Altruism – A Philosophical Analysis


Altruism is a malleable notion that is understood differently in various disciplines. The common denominator of most definitions of altruism is the idea of unidirectional helping behaviour. However, a closer examination reveals that the term altruism sometimes refers to the outcomes of a helping behaviour for the agent and its neighbours – that is, reproductive altruism – and sometimes to what motivates the agent to help others – that is, psychological altruism. Since these perspectives on altruism are crucially different, it is important to use a clear terminology to avoid confusion. In particular, we show that the notion of altruism used by biologists profoundly differs from the ones used by philosophers, psychologists and economists in cross‐disciplinary debates about human altruism.

Key Concepts:

  • Reproductive altruism refers to a behaviour that increases other organisms' fitness and permanently decreases the actor's own fitness.

  • It is important to distinguish reproductive altruism from cooperation, in which both partners gain direct fitness benefits.

  • Reproductive altruism decreases the direct fitness of the altruist and thus its persistence in the course of evolution requests an ultimate explanation.

  • Kin selection, the indirect transmission of genes through relatives, is the key process explaining the evolution and maintenance of reproductive altruism.

  • Psychological altruism refers to an other‐directed motivation to help and increase others' welfare independently of self‐directed calculations.

  • Psychological altruism is a proximate mechanism; in contrast to reproductive altruism, it may confer direct fitness benefits.

  • To avoid misunderstandings, it is important to identify which form of altruism is at stake in interdisciplinary literature about human altruism.

Keywords: altruism; helping; kin selection; Hamilton's rule; human altruism; motivation; proximate versus ultimate explanation; psychological altruism; reproductive altruism; weak altruism

Figure 1.

Altruism in ants: workers of Formica selysi groom the queen. Photo courtesy of David Buchs,

Figure 2.

Altruism in ants: workers of Formica selysi take care of the queen's offspring. Photo courtesy of Joël Meunier.

Figure 3.

A memorial plate for Mother Teresa, an icon of human altruism. Photo by Michal Manas.



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Clavien, Christine, and Chapuisat, Michel(Mar 2012) Altruism – A Philosophical Analysis. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003442.pub2]