Home >> Encyclopedia-britannica-volume-01-a-anno >> Almendralejo to Altwasser >> Altruism



ALTRUISM, a philosophical term used in ethics for that theory of conduct which regards the good of others as the end of moral action. It was invented by Auguste Comte and adopted by the English positivists as a convenient antithesis to egoism-. Ac cording to Comte the only practical method of social regeneration is gradually to inculcate the true social feeling which subordinates itself to the welfare of others. The application to sociological problems of the physical theory of organic evolution further de veloped the altruistic theory. According to Herbert Spencer, the life of the individual in the perfect society is identical with that of the state: in other words, the first object of him who would live well must be to take his part in promoting the well-being of his fellows individually and collectively. Pure egoism and pure altruism are alike impracticable. For on the one hand unless the egoist's happiness is compatible to some extent with that of his fellows, their opposition will almost inevitably vitiate his perfect enjoyment ; on the other hand, the altruist whose primary object is the good of others, must derive his own highest happiness—i.e., must realize himself most completely—in the fulfilment of this object. In fact, the altruistic idea, in itself and apart from a fur ther definition of the good, is rather a method than an end.

The self-love theory of Hobbes, with its subtle perversions of the motives of ordinary humanity, led to a reaction which cul minated in the utilitarianism of Bentham and the two Mills; but their theory, though superior to the extravagant egoism of Hobbes, had this main defect, according to Herbert Spencer, that it con ceived the world as an aggregate of units, and was so far indi vidualistic. Sir Leslie Stephen in his Science of Ethics insisted that the social organism is the unit, and therefore that the aim of moralists is not the "greatest happiness of the greatest number," but rather the "health of the organism." The socialistic tendencies of subsequent thinkers have emphasized the ethical importance of altruistic action, but it must be remembered always that it is ultimately only a form of action, that it may be commended in all types of ethical theory, and that it is a practical guide only when it is applied in accordance with a definite theory of "the good." Finally, he who devotes himself on principle to furthering the good of others as his highest moral obligation is from the highest point of view realizing, not sacrificing, himself.

See works of Comte, Spencer, Stephen, and text-books of ethics (cf. bibliography at end of article ETHICS).

theory, ethics, social and egoism