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Comte And Sociology, Darwin, Spencer, And Evolution, Utilitarianism, Christianity And Unbelief, Socialism And Economics

The term altruism was coined by the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Derived from the Italian word altrui, meaning "to others" or "of others," "altruism" was introduced as an antonym for "egoism" to refer to the totality of other-regarding instincts in humans. The new terms altruism, altruist, and altruistic provided nineteenth-century thinkers with a controversial new conceptual framework within which to discuss ancient philosophical, religious, and ethical questions. In the earlier idiom of Enlightenment moralism, these had been expressed as questions about the relationship between particular self-serving passions and benevolent moral sentiments or between the principle of self-love and the authority of the conscience. It was in this earlier idiom that writers such as Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville expressed their view that all human action was ultimately driven by self-interest and that their critics, including Francis Hutcheson and Joseph Butler, expressed the contrary view that benevolence was as fundamental a principle of human action as self-interest. The conceptual history of "altruism" proper began in the 1850s and has generated its own particular set of scientific, religious, and philosophical questions.

"Altruism" and "altruistic" have been used to refer to at least three different sorts of things: intentions, actions, and ideologies. These three sorts of usage can be grouped under the headings of "psychological altruism," "behavioral altruism," and "ethical altruism." Psychological altruism is any set of inclinations or intentional motivation to help others for their own sakes. Behavioral altruism is defined in terms of consequences rather than intentions: it refers to any action that benefits others (normally with the additional condition that there is some cost to the agent). "Evolutionary altruism" or "biological altruism" is a form of behavioral altruism, since it is defined solely in terms of consequences rather than intentions: it refers to any behavior that reduces the fitness of the organism performing it and increases the fitness of another organism (see Dawkins; Sober and Wilson). Finally, ethical altruism is an ideology stating that the happiness of others should be the principal goal of one's actions. (Ethical egoism, by contrast, states that what the individual should seek above all else is his or her own happiness.)

A frequent cause of confusion has been equivocation between the first two of these three possible meanings—between claims about psychology and claims about behavior. The claim that there is no such thing as true altruism, for example, might be intended to convey the view that, psychologically, no one's motives are ever entirely forgetful of self, since we know that we will receive approval and pleasure as a result of our charitable actions. The reply might be that true altruism certainly exists because many people engage in charitable activities at a cost to themselves, but by shifting from the psychological to the behavioral perspective on altruism, this reply fails to rebut the initial claim. Such conceptual confusion and disagreement over the meaning of altruism marked discussions of it from the outset and persist to this day. (Blum provides one useful and concise discussion of some of the definitional and conceptual issues.)

Discussions of altruism also have revolved around fundamental empirical, ethical, and political questions. What are the real roots of human altruism? Are they biological, psychological, social, or cultural? Is altruism really the highest moral good? Are we morally obliged to extend our altruism to strangers just as much as to family and friends? Should we even behave altruistically toward nonhuman animals? In what ways can societies be arranged in order to maximize the amount of altruism? Are the best societies, in any case, really those in which altruism is maximized?

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