International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler


  • Anne Birgitta PessiEmail author
Living reference work entry


Altruism, in general, refers to actions that take other human beings into consideration: action concerned with the well-being of others. The concept was brought into the social sciences by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in the mid-nineteenth century as the antonym of selfishness. The term derives from the Latin words “alter” and “other.” In Comte’s often restated view, individuals have two distinct motives: egoism and altruism; the latter for him is “the most important sociological question.” Another classic of the formulations of altruism definition is the forefather of sociology, Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). In his early work The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim argues that wherever there are communities, there is altruism since communities exhibit solidarity. He linked egoism and altruism to the deepening of the societal division of labor, the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. Likewise, he linked egoism and altruism to the maintenance of moral communality demanded by and included in the transformed solidarity. According to Durkheim, both egoism and altruism have been a part of each human consciousness from the very beginning: consciousness that does not reflect these elements cannot exist. For Durkheim, unselfishness is expected to come from the deepest foundation of our social life; people cannot live together without mutual understanding, and thus without mutual sacrifice, and without being bonded together in a strong, durable manner.


The Core Debates and Discussions over Altruism

Since the above-noted classics, during the twentieth century, an increasing part of the literature on altruism-related themes was encompassed specifically by the concept of altruism. Research can indeed be found on various fields: philosophy, religious studies, developmental psychology studies, social psychology, organizational studies, political science, economics, evolutionary studies both in psychology and biology, etc. However, today, there is a remarkable lack of agreement over what is meant by the term. Macaulay and Berkowitz’s classic definition of altruism is a “behaviour carried out to benefit another without anticipation of rewards from external sources” (1970, p. 3). This definition includes internal rewards, such as alleviation of guilt, increase in self-esteem, and feeling good about oneself. Such a definition offers the advantage of avoiding both the philosophical dilemma of true unselfishness and unobservable variables. Another classic study by Monroe (1996) has defined altruism as a “behaviour intended to benefit another, even when this risks possible sacrifice to the welfare of the actor.” Monroe has further outlined six critical points in the definition:
  1. 1.

    Altruism entails action.

  2. 2.

    The action must be goal-directed, either consciously or reflexively.

  3. 3.

    The goal must concern the welfare of another.

  4. 4.

    Intentions count more than consequences.

  5. 5.

    The act must carry some possibility of decrease in the actor’s own welfare.

  6. 6.

    There must be no conditions or anticipation of reward.


Some of these points, however, divide scholarly views. The sixth criterion, “no conditions or anticipation of reward,” is a particularly tricky one. The question of whether the actor is allowed to gain joy from altruism − or expected to gain it prior to the action − is a divisive issue between scholars. For instance, one can look at the definition by Montada and Bierhof (1991, p. 18) that differs from the one by Monroe: altruism is voluntary a “behaviour that aims at a termination or reduction of an emergency, a neediness, or disadvantage of others and that primarily does not aim at the fulfilment of one’s own interests.”

A further age-old debate concerns whether altruism really exists; what is the relation between selfishness and non-selfishness in helping behavior. It is actually logically rather difficult to demonstrate altruism to those thinking that helping is always inherently selfish; for instance, those who do personally value altruism most likely do derive positive feelings from altruistic behavior. Thus, a cynic can always claim that there is always a selfish gain. She/he could respond that it may be true that helping others brings one pleasure, yet this is by no means the same as showing that one has helped in order to primarily please oneself. Similarly, as noted by Felscher and Worthen (2007), pleasure, as such, is never an end motive in itself but something causes one pleasure; the fact that altruism brings joy particularly indicates true altruistic motives that have been provided by biological and cultural evolution (both nature and nurture).

Current understanding within basically all academic fields is that humans are indeed capable of terrible acts of animosity but as species inherently compassionate. For instance, evolutionary biologists (e.g., de Waal 2009a, b; Wilson 2016) state that besides one’s own interests, benevolence is a universal trait in all humans. But, observing current political and societal scenes from around the world and heated discussion in social media does not seem to validate this inherent goodness of humans as species – actually, often far from it. But this is rather a symptom (e.g., of generations of experiences of unfairness) than a sign of essential nature of human trace. No child is born full of hate but something happens to him or her. Something has gone wrong.

Additionally, a continuum perspective from pure egoism to pure altruism can be utilized as a key to this dilemma: the problem with theories of motivation based on self-interest is not that they are false but that they are only partly true. In other words, neither egoism nor altruism is an adequate explanation on its own. Considering the pure form of thinking and acting (either egoism or altruism) as extremely rare, and taking most human thinking and behavior including elements of both these poles, leads to an understanding that helping others and gaining joy from it (or the increased social respect and status) are two sides of the same coin.

