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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Giving alms to the poor is often considered an altruistic action in many cultures and religions.

Altruism (pronounced: pronounced /ˈæltruːɪzəm/) is selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, and many others. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.

Altruism can be distinguished from feelings of loyalty and duty. Altruism focuses on a motivation to help others or a want to do good without reward, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (for example, God, a king), a specific organization (for example, a government), or an abstract concept (for example, patriotism etc). Some individuals may feel both altruism and duty, while others may not. Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition and need.

The term "altruism" may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others.


The notion of altruism

The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought. The term was originally coined by the founding sociologist and philosopher of science, Auguste Comte, and has become a major topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. While ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields lead to different perspectives on altruism.

Scientific viewpoints

Behavioural theories

In the science of ethology (the study of animal behaviour), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behaviour by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor.[1] Researchers on alleged altruist behaviours among animals have been ideologically opposed to the sociological social Darwinist concept of the "survival of the fittest", under the name of "survival of the nicest"—not to be confused with the biological concept of Darwin's theory of evolution. Insistence on such cooperative behaviors between animals was first exposed by the Russian zoologist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

Theories of apparently-altruistic behavior were accelerated by the need to produce theories compatible with evolutionary origins. Two related strands of research on altruism have emerged out of traditional evolutionary analyses, and from game theory respectively.

Chief among the proposed mechanisms are:

The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.


Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D'Or Hospital Network (J.M.) provided the first evidence for the neural bases of altruistic giving in normal healthy volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006,[9] they showed that both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food and sex. However, when volunteers generously placed the interests of others before their own by making charitable donations, another brain circuit was selectively activated: the subgenual cortex/septal region. These structures are intimately related to social attachment and bonding in other species. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.[10]

Another experiment funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in 2007 at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina suggests a different view, "that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it".[11] In the study published in the February 2007 print issue of Nature Neuroscience, researchers have found a part of the brain that behaves differently for altruistic and selfish people

The researchers invited 45 volunteers to play a computer game and also to watch the computer play the game. In some instances successful completion of the game resulted in them winning money for themselves, and in other instances it resulted in money being donated to a charity each person had chosen at the beginning of the experiment. During these activities the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants' brains and were "suprised by the results": although they "were expecting to see activity in the brain's reward centres" and that "people perform altruistic acts because they feel good about it", what they found was that "another part of the brain was also involved, and it was quite sensitive to the difference between doing something for personal gain and doing it for someone else's gain"; this part of the brain is called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC).

In the next stage the scientists asked the participants questions about type and frequency of their altruistic or helping behaviours. They then analysed the responses to generate an estimate of a person's tendency to act altruistically and compared each person's level against their fMRI brain scan. The results showed that pSTC activity rose in proportion to a person's estimated level of altruism. According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it. "We believe that the ability to perceive other people's actions as meaningful is critical for altruism", said lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley.[12]


A study by Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, US, is seen by some as breathing new life into the model of group selection for Altruism, known as "Survival of the nicest". Bowles conducted a genetic analysis of contemporary foraging groups, including Australian aboriginals, native Siberian Inuit populations and indigenous tribal groups in Africa. It was found that hunter-gatherer bands of up to 30 individuals were considerably more closely related than was previously thought. Under these conditions, thought to be similar to those of the middle and upper Paleolithic, altruism towards other group-members would improve the overall fitness of the group. This is however simply a form of inclusive fitness - one vehicle helping other vehicles likely to contain the same genes.

