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altruism (ălˈtro͞oĭzˈəm), concept in philosophy and psychology that holds that the interests of others, rather than of the self, can motivate an individual. The term was invented in the 19th cent. by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, who devised it as the opposite of egoism. Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, English contemporaries of Comte, accepted the worth of altruism but argued that the true moral aim should be the welfare of society, rather than that of individuals.
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concern for the welfare of others rather than oneself. Altruistic behaviour is therefore the opposite of egoistic behaviour. It involves intention to help others when used of human behaviour, but the fact that some animal behaviour is judged to be altruistic indicates that there are two possible bases to a definition: intentionality, and behavioural effects.

The term was coined by COMTE who saw society evolving towards humanistic values through the influence of POSITIVISM. Rushton and Sorrentino (1981) suggest four possible explanations for altruism:

  1. genetic inheritance: this is supported by the animal evidence and by the sociobiologist R. Dawkin'S (1976) ‘selfish gene’ theory It proposes that altruistic behaviour towards one’s kin (e.g. maternal behaviour) has the effect of preserving ones genes in common;
  2. cognitive development: moral reasoning and the ability to ‘take the role of the other’ (see G. H. MEAD) increase with age;
  3. social learning: SOCIALIZATION involves learning from others by observation and modelling;
  4. prudential behaviour helping others is likely to encourage reciprocal action from them (see EXCHANGE THEORY).

This last can be seen as dubiously altruistic, since it is likely to involve the strategic calculation of personal benefit, or mutual benefit, rather than ‘purely’ altruistic action. In these terms all human action could be interpreted as egoistic, but this would be to lose any distinction between altruistic and egoistic behaviour.

Psychologists have proposed a personality trait of altruism, i.e. helping behaviour is more evident in some people than in others. Altruism towards strangers is particularly influential in the philosophy behind the WELFARE STATE, and is illustrated more specifically in Titmuss's analysis of the Blood Transfusion Service, in which it is seen as a GIFT EXCHANGE OR GIFT RELATIONSHIP. See also COOPERATIVE ORGANIZATION AND COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT. Compare COMPETITION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a moral principle of behavior; the readiness to unselfishly sacrifice one’s own interests in favor of the interests of another.

The term altruism was introduced into ethics by the French philosopher A. Comte as the opposite of egoism. The principle of altruism can be traced to ancient eastern moral concepts; it was formulated in Christianity as “love thy neighbor as thyself; during the 17th and 18th centuries it became a component of most ethical doctrines—the works of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, A. Smith, J. Rousseau, and others.

In the history of the moral consciousness of mankind altruism has had a twofold significance. On the one hand, from the time of the breakup of primitive communes, it expressed the norms of reciprocal aid in personal relationships, opposing the influence of private ownership interests and other social tendencies which divide people, and shaped men’s consciousness in the spirit of unselfish devotion to one another. Altruism has retained this meaning in bourgeois society, where it takes the forms of private philanthropy and personal services.

On the other hand, every attempt to present altruism as a route to the transformation of an antagonistic society on nonegoistic principles led ultimately to ideological hypocrisy, masking the antagonism of class relations. Under socialism altruism has meaning primarily in personal relationships; it is inadequate when people serve “. . . not ‘those who are close to them’ but ‘those who are removed from them,’ i.e., society as a whole . . .” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 22).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the philosophical doctrine that right action is that which produces the greatest benefit to others
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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