There are overall considerable fundamental differences in the criteria for altruism in the literature; in other words, what is considered “pure altruism” or even just “altruism” and “helping behavior,” looking at these phenomena in the continuum perspective. Some scholars consider that altruism resembles self-sacrifice and heroism, while others link it more loosely to pro-social behavior, taking it as a synonym for helping behavior. How then does one resolve this puzzle of the criteria for altruism? One solution is to return to the original concept in Latin – altruism is “other-ism” behavior that primarily takes the other into account, as a starting point. The essence of altruism then is in putting someone else’s welfare and well-being above one’s own benefit.

Seeing altruism as “other-ism” does not prevent one from being able to separate something that could be labeled as “more extreme altruism” from “milder altruism”; different forms of altruism indeed can be seen as a continuum − not only forming a continuum from egoism but a continuum of their own. Many researchers have indeed rejected the dichotomy between egoism and altruism in various frames of reference, e.g., in educational studies and psychology (Krebs and Van Hesteren 1992).

Altruism: The Cornerstone of Civil Society

Altruism in general – as noted above – refers to the actions that take other human beings into consideration: actions concerned with the well-being of others. Altruism as a form of helping behavior forms the cornerstone of societal cohesion, the everyday well-being of individuals, and the central manifestation of human values. Although the current understanding in research in most fields is that humans are compassionate as a species (e.g., de Waal 2009a, b; Wilson 2016), altruism is often neglected as a secondary ad hoc explanation, as its explanatory power compared to selfishness is considered to be less.

This, however, need not − nor should it − be the case with altruism. Appreciation of various forms of altruism can bring considerable benefit for the understanding of the interaction between people both in theoretical considerations and empirical studies. Particularly in the topics of civil society, philanthropy, and NGOs, altruism is a pivotal issue. Not only does altruism play a role in, for instance, motivations, ideals, values, and social norms related to the civil society and philanthropics, but it also reflects and illustrates our view of humans. What do researchers believe about humans? What do the citizens? How do we understand human actions and motives, and what kind of society do we – researchers and citizens alike – wish to be helping to build and promote? Basically, being conscious about the altruistic elements of the human mind and human actions is needed for both research and praxis of any pro-social action. For instance, fostering, maintaining, and promoting civil society – and in-depth research on it – require us to understand, and indeed believe in, human possibility of altruism. Our view of humans affects our sight and our analysis; how do we see others? What do we consider worth studying?

Altruism, an essential part of humanity, can be regarded as a universal phenomenon, since it is found in all known societies. However, the forms of altruism vary greatly between and within societies and probably between different eras in the same societies. Today’s societal context creates an especially interesting framework for altruism: while individuals are less dependent on traditional social ties and traditions, they are increasingly tied to other types of networks, including global ones. Individuals live in the midst of multiple novel networks in several senses of the word; people may, for instance, not be interested in helping their neighbors but have godchildren on the other side of the world. As the networks of individuals are changing, so too is altruism. The changes in the forms of altruism and helping behavior might even be playing a role in the transformation of social networks.

Key Issues

The mainstream of the altruism discussion in various disciplines can be seen as roughly constituting three eras. At the first stage, up to the 1970s, the discussions concerning altruism in different disciplines went on in their own spheres and contexts, and there was little interaction between disciplines. Furthermore, much social science research focused on more negative aspects of human action, such as crime. All in all, the altruism research of the time – at least in hindsight – was not all that productive, considering the amount of further research and the number of significant publications.

In the second era of altruism research, from the middle of the 1970s to the early 1990s, work in various disciplines and applications was marked by disputing and questioning unselfish altruism. Researchers aimed to show that phenomena appearing to be altruistic ultimately serve the altruist’s own interest and own good. Even actions that in the short term can be interpreted as altruistic were discovered to work to the advantage of the altruist in the long term. This view was reflected most clearly in sociobiology and economic research in which altruism was interpreted mainly as nepotism or efficient solutions to recurring problems.

During the third era of altruism research, the last 15 years, the questions have changed again, and common themes for research have increased. More importantly, in social psychology, sociology, economics, and political science, a clear paradigm shift away from the position that behavior must reveal egoistic motivation has taken place, recent theory and data being more compatible with the view that “true altruism” does exist. The starting point of research is to a greater extent “pro-social” behavior, the human being considered capable of unselfish altruism which cannot be reduced to favoring of relatives.

The various disciplines focus on different elements in their explanations of altruism. Sociocultural explanations focus on the demographic correlations of altruism (religion, age, gender, wealth, education, political views, etc.). Economic explanations, on the other hand, consider altruism good and stress the role of the rewards of altruism (material or psychological). Evolutionary biology and psychology base their explanations on very similar grounds to economic explanations. Biologists stress kin and/or group selection and emphasize elements such as birth order and community size. Psychologists prefer to emphasize developmental matters (socialization, level of cognitive development, etc.) in their altruism explanations, as well as more contextual elements such as norms and culture (e.g., habits of reciprocity, moral judgements).