If an individual defends the group, risking death or simply reducing his reproductive fitness, genes that this individual shares with those he successfully defends (group members) would increase in frequency (thanks to his defence supporting their reproduction). If such helpful acts are rewarded with food sharing, sexual access, monogamy or other benefits, there is not average “cost” of altruistic behaviour to be repaid. Bowles assembled genetic, climactic, archaeological, ethnographic and experimental data to examine the cost-benefit relationship of human cooperation in ancient populations. In his model, altruism is selected for when members of a group bearing genes for altruistic behaviour pay a cost - limiting their reproductive opportunities - but receive a benefit from sharing food and information. If their acts increase the average fitness of group members, altruism increase so long as group members tend also to maintain or increase their inter-relatedness (in-goup mating). Bands of such altruistic humans could then act together not only defensively, but aggressively, to gain resources from other groups.[13]

Altruist theories in evolutionary biology were contested by Amotz Zahavi, the inventor of the signal theory and its correlative, the handicap principle, based mainly on his observations of the Arabian Babbler, a bird commonly known for its surprising (alleged) altruistic behaviours.

Religious viewpoints

Most, if not all, of the world's religions promote altruism as a very important moral value. Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Sikhism, etc, place particular emphasis on altruistic morality.


Altruism figures prominently in Buddhism. Love and compassion are components of all forms of Buddhism, and both are focused on all beings equally: the wish that all beings be happy (love) and the wish that all beings be free from suffering (compassion). "Many illnesses can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and the need for them lies at the very core of our being" (Dalai Lama[14]).

Since "all beings" includes the individual, love and compassion in Buddhism are outside the opposition between self and other. It is even said that the very distinction between self and other is part of the root cause of our suffering. In practical terms, however, because of the spontaneous self-centeredness of most of us, Buddhism encourages us to focus love and compassion on others, and thus can be characterized as "altruistic." Many would agree with the Dalai Lama that Buddhism as a religion is kindness toward others.

Still, the very notion of altruism is modified in such a world-view, since the belief is that such a practice promotes our own happiness: "The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes" (Dalai Lama[14]).

In the context of larger ethical discussions on moral action and judgment, Buddhism is characterized by the belief that negative (unhappy) consequences of our actions derive not from punishment or correction based on moral judgment, but on the law of karma, which functions like a natural law of cause and effect. One simple illustration of such cause and effect would be the case of experiencing the effects of what I myself cause: if I cause suffering, I will as a natural consequence experience suffering; if I cause happiness, I will as a natural consequence experience happiness.

In Buddhism, karma (Pāli kamma) is strictly distinguished from vipāka, meaning "fruit" or "result". Karma is categorized within the group or groups of cause (Pāli hetu) in the chain of cause and effect, where it comprises the elements of "volitional activities" (Pali sankhara) and "action" (Pali bhava). Any action is understood to create "seeds" in the mind that will sprout into the appropriate result (Pāli vipaka) when they meet with the right conditions. Most types of karmas, with good or bad results, will keep one within the wheel of samsāra; others will liberate one to nirvāna.

Buddhism relates karma directly to motives behind an action. Motivation usually makes the difference between "good" and "bad", but included in the motivation is also the aspect of ignorance; so a well-intended action from an ignorant mind can easily be "bad" in the sense that it creates unpleasant results for the "actor".

In Buddhism, karma is not the only cause of everything that happens. The commentarial tradition classified causal mechanisms governing the universe as taught in the early texts in five categories, known as Niyama Dhammas:[15][16]

  • Kamma Niyama — Consequences of one's actions
  • Utu Niyama — Seasonal changes and climate
  • Biija Niyama — Laws of heredity
  • Citta Niyama — Will of mind
  • Dhamma Niyama — Nature's tendency to produce a perfect type


Altruism was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. From biblical to medieval Christian traditions, tensions between self-affirmation and other-regard were sometimes discussed under the heading of "disinterested love," as in the Pauline phrase "love seeks not its own interests." In his book Indoctrination and Self-deception, Roderick Hindery tries to shed light on these tensions by contrasting them with impostors of authentic self-affirmation and altruism, by analysis of other-regard within creative individuation of the self, and by contrasting love for the few with love for the many. If love, which confirms others in their freedom, shuns propagandas and masks, assurance of its presence is ultimately confirmed not by mere declarations from others, but by each person's experience and practice from within. As in practical arts, the presence and meaning of love become validated and grasped not by words and reflections alone, but in the doing.

