Altruism (ethics)

Altruism (ethics)

Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self interest. Auguste Comte's version of altruism calls for living for the sake of others. One who holds to either of these ethics is known as an "altruist."

The ethical doctrine of altruism has also been called "the ethic of altruism", "moralistic altruism", and "ethical altruism".

The word "altruism" ("French, altruisme, from autrui: "other people", derived from Latin alter: "other") was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste ref|Comte, that:

The "Catholic Encyclopedia" says that for Comte's altruism, "The first principle of the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts." ref|CatholicEncyclopedia Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says "The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase : Live for others." ref|Moran

Various philosophers define the doctrine in various ways, but all definitions generally revolve around a moral obligation to benefit others or the pronouncement of moral value in serving others rather than oneself. Philosopher C. D. Broad defines altruism as "the doctrine that each of us has a special obligation to benefit others." ref|Cheney Philosopher W. G. Maclagan defines it as "a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows...Altruism is to...maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue." ref|Maclagan Some philosophers reject altruism, most notably Ayn Rand who stated that most problems in the world come from the doctrine of Altruism.

As consequentialist ethics

Altruism is often seen as a form of consequentialism, as it indicates that an action is ethically right if it brings good consequences to others. James Fisher, in his article "Ethics" in the "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy", states the altruist dictum as: "An action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent." Altruism may be seen as similar to utilitarianism, however an essential difference is that the latter prescribes acts that maximize good consequences for all of society, while altruism prescribes maximizing good consequences for everyone except the actor.

Criticism of the doctrine

Friedrich Nietzsche held that the idea that it is virtuous to treat others more important than oneself is degrading and demeaning to the self. He also believed that the idea that others have a higher value than oneself hinders the individual's pursuit of self-development, excellence, and creativity. ref|Stanford

David Kelley, discussing the views of philosopher Ayn Rand, says that "there is no rational ground for asserting that sacrificing yourself in order to serve others is morally superior to pursuing your own (long-term, rational) self-interest. Altruism ultimately depends on non-rational 'rationales,' on mysticism in some form..." Furthermore, he holds that there is a danger of the state enforcing that moral ideal: "If self-sacrifice is an ideal - if service to others is the highest, most honorable course of action - why not force people to act accordingly?" He believes this can ultimately result in the state forcing everyone into a collectivist political system. ref|Kelley

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess argues that environmental action based upon altruism - or service of the other - stems from a shrunken "egoic" concept of the self. Self-actualisation will result, he argues, in the recovery of an "ecological self", in which actions formerly seen as altruistic are in reality a form of enlightened self-interest [Seed, John; Macy, Joanna; Naess, Arne; and Fleming, Pat (1988) "Thinking Like a Mountain,; Towards a Council of All Beings" (New Society Press)] .

Finally, one argument is strictly logical. If person A acts in B's interests, and B acts in A's interests, who will be the final recipient of their generosity? While altruism can be seen as a virtue, it by itself cannot settle matters of fairness. An alternative to pure altruism is impartiality, exemplified by the ethic of reciprocity.

ee also

* Ethics
* Consequentialism
* Utilitarianism
* Ethical egoism
* Egalitarianism
* Agape


#, Comte, August. "Catechisme positiviste" (1852) or "Catechism of Positivism", tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891)
# [ "Catholic Encyclopedia entry on altruism"]
# Moran, Gabriel "Christian Religion and National Interests"
# Cheney, D. R. (Editor), "Broad's critical essays in moral philosophy" (pp. 283-301). London: Allen & Unwin.
# "Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism" Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954): pp 109-110.
# Leiter, Brian [ Nietzsche's Moral and Political Philosophy] in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004)

External links

* [ Greater Good magazine examines the root of Altruism]

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