the badger had been stung all over by bees, a bear consoled him by a rhapsodic account of how he himself had just breakfasted on their honey. The badger replied peevishly, "The stings are in my flesh, and the sweetness is on your muzzle." The bear, it is said, was surprised at the badger's want of altruism.

["George Eliot," "Theophrastus Such," 1879]

The Collaborative International Dictionary


Altruism \Al"tru*ism\, n. [F. altruisme (a word of Comte's), It. altrui of or to others, fr. L. alter another.] Regard for others, both natural and moral; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; -- opposed to egoism or selfishness. [Recent]
--J. S. Mill.



n. Regard for others, both natural and moral without regard for oneself; devotion to the interests of others; brotherly kindness; selflessness; ''contrasted with egoism or selfishness''.



n. the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others [syn: selflessness] [ant: egoism]

Usage examples of "altruism".

If a Christian sets aside traditionary forms and blind imitation of ceremonials and investigates the reality of the gospels, he will discover that the foundation principles of the teachings of His Holiness Christ were mercy, love, fellowship, benevolence, altruism, the resplendence or radiance of divine bestowals, acquisition of the breaths of the Holy Spirit and oneness with God.

Out of a mixture of altruism, curiosity, and perversity, Julie takes Penny under her wing and insists that Andy help Penny set her own unbuilt House in order.

I said before, that pro-kin creates an exaggerated version of normal nepotistic altruism.

It stretches the range of nepotistic altruism to reach the whole world, and gives us the willingness to die for humanity.

If the facts of lion life are as Bertram says, and, just as important, if they have been like that for a large number of generations, then we may expect that natural selection will have favoured a degree of altruism appropriate to the average degree of relatedness in a typical pride.

Therefore genes for becoming reproductively infertile in middle age became more numerous, since they were carried in the bodies of grandchildren whose survival was assisted by grandmotherly altruism.

I employed the rationalization of clinical altruism for personal ends and thus fell into a trap that awaits all unwary therapists of the mind.

All are obsessively rigid in regard to ritual, and all subscribe to a Doctrine of Absolute Altruism, which compels them to virtue and benevolence.

And since the Sum of human altruism was as much a part of the Unknowable Creative Principle as anything else in Nature and the Universe, a worse link might have been chosen after all!

Gaia extrapolates the growth of the hormones, kin altruism, the brain, and suggests that genitalia are the true conscience of the world.

It had nothing to do with any degree of altruism or sense of civic responsibility.

While many artists were glad to get the added exposure and expressed a seemingly heartfelt need to give something back to society, cynical observers viewed their altruism as an attempt to garner a favorable review with the Parole Board.

But what it does mean is that McCain2000 wants to have it both ways, rather like big corporations who give to charity and then try to reap PR benefits by hyping their altruism in their ads.

In brief, what he saw in Christian ethics, under all the poetry and all the fine show of altruism and all the theoretical benefits therein, was a democratic effort to curb the egoism of the strong--a conspiracy of the chandala against the free functioning of their superiors, nay, against the free progress of mankind.

It is proposed that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, motivated either by altruism or through a selfish interest in maintaining a stimulating set of communicants, convey the information for stabilizing societies.