Why do we act in an altruistic way? What is the difference between altruism and egoism? Is altruism selfless? This article will answer these questions and more by looking at altruism. Altruism is a topic you will encounter in your political study of anarchism. So what exactly is altruism?

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Table of contents

    Altruism definition

    In its simplest form, altruism is the moral principle and practice of caring for other people and animals.

    Altruism definition - is the selfless concern for the welfare of others, even at the risk of compromising one’s own welfare.

    When we act altruistically, we show a willingness to help others without expecting anything in return. Our lives consist of many altruistic acts, and therefore we as humans can be said to be altruistic by nature.

    For example, it is not uncommon for someone to help an older person cross the street or give up their seat on the bus for someone who needs it more urgently. In fact, we often do things we do not necessarily like or dislike to help others.

    Beliefs of altruism

    The foundation of altruism rests on a belief that human beings are social creatures and share a common humanity. Altruism was coined by Auguste Comte who was a French philosopher born in 1798 and was also the founder of positivism.

    Comte's beliefs of altruism were founded on the assumption that humans were naturally and morally obligated to live for the sake of others and place their own self-interest on the back burner.

    According to Comte's beliefs of altruism, it was within human nature to be born with the desire to be kind to others, whether that is, to those around them or those related to them. Altruism is therefore in the very fabric of human society and why it cannot be explained solely through genetic relations or reciprocity, it is the foundation of human morality.

    Altruism can be a controversial concept, and many critique the beliefs of altruism. Some argue that there is no such thing as true altruism and there are 3 main beliefs that explain why people act altruistically, and not just being humans are essentially good. These are:

    1. Altruism makes us feel good.

    2. It is a social norm that is expected of us.

    3. We help ourselves with it.

    These reasons call into question the true belief in altruism and whether altruism truly exists. In other words: if you do something for the above reasons, you cannot be altruistic because you get something out of acting in this way and therefore the act is no longer selfless.

    Types of altruism

    There are also several types of altruism. Some of the most significant types of altruism are reciprocal, moral, group-selected, and nepotistic altruism.

    Reciprocal altruism politics

    Reciprocal altruism involves reciprocity and relates to the idea of ‘give and take’, meaning you help someone in the hope that they will return the favour.

    This idea of reciprocal altruism is especially relevant in politics (known as reciprocal altruism politics), where the 'give and take' dynamic is seen as the norm, and giving without asking for anything in return is viewed as unusual.

    An example of reciprocal altruism politics is a coalition agreement, where the larger political party gives concessions, such as cabinet positions or enacting certain policies, of a smaller party, in exchange for the smaller party providing the necessary votes in parliament.

    Check out our article Coalition Government for more information about coalitions!

    Moral altruism

    Moral altruism is one of the other types of altruism, and is also called pure altruism because it is the purest form of altruism. In moral altruism, there is no expectation of reciprocity.

    Altruism Illustration of two people made of bricks, with one giving the other their bricks as an illustration of moral altruism StudySmarterFig. 1 A truly selfless concern for others

    Group-selected altruism

    Group-selected altruism relates to belonging to a particular group. In other words, you might behave altruistically toward your friends because they are your group. Similarly, you might behave altruistically toward people from the same neighbourhood because you identify with that group.

    When you donate to a charity, you might only donate to groups you feel you belong to. For example, as a woman, you only donate to charities that serve women.

    Nepotistic altruism

    Nepotistic altruism is often called genetic altruism and relates to family and genetic relationships.

    The parent-child relationship is an example of nepotistic altruism, as parents often make selfless sacrifices for the welfare of their children, but they wouldn't make the same sacrifices for other people.

    This type of altruism is criticised because the recipient of the altruistic acts is seen as an extension of oneself and, therefore, nepotistic altruism is selfish.

    While acting altruistically is often seen as something positive, it can sometimes be detrimental to one's well-being, which is called extreme altruism. Extreme altruism refers to selfless actions that can pose a personal risk to oneself.

    We can describe the actions of many of the key personnel during the coronavirus pandemic as extreme altruism. Although constantly faced with a potentially life-threatening virus, many employees selflessly placed the needs of the public above their own. While key workers were seen as the heroes of the pandemic and their actions were applauded, this also resulted in many deaths and illnesses among key workers.

    Altruism in nature

    As mentioned earlier, altruism is widespread in human social interactions. However, altruism is not specific to humans and altruism in nature also occurs.

    We can observe altruism in nature with this in bee colonies, ant colonies, and all other animals, from prides of lions to schools of fish. Bees sacrifice their lives to sting intruders who try to invade their colony. Some animals share their food with other group members, no matter how scarce the food is.

    Altruism A cooperative bee colony StudySmarterFig. 2 A cooperative bee colony

    Charles Darwin initially believed that the idea of altruism in nature was incompatible with his theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest because natural selection could not possibly favour behaviours that would reduce our probability of survival. However, when he observed bee colonies, Darwin found sterile worker bees helped their blood relatives, especially the queen bee so that natural selection could favour altruism in blood-related groups.In 1964, British scientist William Hamilton developed an equation to explain altruism in nature and why these altruistic actions in blood-related groups occurred. Hamilton argued that altruism could evolve as a trait if the genetic relatedness (R) times the benefit of that action (B) is greater than the cost to the individual (C).