One of the most heated debates on altruism has taken place in evolutionary studies in biology and psychology. The early version of kin selection theory has been traced to the father of the evolution theory, Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who explained the altruistic behavior of ants by natural selection, the survival of the fittest, which applies at the level of the family. A central source of tension in evolutionary studies has then been the question of the extent to which social and cultural behavior ultimately supports biological and genetic objectives. The core debate concerns the question of whether altruism is developed − and to what extent − by individual selection, kin selection, or group selection, or is it rather a question of coevolution in which the evolution of genes and cultures is quite closely linked.

The game theories of evolution biology, as well as those in economics, have identified the altruistic and cooperative inclinations of humans. Altruism has been tested using these classic games (e.g., Prisoner’s Dilemma, Ultimatum) in which an individual’s short- and long-term advantages are set in contrast to each other and the solutions of the second players determine the usefulness of one’s own strategy. Game theory experiments have repeatedly shown that individuals cooperate more than the rational choice theory predicts. Furthermore, in repeated games patterns of reciprocity between the players soon appear. Also findings in neurobiology indicate that in situations in which one player would have cooperated but the co-player would not, there is a negative response in the dopamine system in the more cooperative player’s brain.

In more empirically oriented studies of altruism, there are two strong currents of research. First, several researchers have analyzed heroes and their choices. Subjects of such hero research have included people who saved Jews during the Second World War and people who have led an exceptionally altruistic life such as Gandhi or Mother Teresa. In these cases individuals have made choices that underscore the common good and require sacrifices, choices that have deviated from the dominant cultural models. Organ and blood donation research forms the second study area, most of which has sought the donors’ motivation.

Much of altruism research in various fields has concerned the question of what separates an altruist from a non-altruist or a more altruistic individual from a less altruistic one. One example is Monroe’s theory of altruism (1996); she concludes based on empirical exploration that altruism is constituted most fundamentally by perspective, a different way of seeing oneself and one’s world. This perspective might easily be activated by different factors, such as religious teachings. The basic explanation of altruism, however, consists of the individuals’ perceived identity (not identity as such) and their perspective of themselves in relation to others. Five concepts are crucial:
  1. 1.

    Cognition; cognitive framework and processing, including intentionality, agency, as well as both biological and cultural self; in other words, the processes by which people come to make sense of the world

  2. 2.

    World view; group membership and connection with others playing a crucial role

  3. 3.

    Canonical expectations concerning what is normal, or what is ordinary; expectations

  4. 4.

    Empathy and/or sympathy including both cognitive and affective elements; resulting from socialization and developmental processes

  5. 5.

    Views of self; identity and perception of who one is, including in relation to others


Similarly, in their classic study on individuals who had rescued Jews during the Nazi era, the Oliners (1988) indicated that the rescuers were marked by “extensivity,” being more attached and committed to people in their social relationships and having empathy as well as an inclusive sense of obligation towards various groups. In other words, both the propensity to attach oneself to others and the propensity towards inclusiveness in respect of individuals and groups are critical to altruism.

Various scholars have provided evidence supporting the theory that altruism is learned and can be further developed by teaching and learning. Hunt (1990) has summed up three elements that are characteristic of altruists, particularly altruistic children: being (1) happy, well-adjusted, and socially popular, (2) being sensitive and emotionally expressive, and (3) having high self-esteem. Thus, teaching by parents, schools, and civil society agents, among others, that support these elements will also support the development of altruism.

Future Directions

In the forthcoming studies, the best basis for altruism research is not to strictly separate the core phenomenon from closely related pro-social acts such as giving, sharing, and cooperating. Rather, innovative research exploring individual-level experiences and views concerning networks of altruism is needed: for instance, what constitutes altruism, and particularly networks of altruism, for late-modern individuals? Such research would both benefit the interdisciplinary links and the links between theory and praxis. Thus, some redirection of research must be accounted for. Six such ways are outlined:
  • First, in order to understand altruism in the context of the novel forms of social ties and networks, peoples’ attitudes, trust, and expectations – not only deeds – should be accounted for. Researchers should not divide people beforehand into altruists and non-altruists or offer presumptions about where to find the altruists but explore the present-day experiences and views of altruism with more open eyes. What is the nature and substance of altruism networks now?

