What is ALTRUISM?

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In other words….  --  random-acts-of-kindness

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The term altruism was coined by Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the French philosopher and sociologist (Dixon, T., 2005.New Dictionary of the History of Ideas)


Here are a couple of videos that covers the basic ideas of altruism.

Altruism comes in several flavours. The first one is:

Pure Altruism    which refers to the simple act of GIVING….of our time, money, effort….anything that we can, freely and willingly… without a coercion or obligation. Acts of donation, volunteering, fundraising, providing relief supplies, donating blood and organs freely (without any obligation), giving someone a warm smile or a hug are all forms of altruism.

But then one would question… Why? Why should we donate or give of ourselves? Why should we do any random acts of kindness?


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Simply giving a little of our time, money, effort makes us feel like better human beings. It gives us a warm glow of satisfaction, a smile to cherish, a memory to preserve. It feels like the right thing to do!

Here are links of some websites that explain and inspire altruism

The following video is a TED talk given by a Tibetan monk, Matthieu Ricard. He talks about how altruism can help change us and our society for the better

Reciprocal Altruism

This put simply, is expecting a favour in exchange of a favour, tit-for-tat, an act that is mutually beneficial.

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The word “reciprocate” meaning to return a favour or a compliment, forms the basis of this term. It comes from the Latin word “reciprocare” which means going to and fro.

The term “reciprocal altruism” was coined by Robert Trivers in the 1970s.

Animals, too show reciprocal altruism behavior and he theory related to them is kin selection. William D. Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist, came up with the theory in 1964 and coined it as Hamilton’s rule. In a nutshell, Hamilton’s rule is when animals put themselves at risk (barking, warning calls) to ensure the survival and safety of their siblings and relatives who share similar genes and will pass them to their offspring (Brembs, B. 2001).



Pathological  Altruism

Too much of anything is not good. That applies to altruism too!!!

Pathological altruism is when one reaches a point where it can be detrimental to one’s physical or emotional health. It goes beyond the point of being generous and kind. A good example would be going without necessities to help out a friend in need or jumping in the water to save someone when you can’t swim yourself.

This book is one of the first of its kind to explore the negative aspects of altruism and empathy.


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All the above-mentioned forms of altruism come with their own caveats. What then, would be the ideal form of altruism? How can we do the best form of “good” without harming ourselves or selfishly expecting any reward for it?

There is a form of altruism that is making waves and coming under the spotlight in the media and the attention of the world…..

 Effective Altruism

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This is based on a simple rule – Doing the best we can! It calls for a balance between the heart and the mind. The word “effective” says it all. Effective altruists believe in doing maximum good for the world. Investing in charities strategically rather than passionately. They believe in long term goals.

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It can be quite an unconventional outlook. One good example would be an effective altruist taking up a well- paid job and donating most of his income to charity work. This is only one of many approaches.

The following is a link to a website called Centre for Effective Altruism based in Oxford, UK.


REFERENCES: (in alphabetical order)

Brembs, B. (2001), Hamilton’s Theory. Academic Press. Doi: 10.1006/rwgn.2001.058

Dixon, T. (2005). New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. The Gale Group, Inc.




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5 thoughts on “ALTRUISM

  1. Hi Sameena and Christine, I have been reading your blog about altruism and found it really informative and easy to read. I think that true altruism is a wonderful trait to have and if only the world had more of this around! Do you think that altruism and empathy is something that is learned from our parents or from our experiences in life?
    Also, I was just wondering what you thought about the idea that a kind act always has a benefit to the person who’s giving? (Such as a feeling of elation and happiness), therefore altruism is about getting a hit of happy hormones as well as helping someone who needs the help? Your views on this would be appreciated. Thanks Debbie.


  2. Interesting blog! Being altruistic means giving or putting others before yourself, however how often does this happen in our society? Everyone has their own stereotypes of others, whether its about religion, race, gender etc. There has been a major decline in Altruism but why do you think this is the case? Is this because of negative media portrayals? or would you say this is a learnt behavior, where people imitate what they observe from past experiences?


    1. Hi Umarah,
      Thank you for your reply. I think, altruism does exist in this day and age. But, we have to remember, that the population of our world has increased quite proportionately and that puts a tremendous pressure on our already flagging resources. I do agree about stereotypes that people have, but that maybe their way to hold on to their identity, to their roots, to not get lost in the crowd….perhaps!
      I think altruism is not on the decline. But people are sometimes a bit scared to be nice to others as that can make them vulnerable to others scorn/ sarcasm. And it’s a bit difficult too, if you want to maintain a “cool” image amongst your peers.

      Your point is a bit complex and can’t be answered in short. If I were to put it in a nutshell, I’d say that most people are altruistic. Whether they display it openly or not!

      Hope that answers your question, at least partly!!!


  3. It could be argued that there are no true acts of altruism. As it is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular worldviews the concept of “others” toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. So if this is the case are there really true acts of altruism? I work looking after people and although this is seen as altruism it could also be interpreted by others as doing it to earn money. Although I do agree with some of what you say I don’t believe any act of kindness is actually selfless as you will always feel good about doing something good therefore you have gained something too.


  4. Hi Selina,
    Thanks for your insightful comment. I agree with you when you say that we do a “kind” or a “good” act because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Isn’t that a good thing in itself, though. I think every relationship is a give-and-take one. Who gains what and how much out of it, is up to the people involved in that relationship. And that would by default mean there are none “selfless acts of kindness”. If we did not gain absolutely anything in return of something, where would the incentive be? Selflessness, in respect to altruism, would mean a non-monetary gain(like contentment). I think the THOUGHT of altruism is selfless in itself because you are thinking of someone else other than yourself. And in this day and age, with so much advancement in technology where we physically see less and less of each other, altruism can and should play an important role. The feeling of satisfaction gained (like a warm soup on a cold, frosty day) is not comparable to many other sentiments.
    As far as altruism being a traditional value is something I strongly agree with. The concept of “others” is probably just a community’s own way of protecting itself and it’s future generations from perceived outside influence, a survival instinct! And since there is ill-conceived or no knowledge of “others”, the perception of the unknown entity is usually negative! But, society, as we knew it in the past is changing today. Mentalities are evolving. Yes, there are a lot of negative stereotypes still, but thinking is slowly and surely being redefined. People are becoming more accommodating and accepting of other faiths, beliefs and traditions. We can go so far as to say that many are even changing their beliefs from what was ingrained in them for generations.Many have and are giving up their religious beliefs to become “humanists”. People are breaking the mold and the world is becoming more of a melting pot and moving away from secularism.
    As far as your work is concerned, I do believe that we all have an innate sense of humanity in us. And especially people who work in the care sector. You can choose any profession in life. The fact that you choose to work to care for others shows your altruistic streak irrespective of the fact whether you get a good pay out of it or not. 🙂
    Thank you for your perceptive questions.
    I hope I have answered your questions, at least, in part.

    Best wishes,


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