Though it might seem obvious that altruism is central to the teachings of Jesus, one important and influential strand of Christianity would qualify this. St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, I:II Quaestio 26, Article 4 states that we should love ourselves more than our neighbour. His interpretation of the Pauline phrase is that we should seek the common good more than the private good but this is because the common good is a more desirable good for the individual. 'You should love your neighbour as yourself' from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 22 is interpreted by St Thomas as meaning that love for ourselves is the exemplar of love for others. He does think though, that we should love God more than ourselves and our neighbour, taken as an entirety, more than our bodily life, since the ultimate purpose of love of our neighbour is to share in eternal beatitude, a more desirable thing than bodily well being. Comte was probably opposing this Thomistic doctrine, now part of mainstream Catholicism, in coining the word Altruism, as stated above.

Thomas Jay Oord has argued in several books that altruism is but one possible form of love. And altruistic action is not always loving action. Oord defines altruism as acting for the good of the other, and he agrees with feminists who note that sometimes love requires acting for one's own good when the demands of the other undermine overall well-being.

Islam and Sufism

In Sufism, the concept of i'thar (altruism) is the notion of 'preferring others to oneself'. For Sufis, this means devotion to others through complete forgetfulness of one's own concerns. The importance lies in sacrifice for the sake of the greater good; Islam considers those practicing i'thar as abiding by the highest degree of nobility.[17] This is similar to the notion of chivalry, but unlike the European concept there is a focus on attention to everything in existence. A constant concern for Allah results in a careful attitude towards people, animals, and other things in this world.[18] This concept was emphasized by Sufi mystics like Rabia al-Adawiyya who paid attention to the difference in dedication to Allah and dedication to people.13th century Turkish sufi poet Yunus Emre explained this philosophy as "Yaradılanı severiz, Yaradandan ötürü" or "We love the creation, because of The Creator"


Judaism defines altruism as the desired goal of creation. The famous Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook stated that love is the most important attribute in humanity.[19] This is defined as bestowal, or giving, which is the intention of altruism. This can be altruism towards humanity that leads to altruism towards the creator or God. Kabbalah defines God as the force of giving in existence. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in particular focused on the ‘purpose of creation’ and how the will of God was to bring creation into perfection and adhesion with this upper force.[20]

Modern Kabbalah developed by Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, in his writings about the future generation, focuses on how society could achieve an altruistic social framework.[21] Ashlag proposed that such a framework is the purpose of creation, and everything that happens is to raise humanity to the level of altruism, love for one another. Ashlag focused on society and its relation to divinity.[22]


Altruism is essential to the Sikh religion. In the late 1600s, Guru Gobind Singh Ji (the tenth guru in Sikhism), was in war with the Moghul rulers to protect the people of different faiths, when a fellow Sikh, Bhai Kanhaiya, attended the troops of the enemy. He gave water to both friends and foes who were wounded on the battlefield. Some of the enemy began to fight again and some Sikh warriors were annoyed by Bhai Kanhaiya as he was helping their enemy. Sikh soldiers brought Bhai Kanhaiya before Guru Gobind Singh Ji, and complained of his action that they considered counterproductive to their struggle on the battlefield. "What were you doing, and why?" asked the Guru. "I was giving water to the wounded because I saw your face in all of them," replied Bhai Kanhaiya. The Guru responded, "Then you should also give them ointment to heal their wounds. You were practicing what you were coached in the house of the Guru."

It was under the tutelage of the Guru that Bhai Kanhaiya subsequently founded a volunteer corps for altruism. This volunteer corps still to date is engaged in doing good to others and trains new volunteering recruits for doing the same.[23]


Vedanta differs from the view that karma is a law of cause and effect but instead additionally hold that karma is mediated by the will of a personal supreme God. This view of karma is in contradiction to Buddhism, Jain and other Hindu religions that do view karma as a law of cause and effect.