  • Second, previous research has largely restricted itself one-sidedly to the acts of altruism by individuals as givers, not receivers. However, in order to understand altruism as a societal and social phenomenon, both directions should be explored. The present-day support and altruism are highly likely to include sporadic and hybrid stories of altruism, as well as series of such stories, and should be studied as such.

  • Third, our understanding of altruism will remain limited if focus is placed simply on individuals, neglecting the role of social groups and institutions in the construction, well-being, and maintenance of altruistic values. Even though public institutions such as welfare agencies, schools, associations, and churches do not assist or teach altruistic norms primarily because they experience altruistic wishes (but have, e.g., statutory responsibilities and regulations), individuals’ expectations and trust in institutional support should be explored. It would also be valuable to explore the way the individuals view the role institutions have in promoting societal values and common faith in altruism.

  • Fourth, in order to understand experiences and views of altruism more thoroughly, one should include not only the life cycle viewpoint (past–present–future) but also a wide range of cognitive, rational, emotional, and societal elements. Traditionally, explanations of altruism (sociocultural, economic, biological, and psychological) have all focused primarily on the explanations found in their own niches. Furthermore, most studies have primarily emphasized cognitive factors. Additionally, both values and, for instance, religion-related elements affect views, acts, and attitudes of altruism, as well as individual faith and trust in the networks of altruism supporting them.

  • Fifth, altruism is methodologically most often studied through extreme cases (e.g., people rescuing Jews during the Second World War) and instances quite distinct from individual everyday lives (e.g., blood and organ donation). One next step in altruism research should involve exploration of everyday experiences and views of altruism through combining survey and qualitative data. Research taking these notions into consideration will enable better understanding of the nature of altruism in the intricate present-day interconnections between individualism and collectivism.

The relationship between altruism and civil society is a dual process; different forms of altruism promote civil society, and participating in civil society activities promotes altruism and altruistic values. In other words, civil society socializes us into further altruism. Altruism is usually thought to decrease when the group size increases. Moreover, the further the group is from an individual, the less altruism. Civil society may transform perspective, even to global spheres. Involvement in civil society may “mess up” the circles; a group not so close to an individual might start to feel closer; it may come to represent one of the meaningful others to an individual, also in an altruistic sense.

Sixth, future direction is linked to the above-noted challenge of altruism research being too separate from closely related phenomena such as other pro-social acts: it is rather surprising that there are wide branches of research on close or almost identical issues of altruism, compassion, and pro-social behavior – yet all very separate from each other. This is not to blame altruism studies and researchers; the other close phenomena too are in their own niches and arenas. This has of course much to do with traditions and particularly disciplines, with their conceptual preferences (e.g., organizational studies focusing on compassion, versus political psychology, among others, focusing on altruism). The conceptual borders are fluid and fuzzy, and they may confuse researchers too. For instance, in relation to the concept of compassion – being defined as an interpersonal process involving the noticing, feeling, acting, and sense-making that alleviate the suffering of another person (Dutton et al. 2014) – altruism is sometimes considered “milder” and less other-oriented than compassion as the motives do not need to concern feeling for and with the other (e.g., participating in volunteer project at school primarily in order to get student credits). On the contrary, altruism can also be considered “heavier” than compassion as the concept of altruism – and less the concept of compassion – is used in relation to heroic helping behavior.

To say the least, the disciplines should bring the discussions closer to each other, and to collaborate more, in both conceptualizing and exploring the phenomena of – and close to – the manifold phenomenon of altruism. This would benefit civil society studies in particular, as we are dealing with such a multifaceted phenomenon that has innumerable connections and links both in academia and in the everyday arenas ranging from, for instance, political debates to small-scale NGOs.



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Further Reading

  1. Fehr, E., & Fischbacher, U. (2003). The nature of human altruism. Nature, 425, 785–791.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Field, A. J. (2004). Altruistically inclined? The behavioral sciences, evolutionary theory and the origins of reciprocity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  3. Gintis, H. (2003). Solving the puzzle of prosociality. Rationality and Society, 15(2), 155–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Hardin, G. (1993). Discriminating altruism. In G. Hardin (Ed.), Living within the limits (pp. 225–237). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Kohn, A. (1990). The brighter side of human nature. Altruism & empathy in everyday life. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  6. Piliavin, J. A., & Charng, H. W. (1990). Altruism: A review of recent theory and research. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 27–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Rushton, J. P., & Sorrentino, R. M. (Eds.). (1981). Altruism and helping behavior: Social, personality and developmental perspectives. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  8. Seidler, V. J. (1992). Rescue, righteousness, and morality. In P. M. Oliner et al. (Eds.), Embracing the other. Philosophical, psychological, and historical perspectives on altruism (pp. 48–65). New York: New York University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Sober, E., & Wilson, D. S. (1998). Unto others. The evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of TheologyUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany