Explores the concept of action motivated by regard for others.


The original use of the concept of "altruism" is traced to Auguste Comte, a French mathematician and philosopher during the first half of the 1800s. The French word that was later translated to "altruism," was an adjective that meant, "of or to others, what is another's, somebody else." When the word was translated into English, it was defined as, "devotion to the welfare of others, regard for others, as a principle of action: opposed to egoism or selfishness."

The above definition remains fairly accurate, but today we are more inclined to use a more restrictive definition of altruism. In the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary presented above, there is no mention about whether or not one's self can be considered in altruistic action. The definition clearly states that altruistic action is motivated by regard for others, but it does not go so far as to state that this prevents one from considering oneself at least peripherally in the action. A modern definition of altruism does include the restrictions on activity that is at all motivated by one's self-interest. Webster's Dictionary of the English Language defines altruism as, "consideration for other people without any thought of self as a principle of conduct." The injunction against any thought of self, is what distinguishes the definition today.

Spectrum of Motivation

Since altruism is characterized by activity motivated by the interests of others, we should consider other motivations for activity. The motivation that most often comes to mind is self-interest. It is not difficult to see that many things individuals do are the result of self-interest. (I do not want to equate self-interest with selfishness. Selfish activity is certainly a result of self-interest, but it is distinct activity that is excessively self-interested.) When we make decisions about when and how much to eat, about how to spend our time after-school and about whether or not we want to participate in athletic or other extra-curricular activities at school, we are usually motivated by self-interest. In most of these cases, we do not explicitly recognize our motives, but they are still present. On the contrary, when a student decides to share his/her lunch with a classmate who forgot their own, or when the student volunteers to tutor younger students, he or she may be motivated by a regard for the interests of others. However, the situation is rarely, if ever, as clear as I have described it, so it is helpful to consider a spectrum of motivations.

At one end of the spectrum would be activity motivated by selfishness at the expense of the interests of others, and at the opposite end would be activity motivated by altruism at the expense of one's own self-interest. Most activity could be placed between the two ends, because the motivations behind most activities are a mix of self-interest and a regard for others. For example, the student may decide to participate in sports, because she wants to earn a scholarship in an effort to relieve her parents the burden of her college tuition. Conversely, a student may participate in voluntary service, because he wants to be a competitive applicant for college acceptance. These simple examples exhibit the challenges of describing activity as self-interested or altruistic.

Relation to K-12 Curriculum

Altruism in the Teaching Profession

Teachers have a ready-made laboratory surrounding them every day that is helpful in understanding the concept of altruism. Altruism and its motives seem to permeate the teaching profession itself. There are countless reports of teachers making significant sacrifices for the interest of their students. There are stories about teachers working after-school hours to tutor struggling students, providing advice or even comfort to students in challenging situations, and willing to do these things despite a low standard wage.

Norma Mateer addresses the question of how large a role altruism plays in the lives of teachers. Her study focused solely on elementary school teachers, but it is realistic to conclude that it can be conditionally applied to other levels. Mateer identified three characteristics that are signs of altruistic behavior and measured the importance of these three characteristics in teachers. The three areas are: perceiving the need of another person, being motivated by empathy to address the need, and addressing the need without an expected reward. From a series of qualitative interviews, Mateer concluded that the teachers she studied were overwhelmingly concerned with the needs of their students, and they were willing to address these needs, being focused on intrinsic rewards, not material extrinsic rewards. To current teachers this conclusion provides little surprise. Teachers usually pride themselves on being concerned with their students' interests, even to the detriment of their own interests at times.

Altruism in Economics

Altruism makes its way into discussions about economics because of its relation to self-interest. The basic concepts of the market economy are built upon self-interest being assumed as a general motivation for people's economic decisions. Adam Smith, in his work The Wealth of Nations, outlined the role that self-interest plays in markets. Smith explains that individuals pursuing their own interests best reach market equilibrium. He describes this situation by stating that the general interest of society will be reached by the competition of individual interests interacting in the market, and this will occur as if an invisible hand was directing it. A corollary that is often attached to this line of reasoning is that activity motivated by altruism may actually be a hindrance to markets, because it introduces inefficiencies.

Altruism in History

Perhaps the best way to introduce the concept of altruism in history is through biographies of representative people. Many great leaders are characterized by the extent to which they worked for the interests of others. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a figure familiar to all students, and his activity could easily be presented as altruistic. He recognized the need of basic civil rights for all people. He was willing to place himself in great danger and was ultimately killed for trying to improve the lives of other people. Mother Teresa is another example of a well-known figure whose activity seemed to always be at the altruistic end of a spectrum of motivations. Similarly, less well-known figures can be identified by their altruistic behavior. History classes in schools in the Indianapolis area could cover the life of Madam C.J. Walker. Walker was the first successful African-American businesswoman. In addition, she was committed to her community. Her generous monetary donations were instrumental in providing African-Americans the resources of the YMCA in Indianapolis. Another opportunity, when covering the challenges present in urban areas around the turn of the century is to discuss the settlement houses created by Jane Addams. Addams was moved by the drastic conditions presented to poor people in Chicago, and she worked to institutionalize many social services. She is often credited as being one of the first social workers.

Altruism in the Sciences

Developments in biology that have allowed scientists to map the building blocks of life and to identify genes for specific traits have led to a discussion about altruism's place in respect to our genes. Questions such as: is there a gene for altruism, or why would individuals act in a manner that would not promote self-preservation, are being addressed in some sections of the scientific community. Although this material may not be useful for the general high school level biology class, it may merit at least a passing mention.

Similarly, a number of studies have been performed documenting behavior that may be considered altruistic in the animal and insect world (Wilson, 1975; Darwin 1872). Such examples, brought into a biology class may lead to lively discussion and opportunity for a positive, prosocial behavior-promoting, teaching moment.

Importance to Philanthropy

One would be hard pressed to consider the philanthropic sector without the concept of altruism coming to mind. In fact, altruism is an integral and defining aspect of the philanthropic sector. Although the sector itself is composed of very diverse groups of associations and causes, the activity within the sector is the result of individuals or groups trying to realize their moral visions. The goal of philanthropic activity is to make things better for others, and consequently, oneself. So far as this is true, the philanthropic sector can be described as a greenhouse in which altruistic activity is cultivated.

Related Ideas

Voluntary, sacrifice, empathy, other-regarding, service, self-interest, selfishness.


Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. New York: Penguin, 1961.

Burlingame, Dwight F. Altruism and Philanthropy: Definitional Issues. Essays on Philanthropy, No 10. Indianapolis: Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, 1998.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Guernsey, England: Senate, 1994 (original work published 1872).

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Mansbridge, Jane J, ed. Beyond Self-interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Mateer, Norma H. "Altruism in Teachers: An Exploratory Study." Dissertation. Penn State University, 1993.

Monroe, Kristen Renwick. The Heart of Altruism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Penguin, 1964.

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. New York: Dutton, 1966.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.