Altruism and altruistic behavior

What is altruism?

The term was first brought into usage by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century French philosopher. When he used it, he really wanted a word that meant the opposite of egoism, the self-centred part of the human condition. Altruistic behaviour has gone on to be described in various ways, usually coming down to the specific cultural context in which it is used. In the main, however, it is interpreted as a virtue that means an individual is actively engaged in the greater good.

 What is an altruistic person?

 An altruistic person may, for example, be more concerned with the happiness of others rather than their own. He or she may focus on improving the material and spiritual quality of the lives of those around them as opposed to taking a more self-centred approach. Bear in mind that psychological altruism means being motivated by others rather than self-interest. Biological altruism, on the other hand, is focused on performing acts that are in the good of the human race as a whole.

How to measure altruism?

Since altruism is a behavioural trait, there is always a level of subjectivity about how it can be measured. Most behavioural scientists agree that it exists more in some people than in others, although the degree to which the virtue is present can vary with individuals over time, too. Most measurements to do with altruism consequently come down to self-reporting. That means people evaluate themselves as to how altruistic, or not, they think they are. By using large samples, it is possible to measure the virtue reasonably accurately, a little like measuring how happy, or otherwise, people think they are.

How effective is altruism?

Few would doubt that altruism can be effective in certain situations. Someone who instinctively rushes into a burning building to rescue trapped people would be described as acting in an altruistic manner. However, the question remains; has the altruism in such a situation been effective if the trapped people were saved, but the rescuer died. These days, there is a social movement engaging people with effective altruism. It aims to use evidence-based models to improve the use of it for social goals. It is often focussed on things like social enterprises, charity work and non-profit organisations.

Can true altruism exist?

For some people, no form of true altruistic behaviour is possible because, regardless of the stated aims of any act, some egoism will always be present. For example, if somebody gives away their fortune philanthropically, then perhaps they are really gaining something in the process, such as social kudos, for instance? That said, millions of people give blood each year entirely selflessly with no reward other than thanks. As such, it is probably the closest thing in mainstream society to true altruism.

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Charity is usually defined as a voluntary human act which means giving time, money or a resource to someone, or a group, that is need of it without asking for anything in return. As such, it is seen as a humanitarian act that is often, but not always, associated with religious faith. As such, charitable giving is seen as a virtue by certain religious groups, although the so-called principle of charity has also been developed by a number of secular philosophers, too. At its simplest, charitable giving is a simple altruistic act that means someone other than the giver derives a benefit.
Often regarded as something that is related to empathy, compassion is the feeling that comes when you notice someone or something, that is suffering. You may not be able to put yourself into the shoes of the person you are feeling compassionate about. However, having compassion for them means that at least you understand that they in difficulty. What happens after this feeling is felt does not necessarily flow from the sense of compassion. One might, for example, feel compassionate about a child that is in anguish but do nothing about its suffering. On the other hand, if it leads you to comfort the child or to alleviate its pain in some way, then this would be rightly regarded as a compassionate act. Compassion is first and foremost an emotional response, therefore, but it can lead to compassionate actions being subsequently taken, too.
Empathy is best described as the mental capacity to understand what someone else may be feeling. Empathy is, therefore, often picked up on via visual cues, such as seeing the distress of someone else. In other cases, it can be much more intuitive, however. The ability to show empathy is desirable because it means being able to create a deeper bond with others. When someone is empathetic towards you, it can be a comfort. Remember that empathetic thoughts mean you put yourself in someone else's shoes and see it from their point of view. It is not simply the ability to spot a different emotional state in someone else.
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