Altruism Essay

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Altruism is a term coined by French sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857). It can be viewed as either an ethical doctrine or a behavior. The ethical doctrine holds that all humans have an ethical obligation to help others, even at a cost to one’s self; the behavioral aspect is putting that ethical obligation into practice. One can thus define altruism as an active concern for the well-being of others. Altruism is an important concept for criminology because in many ways it is the polar opposite of criminality. Altruistic feelings motivate the person to ease the pain of others and to offer them resources, whereas criminality is an active concern only for one’s self, motivating the criminal to take the resources of others.

Given its importance in blunting antisocial impulses and aiding cooperation, it makes sense that altruism would exert evolutionary pressure for selection in social species. While it is true that humans (and all other sexually reproducing species) are necessarily born with a central concern for their own well-being, people are also born with altruistic tendencies that curb excesses and direct their self-concern in prosocial directions. Socialization can build upon the natural predisposition to behave altruistically, but it is not the source. Multiple lines of evidence point to the innateness of altruism and that altruistic tendencies emerge before socialization can have major effects, that later socialization is only effective if it meshes with an altruistic disposition, and that nonhuman primates display the same tendency absent socialization.

Altruism extends benefits to others at a cost to the altruist, so it is a question what evolutionary sense it makes for an organism to risk its own fitness to benefit others. The theory of inclusive fitness (the direct fitness of the individual and the indirect fitness of its genetic kin) is one answer to this paradox, but this kind of altruism is exercised without any sort of conscious intentionality and is defined exclusively by its fitness consequences. Inclusive fitness and kin selection theories (the tendency to favor close genetic relatives over others) helps explain how altruism could have been selected for in any species, but they are not completely satisfactory explanations for human altruism.

Acts in which an organism provides a benefit to another with an unconscious expectation of reciprocity—reciprocal altruism—has been offered as one explanation. Anything that is currently part of the human behavioral repertoire must have had fitness advantages for humans’ evolutionary ancestors. The question then is whether there really is a net “cost” to individuals who help and cooperate with others. Helping others ultimately helps the self because it leads to reciprocal helping and enhances the altruist’s reputation as a reliable cooperator. In hunter/ gatherer bands, a hunter who has been successful and shares his meat with one who was not extends a benefit to another at little cost to himself (his family cannot eat all the meat and it would soon spoil). The unspoken expectation is that if the tables are turned, he and his family will be repaid in kind. Mutual help and support aids all members of a social group to avoid predators, cooperate in hunting and gathering, and enjoy the benefits of many other features of social life. Because these things have obvious fitness consequences, there will be strong selection pressures for altruistic behavior. Because of the expectation of future reciprocity, reciprocal altruism is ultimately designed to benefit the altruist, and is thus not selfless. Of course, expectations of reciprocity are rarely conscious.

Empathy underlies the urge to come to the aid of others, and empathy is a deep emotional quality of vital importance to any social species with altricial young. Parental care and mother-child bonding serve as templates for later social bonding and for helping behavior that aids in forging those bonds. Although the heritability of empathy is roughly the same for both genders, females are invariably found to be more empathetic than males regardless of the methods used to assess it. Like every other trait, empathy varies in strength from one person to another. As well as genetic influences on the trait, all traits are developed to varying degrees by experience. Altruism is a prosocial trait that serves as a buffer against antisocial behavior, and it is thus not surprising that caring parents strive to cultivate their children’s genetic seed. The gratitude of others positively reinforces the altruist and leads to the enhancement of his or her reputation in the eyes of others as a kind and dependable person.

To the extent that persons are motivated by empathy (feeling the pain of others) to behave altruistically, by doing so they remove their own distress. The removal of something aversive is reinforcement, and the behavior that led to it is likely to be repeated. Psychologists call this the “aversive arousal model” of altruism because aiding someone in distress eliminates the empathy-aroused unpleasant feelings. Psychopaths and chronic criminals are not likely to aid others precisely because they do not experience empathetic arousal and are thus not internally motivated to appease it.

In addition to relieving unpleasant feeling, performing an altruistic act also facilitates the release of chemicals that target the reward areas of the brain (dopamine) that produce pleasant feelings. Altruism is thus reinforced internally as well as externally. This chemical reward individual’s receive from helping others provides evidence that helping behavior was important to humans’ distant ancestors because nature has built-in mechanisms that reward people internally only when they do things that promote the grand goal of survival and reproductive success. Of course, no one argues that altruistic acts are motivated by a conscious tit-for-tat strategy to improve one’s fitness any more than one is motivated by fitness concerns when having sex.

Altruism extended to nonkin in situations where reciprocity is unlikely is called “psychological altruism.” Individuals feel good when they extend some benefit to others without expectations of reciprocity; dropping money in a beggar’s hat may make people feel superior, and giving to charitable causes may assuage any guilt they have about their privileged position. Psychological altruism is thus motivated by internal rewards. People act altruistically because they feel good when they do, and because it confers valued social status by identifying persons who are kind, reliable, and trustworthy. In an evolutionary sense, people are altruists because their distant ancestors who were cooperative and giving enjoyed greater popularity among group members and reproductive success than those who were not; the neural mechanisms that produce rewarding feelings when doing good things for others is the physiological adaptation.

A number of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown that the same reward areas in the brain areas are activated whether giving or receiving something of value, but areas associated with social attachments and affiliation only “light up” when giving. It is becoming clear from such studies that human altruism involves the general mammalian neural reward systems as well as moral beliefs housed in the human prefrontal cortex.

Although individual organisms are adapted to act in ways that maximize their own fitness, not to behave for the good of the group, their fitness goals are best realized by adhering to the rules of cooperation and altruism—by “being nice”— and that is for the good of the group. The conscious intentions of altruists are other-oriented, but actions are judged good or bad by natural selection according to their consequences, not by their intentions. Intentional psychological altruism may be ultimately (but unconsciously) self-serving, but this does not diminish its value to its beneficiaries one bit. Selfishness as understood by biologists is both individually and socially desirable. It is by cooperating with others and being actively concerned with their well-being that individuals simultaneously serve their own best interests and the best interests of their communities. This is quite different from selfishness as understood in the vernacular; that is, the crabbed egotism of the antisocial individual shorn of any concern for others. This form of selfishness is ultimately self-defeating.

There are those who rebel at the idea that even psychological altruism is not “real” altruism since it is not entirely selfless, and that to explain altruism in biological terms is to devalue it. They insist that it must be defined by its conscious motivations and nothing else. However, it is always defined by conscious motivations; evolutionary explanations only address what is ultimately behind conscious motivations. If one insists that psychological altruism is not real altruism because it is not entirely selfless, one is unwittingly asserting that real behaviors are ineffable, biology-free, and cannot evolve.


  1. Batson, C. Daniel and Adam Powell. “Altruism and Prosocial Behavior.” In Handbook of Psychology, T. Millon and M. Lerner, eds. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.
  2. Fehr, Ernst and Urs Fishchbacher. “The Nature of Human Altruism.” Nature, v.425 (2003).
  3. Fletcher, Jeffrey and Michael Doebeli. “A Simple and General Explanation for the Evolution of Altruism.” Proceedings of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences, v.276 (2009).
  4. Sussman, Robert and Robert Cloninger. Origins of Altruism and Cooperation. New York: Springer,

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