Altruism is often defined as unselfish action for the welfare of others without regard for one self. This is often contrasted with “egoism” which is regard for one's own interest. The beginning of the use of the term “altruism” is most often credited to Auguste Comte and his followers in the l9th century. However, many scholars have traced, helping behavior, more commonly referred to as altruistic behavior, to classical times, and even to prehistoric times.
Religious traditions have been the most active in promoting altruism. In addition most religious traditions also speak of the need for effective care of the self in order to be able to be of assistance to the larger good. In the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels we find many references to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Virtue theories, which dominated philosophy up to the Enlightenment, dwelt on the importance of the human to be charitable and to be concerned about others. It is the utilitarian movement, which introduced benevolence, and beneficence, which are the precedents of our modern term of altruism. For humanists, relieving the suffering of others can provide meaning to one and contribute to the common good and well as to one's own happiness.
Psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow have considered it to be part of human nature to act altruistically. Conversely, authors like Hobbes and Freud maintained that human nature is individualistic, selfish, and aggressive. During most of the 20 th century, arguments by behavioral psychologists who questioned if one could really behave altruistically (since natural determination would cause one to act only in one's self interest) dominated much of the scholarly debate. However, John Dewey (l978), Howard Margolis (l982), E. O. Wilson (1975), and Herbert Simon (1990), among others have argued that both altruism and egoism are considerations in determining social choice and thus they are bundled together in the human condition. Wilson and Simon have also argued that altruism is rooted in the human trait of social receptivity and thus altruism is in fact compatible with natural selection.
Between l962 and l982 John Dovidio noted more than a thousand empirical studies. (l984). From l982 to the present one could probably identify another 800 or so articles, books and studies on the topic. Many of these studies have focused on the development of prosocial behavior as a form of altruistic behavior. Others have derived models of voluntary behavior and motivations for volunteering. Still other studies have focused on how such behavior is beneficial to one's physical and mental health.
Philanthropic behavior has come to be viewed as a combination of altruism and egoism jointly at work causing the philanthropic action to occur. This is particular true in contemporary giving in the United States. Wright (2001) characterizes giving in the United States as generosity and that in the United Kingdom as altruism. He argues that this is the case because in Britain the notion of philanthropy still carries the disparaging notion of Victorian “do-gooderism and is often seen as elitist, patronizing, morally judgmental, and ineffective as well as old-fashioned…”(Wright, 2001, p. 400). Thus, in the United Kingdom people give to things that benefit others; whereas Americans favor causes from which they will gain more personal benefit.
Acting altruistically does not always guarantee positive or philanthropic (action for the common good) results. Likewise, acting in one's self-interest does not always produce bad or misanthropic results. Philanthropy is best understood as a combination of the two motivations or perhaps as “Self-interest rightly understood.”
Dewey, John. “Altruism and Egoism,” reprinted in John Dewey: The Middle Works . 1899-1924. v.6. Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. pp.368-369.
Dovidio, John F. “Helping Behavior and Altruism: An Empirical and Conceptual Overview,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology . Edited by L. Berkowitz. New York: Academic Press, 1984. pp. 361-427.
Margolis, Howard. Selfishness, Altruism, and Rationality: A Theory of Social Choice . University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Simon, Herbert. “A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism,” Science . December 21, 1990. pp. 1665-1668.
Wilson, Edward. Sociobiology . Harvard University Press, 1975.
Wright, K. “Generosity vs. Altruism: Philanthropy and Charity in the United States and United Kingdom,” in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations . December 2001. v. 12. no. 4. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. Pp. 399-416(18).
Learning to Give wishes to express appreciation to Dr. Dwight Burlingame, editor/author of Philanthropy in America, a Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia of Philanthropy Information, and the publisher ABC-CLIO for graciously sharing this resource information with Learning to Give. The complete encyclopedia may be purchased through ABC-CLIO.