    Since some behaviours are heritable, the genes responsible for altruistic behaviour would evolve if the benefit exceeded the cost to the individual because it helped the individual’s relatives so much that it would be worth being wild. This theory helpds to explain why some species act altruistically because they have a genetic interest in the survival of the group.

    For example, the worker ants in a colony are all very closely related. In fact, a worker ant is genetically more similar to its conspecifics than to its offspring.

    However, this theory does not explain why some species exhibit altruistic behaviours toward unrelated species, such as humans. Humans behave altruistically toward other unrelated humans. A genetic interest in the survival of other humans cannot explain this behaviour, but rather the realisation that humans act altruistically because we have recognised the benefits of altruistic behaviour such as reciprocity.

    Effective altruism

    Altruism in government is usually seen in effective altruism. In essence, effective altruism is an approach that seeks to increase the expected value of an impact. When applied to the government, effective altruism influences the actions and strategies adopted by the government, these strategies seek to maximise the good that can be done with the limited resources available.

    In the UK government officials embrace the practice of effective altruism. Dominic Cummings who was the former Chief Adviser to the UK Prime Minister championed effective altruism and encouraged its use in the UK. The main areas that effective altruism is applied to are matters of national poverty and welfare. Policies such as universal credit or foreign aid are all devised through the adoption of effective altruism.

    Altruism in anarchism

    A central theme of anarchism is anti-statism. The state is seen as an example of a hierarchical system in which those who govern are at the top and therefore exert their power and influence over the governed.

    Anarchism is a political ideology centred on the rejection of all coercive relationships.

    Altruism Symbol of Anarchism StudySmarterFig. 3 Symbol of Anarchism

    Altruism is an important aspect of anarchism, especially collectivist anarchism, as it serves as a justification for the abolition of authority. Since many anarchists believe that humans are inherently altruistic and good, there is no need for the presence of the state to command and coerce humans to act in a certain way.

    For more details on altruism in anarchism, you can check out our articles on Anarchism and Collectivist Anarchism.

    Many people who are sceptical of an anarchist society believe that without authority and rule, society would descend into chaos, but anarchists argue with altruism that this would not be the case. In fact, domination and authority have prevented people from acting according to their truly altruistic nature. According to anarchists, abolishing all coercive and hierarchical relationships would restore our altruistic nature.

    Collective anarchism

    Collective anarchism often embraces altruism. For example, in anarcho-communism, the altruistic nature of people is essential to the success of the ideology because anarcho-communists envision a society in which, after the abolition of the state, people can establish a system in which all things, including the means of production, are collectively owned.

    This collective ownership becomes possible because people can interact cooperatively and altruistically to share resources without the influence of the state. Thus, belief in altruism is crucial to the plausibility of this form of anarchism.

    Individualist anarchism

    Although anarchism generally believes that human nature is inherently altruistic, not all anarchists hold this view. In particular, many individualist anarchists reject the idea of altruism in human nature.

    Individualist anarchism refers to anarchism in which the individual’s freedom, welfare, and interests are placed above the collective.

    While collectivist anarchists believe in altruism, individualist anarchists tend to favour concepts such as Egoism. Egoism is concerned with self-interest as the basis of individual action.

    Altruism is therefore presented as directly opposed to egoism. Egoists argue that altruism does not exist in reality. We, humans, are inherently self-interested, and even when it appears that we are doing something for others, we are doing it for ourselves.

    To learn more, check out our articles on Egoism and Individualist Anarchism!

    Altruism - Key Takeaways

    • Altruism is the moral principle and practice of caring for other people and animals and refers to selfless consideration or commitment to the welfare of others, even at the risk of jeopardising one’s welfare.
    • Humans are often described as inherently altruistic.
    • Charles Darwin initially believed that altruistic behaviours were incompatible with his theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest.
    • Hamilton argued that altruism could evolve as a trait if genetic relatedness (R) times the benefits of that action (B) were greater than the costs to the individual (C).
    • Altruism is an important concept in some forms of Anarchism, especially Collectivist Anarchism, and is in opposition to Individualist Anarchism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Altruism

    What is the principle of altruism?

    The moral principle of altruism is caring for other people and animals. In other words, it is the selfless concern for the welfare of others, even at the risk of compromising one’s welfare.

    What is the definition of altruism?

    In its simplest form, altruism is the moral principle and practice of caring for other people and animals. In other words, it is the selfless concern for the welfare of others, even at the risk of compromising one’s welfare.

    What are the theories of altruism?

    The theories of altruism suggest that altruism can be divided into four categories: nepotistic, moral, group-selected and reciprocal altruism. 

    What are examples of altruism?

    Any selfless act is an example of altruism, this can range from helping someone cross the road to dedicating one’s life to a cause.

    What is extreme altruism?

    Extreme altruism refers to selfless acts that can be a personal risk to oneself.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In what year did William Hamilton devise his equation to explain altruism?

    What is the equation to explain altruism in blood-related groups?

    What is the opposite of altruism?


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