Re-define Altruism

Definition of altruism: “principle of considering the well-being and happiness of others first” (source: Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of current English).

Was Immanuel Kant right (in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)? Are people capable of doing things for others without expecting absolutely anything in return?
I tend to think that altruism constitutes a fallacy, due to the nature of human beings (yes, I admit that this may sound a bit harsh and cynical…). Sadly, people are always trading off one thing for another, being it a hug, a smile, a favour, a vote, a pat on the back, a compliment, money, love, or pity even…you name it!
Within reason, I can’t say that I blame us, cause after all we’re just obeying to one of the many cosmic rules: you give something, you get something!

When we practice altruism we do it out of duty or out of good will?
Kant said, “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the [moral] law”. So, this means that people are unselfish because they were programed for thinking that it is good and rewarding to place other’s interests before their own; or because it appeases their conscience, mind and soul; or because religion taught them that God has a place in heaven for those who are righteous; or simply because society is inclined to recognise people who engage in good deeds (through social projection or other type of recompense).
About good will: can people be altruistic, with the sole purpose of seeking good? I would dare to say “Impossible”! For instance, when we wish people well, we do it not only because we want them to be fine, but mainly because we don’t want to deal with their problems (i.e. if they’re well and happy, it represents a load off our minds). When we help a sibling it’s because we’re bounded by blood: if we get along with them we’ll gladly assist them, for their happiness is our peace of mind; if not, we’ll only do it to please our parents. And even the latter who do whatever it takes for their children’s sake, always expect them to behave as proper human beings. When a nun (a good one) helps people so that God may bestowe upon her His grace and a place in paradise…need I say more?

We are selfish by nature! The core reason behind the whole purpose of being born is selfishness: we’re here to improve ourselves (to decrease the amount of our Karma – for those who believe in it) throughout life! We are egotistic and we know it; however since our minds are set to follow a series of rules, we’ve created a mechanism (which responds to the rule of dichotomy: selfish/selfless etc) called Altruism, in order to offset our egotism!

So, tell me…should or should we not re-define altruism?


  1. Max;
    Excellent article, with some interesting insights; clearly human beings have a propensity towards evil.

    I agree with you that humans are not capable of being absolutely altruistic…on their own.

    Just so we are clear the Bible does not say you go to Heaven by “being good”, “doing good deeds” or “being “religious”.

    When you accept to enter into a relationship of trust in Jesus you receive His grace. Grace is unmerited, undeserved, an absolutely free gift, you receive it you don’t and cannot earn it. The hypothetical nun you speak of cannot therefore “earn” God’s grace; she can only receive it just like everybody else.

    We cannot change our spots any more than a leopard can but God the Creator can change those spots. When He is welcomed into your life He intervenes in your life, He transforms you; that is when things become “altruistic”.

    Grace slays karma (the kind of karma people are generally referring to in that you get what you deserve). I have an article on my blog about just this topic, if you desire to check it out here is the link:

    I believe what I have described “re-defines altruism”.

  2. By the way I have now posted as couple of articles I believe you can really “sink your teeth into”.

  3. I agree with livingsword. Only God can make people truly altruistic. It's like He gives those people a sincere "nudge" to help others without expecting anything in return.

    When I think of altruism, I think of Mother Teresa he he he he...but I still believe that there are at least some truly sincere altruistic people out there. Why? Because that's how God works. He's the one who's capable of changing a human heart 180 degrees.

    So my belief is not in humankind totally, but in God. God works through humans. ;-))))

  4. Hmm... I think that it is time we re-define altruism. You pose great points. Yes... you do indeed. I think that everything we (humans) do has an alternative motive. Perhaps there are exceptions, who knows? Take one of your examples for example:

    “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the [moral] law”

    Perhaps you do something good, subconsciously you're setting up a tab. 'That's another good thing I've done. Surely heaven will except me when the time comes.' To some degree it's selfish, you're not helping a person so they can be okay (well maybe a little ;P), but it's more so for personal gain. So I'll have to agree. As you say, we are selfish by nature.

    ~Epoch [z]

  5. Ha ha ! I've just posted one about how doctors are not rich because they are such wonderful people who only want to help other people and not care about money !!

    But you are right, it is not easy to find a truely altuistic person. But being terribly optimistic, I would like to believe that the many people out there who do good things for other people really do it just because they want to help and not for some ulterior motive.

  6. I believe in altruism because I see it around me. However, true altruism on a philosophical level... probably not. Even altruistic people probably feel rewarded when helping out so I guess it defies altruism.

    Reminds me of my philosophy classes :$

  7. The more we have, the less altrustic we are... isn't that the way? This post does give me cause to reflect. While I do make donations to worthy organizations, it is far too easy to write a check without giving the definition of charity another thought.

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