Swami Sivananda, an Advaita scholar, reiterates the same views in his commentary synthesising Vedanta views on the Brahma Sutras, a Vedantic text. In his commentary on Chapter 3 of the Brahma Sutras, Sivananda notes that karma is insentient and short-lived, and ceases to exist as soon as a deed is executed. Hence, karma cannot bestow the fruits of actions at a future date according to one's merit. Furthermore, one cannot argue that karma generates apurva or punya, which gives fruit. Since apurva is non-sentient, it cannot act unless moved by an intelligent being such as God. It cannot independently bestow reward or punishment.[24]

See also




  1. ^ Bell, Graham (2008). Selection: the mechanism of evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 367–368. ISBN 0198569726. 
  2. ^ Dawkins, R (2006). The God Delusion. Bantam Press, London, UK. ISBN 0593055489
  3. ^ Brown, S.L. & Brown, R.M. (2006). Selective investment theory: Recasting the functional significance of close relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 17, 1-29.
  4. ^ Zahavi, A. (1995). Altruism as a handicap - The limitations of kin selection and reciprocity. Avian Biol. 26: 1-3.
  5. ^ R Axelrod and WD Hamilton (March 1981). "The evolution of cooperation". Science 211 (4489): 1390–1396. 
  6. ^ Martin Nowak & Karl Sigmund (October 2005). "Evolution of indirect reciprocity". Nature 437 (27): 1291–1298. 
  7. ^ Herbert Gintis (September 2000). "Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality". Journal of Theoretical Biology 206 (2): 169–179. doi:10.1006/jtbi.2000.2111. 
  8. ^ Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Chapter 11. Berlin: Dahlem Workshop Reports. 2003. ISBN 0262083264. 
  9. ^ Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation, PNAS 2006:103(42);15623-15628)
  10. ^ "If It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Be Only Natural". Washington Post. May 2007. 
  11. ^ "Brain Scan Predicts Difference Between Altruistic And Selfish People"
  12. ^ "Activation Of Brain Region Predicts Altruism"
  13. ^ Fisher, Richard (7 December 2006) "Why altruism paid off for our ancestors" ( news service) [1]
  14. ^ a b Speech by the Dalai Lama
  15. ^ Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, Buddhism. Reprint by Read Books, 2007, [2].
  16. ^ Padmasiri De Silva, Environmental philosophy and ethics in Buddhism. Macmillan, 1998, page 41. [3].
  17. ^ M (2004). Key concepts in the practice of Sufism: emerald hills of the heart. Rutherford, N.J.: Fountain. pp. 10–11. ISBN 1932099751. 
  18. ^ Neusner, Jacob Eds (2005). Altruism in world religions. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Univ. Press. pp. 79–80. ISBN 1589010655. 
  19. ^ Kook, Abraham Isaac; Ben Zion Bokser (1978). Abraham Isaac Kook: The lights of penitence, The moral principles, Lights of holiness, essays, letters, and poems. Paulist Press. pp. 135–136. ISBN 9780809121595. 
  20. ^ Luzzatto, Moshe Ḥayyim (1997). The way of God. Feldheim Publishers. pp. 37–38. ISBN 9780873067690. 
  21. ^ Ashlag, Yehuda (2006). Building the Future Society. Thornhill, Canada: Laitman Kabbalah Publishers. pp. 120–130. ISBN 9657065348. 
  22. ^ Ashlag, Yehuda (2006). Building the Future Society. Thornhill, Canada: Laitman Kabbalah Publishers. pp. 175–180. ISBN 9657065348. 
  23. ^ The great gurus of the Sikhs, pg, 253. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt Ltd.. 1997. ISBN 8174884793. 
  24. ^ Sivananda, Swami. Phaladhikaranam, Topic 8, Sutras 38-41.


