Altruism refers to both a practice or habit (in certain philosophies, a virtue) as well as a philosophical doctrine.
Altruism, in its non-zoological context, is defined as:
- Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
- Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
Altruism, in practice, is the performance of duties to others with no view to any sort of personal gain for one's efforts. If one performs an act beneficial to others with a view to gaining affection, respect, reputation, or any form of gratitude or remuneration then it is not an altruistic act. It is in fact a selfish act because the principal motivation was to reap some benefit for oneself. The desire of this benefit exists equally whether it is psychological, emotional, intellectual, or material - each form of desirable benefit is philosophically identical as a motivation.
Hence, people may be seen participating in what externally appears to be altruistic behaviour. In fact it is frequently not the case that the behaviour is altruistic. The behaviour, in most cases, may be termed rational selfishness. Rational selfishness may often make adherents appear as if they are acting altruistically, but in fact, due to the motivation behind the act, it is quite the opposite. Rational selfishness is driven by a rational and reasoned desire to benefit by following one's own personal system of values.
According to psychological egoism, while one can be outwardly altruistic in the practical sense, one cannot have altruistic motivations. That is, while one might very well spend one's life helping others, one's motive for doing so is always the furthering of one's own interests. One claiming to be an altruist might derive great pleasure, for example, from helping others. That pleasure, according to this theory, is both the motive and the resulting benefit one gets from the act.
Individuals instilled with a belief that serving others is their "duty" may, contrary to the idea of psychological egoism, begin the habit of performing "truly" altruistic actions out of this sense of duty only. Some feel that even this can be construed as self-interest; the benefit might be the perceived avoidance of the anticipated feelings of guilt which may arise in th case of non-fulfillment of the perceived duty. In any case, there are those who rely on their sense of duty to direct them to what they perceive to be virtuous behaviour. In practice this frequently leads resentment of those for whom they are performing their duties.
Some believe that altruist behaviour becomes an impossibility, as people inevitably follow their own interests one way or another. However, this is refuted by the fact that children and young adults are known to make life choices out of an overwhelming sense of duty to the expectations of authority figures, their family or friends, in denial of their own wishes.
In common parlance, however, altruism usually means helping another person without expecting a reward from that or other persons, although it may well entail the "internal" benefit of a "good feeling," sense of satisfaction, self-esteem, fulfillment of duty (whether imposed by a religion or ideology or simply one's conscience), or the like. Because no proof is available supporting the act of altruism as defined above, it might be best to label the act as "apparent altruism." In this way one need not speculate on the motives of the "do-gooder."
In the science of ethology (the study of behaviour), altruism refers to behaviour by an individual which appears to benefit another. This would appear to be counter-intuitive if one accepts natural selection. Analysis of apparently altruistic behaviours in animals shows that they are not inconsistent with natural selection due to the following mechanisms: