What does altruism mean?
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.