  • Oord, Thomas Jay (2007). The Altruism Reader: Selections from Writings on Love, Religion, and Science (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press). ISBN 978-1599471273
  • Batson, C.D. (1991). The altruism question. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 978-0805802450
  • Nowak MA (2006). Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science 314: 1560-1563.[4]
  • Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U. (23 October 2003). The nature of human altruism. In Nature, 425, 785– 791.
  • Comte, Auguste, Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891)
  • Knox, Trevor, The Volunteer's Folly and Socio-Economic Man: Some Thoughts On Altruism, Rationality, and Community, Journal of Socio-Economics 28 (1999), 475-492
  • Kropotkin, Peter, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902)
  • Oord, Thomas Jay, Science of Love: The Wisdom of Well-Being. (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2004). ISBN 978-1932031706
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil
  • Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Philosophy of Poverty (1847)
  • Lysander Spooner, Natural Law
  • Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue
  • Oliner, Samuel P. and Pearl M. Towards a Caring Society: Ideas into Action. West Port, CT: Praeger, 1995.
  • The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02121-2
  • The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1990), second edition—includes two chapters about the evolution of cooperation, ISBN 0-19-286092-5
  • Robert Wright, The moral animal, Vintage, 1995, ISBN 0-679-76399-6.
  • Madsen, E.A., Tunney, R., Fieldman, G., Plotkin, H.C., Dunbar, R.I.M., Richardson, J.M., & McFarland, D. (2006) Kinship and altruism: A cross-cultural experimental study. British Journal of Psychology
  • Wedekind, C. and Milinski, M. Human Cooperation in the simultaneous and the alternating Prisoner's Dilemma: Pavlov versus Generous Tit-for-tat. Evolution, Vol. 93, pp. 2686–2689, April 1996.
  • Monk-Turner, E., Blake, V., Chniel, F., Forbes, S., Lensey, L., Madzuma, J.: Gender Issues, Helping Hands: A Study of Altruistic Behavior, Fall 2002, pp. 65–70

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Self article)

From Wikiquote

In philosophy, the self is the idea of a unified being which is the source of an idiosyncratic consciousness.


  • The Arch-flatterer, with whom all the petty flatterers have intelligence, is a man’s self.
  • The one self-knowledge worth having is to know one’s own mind.
  • Cogito, ergo sum.
  • I think, therefore I am.
    • Descartes Discours de la Méthode, Discourse on the Method (1637)
  • Identity is an illusion, a temporary state. Everyone is searching for it, but it’s only a brief reflection in a very shallow pool of time.
    • Olivia Dresher (b. 1945), American poet and publisher. ‘Aphorisms by Olivia Dresher’ on, Olivia
  • Self-correction begins with self-knowledge.
  • The best mirror is an old friend.
    • George Herbert Jacula Prudentum (1651) (17th Century English proverb)
  • If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now - when?
    • Hillel, from Leo Rosten's Treasury of Jewish Quotations p. 459 (1972)
  • Self: that invisible chain that snaps tight whenever we stray.
    • Yahia Lababidi (b. 1973), Egyptian-Lebanese essayist and poet. Signposts to Elsewhere (2008)
  • Of course, "O'Blivion" was not the name I was born with. That's my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names — names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.
  • People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.
    • Thomas Szasz (b. 1920), Hungarian-American psychiatrist, writer and academic. The second Sin (1974)
  • To love oneself is the begining of a life-long romance.
    • Oscar Wilde, 'Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young', (1894)
  • Self-image is the beginning and ending of living, I think.
    • Henry Winkler (b.1945), American actor, producer and director. Stated in his appearance on, The One Show, BBC1 (UK) television talk show, 15th May 2009


  • Do not repair another man's fence until you have seen to your own.
  • If you love yourself others will hate you, if you humble yourself others will love you.
  • Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.
  • The only reason I self-doubt myself is so others won't do it for me.
    • Brandy Erard
  • If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won before you have started.
  • If you don't love yourself, how can you expect others to see what's so beautiful?
  • Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing oneself is enlightenment.

External links

Look up self in Wiktionary, the free dictionary


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