Altruism entails attitudes and behaviors that benefit other individuals in a group (e.g., family, tribe, nation, religion, humanity) without serving one's own personal interests.
Psychological research has focused on altruism, particularly as shown in prosocial behaviors including “helping, comforting, sharing, cooperation, philanthropy, and community service.” Studies show that helping behavior is more likely if people see that someone is in distress. They may feel personally responsible for alleviating that distress either due to moral norms, if a bystander feels a high level of empathy, or if a large number of people witness that distress.
Other research has shown that altruistic behavior can confer mental and physical health benefits on helpers and volunteers. A study on older adults found that over four years, volunteers for multiple organizations had a 44% reduction in mortality after accounting for prior health status. The research indicates that benefits of altruism work both ways: Altruistic acts increase happiness, and happier people tend to be kinder. Psychologists refer to the good feelings induced by helping others as “the helper's high.”
Thus altruism is an important ethical concept that can affect psychological and social well-being, and which appears to have roots in human biological and social evolution. However, most scientific formulations of the concept do not necessarily encompass the idea of “selflessness” as advanced in some religious doctrines. Wilson opines that human moral evolution will remain connected to and limited by the ways in which the human mind has evolved. Reason can expand the scope of the “group” with which an individual from direct kin to humanity, but that does not entail that denial of grouprelated interests or the existence of the self.
Batson, C. Daniel, Nadia Ahmad, and E. L. Stocks. “Four Forms of Prosocial Motivation: Egoism, Altruism, Collectivism, and Principlism.” In Social Motivation, edited by David Dunning, pp. 103–126. New York: Psychology Press, 2011.
Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. London, UK, and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.