AskDefine | Define selflessness

Dictionary Definition



1 the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others [syn: altruism] [ant: egoism]
2 acting with less concern for yourself than for the success of the joint activity [syn: self-sacrifice]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Quality or state of being selfless.

Extensive Definition

Altruism is selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and central to many religious traditions. This idea was often described as the Golden rule of ethics. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.
Altruism can be distinguished from a feeling of loyalty and duty. Altruism focuses on a motivation to help others or a want to do good without reward, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (for example, God, a king), a specific organization (for example, a government), or an abstract concept (for example, patriotism etc). Some individuals may feel both altruism and duty, while others may not. Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition.
The concept has a long history in philosophical and ethical thought, and has more recently become a topic for psychologists (especially evolutionary psychology researchers), sociologists, evolutionary biologists, and ethologists. While ideas about altruism from one field can have an impact on the other fields, the different methods and focuses of these fields lead to different perspectives on altruism. Researches on altruism were sparked in particular after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, who was stabbed during half an hour, with passive witnesses withholding themselves from helping her.

Altruism in social sciences

If one performs an act beneficial to others with a view to gaining some personal benefit, then it isn't an altruistically motivated act. There are several different perspectives on how "benefit" (or "interest") should be defined. A material gain (for example, money, a physical reward, etc.) is clearly a form of benefit, while others identify and include both material and immaterial gains (affection, respect, happiness, satisfaction etc.) as being philosophically identical benefits.
According to psychological egoism, while people can exhibit altruistic behavior, they cannot have altruistic motivations. Psychological egoists would say that while they might very well spend their lives benefitting others with no material benefit (or a material net loss) to themselves, their most basic motive for doing so is always to further their own interests. For example, it would be alleged that the foundational motive behind a person acting this way is to advance their own psychological well-being ("good feelings").
The problem (known in philosophy as the "problem of love") arises from an analysis of the human will and is often debated among Thomistic philosophers. The problem centers on Thomas Aquinas's understanding that human expressions of love are always based partly on love of self and similitude of being: “Even when a man loves in another what he loves not in himself, there is a certain likeness of proportion: because as the latter is to that which is loved in him, so is the former to that which he loves in himself.”
The French philosopher Pierre Rousselot (1878-1915) located the philosophical problem in terms of a pure "ecstatic" or totally selfless love versus an egotistic, more self-interested love, beginning his examination from Aristotle's text (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9): "The friendly feelings that we bear for another have arisen from the friendly feelings that we bear for ourselves".
Relations between altruist acts and self-interest were a common problem among French 17th century moralists, examined in particular by La Rochefoucauld, as well as Jansenists such as Pascal and Nicole. These authors claimed that all acts of generosity were in fact acts of vanity, a stance later supported by Mandeville. La Rochefoucauld could thus write, in his first Maxim: "What we call virtues are often just a collection of casual actions and selfish interests which chance or our own industry manages to arrange [in a certain way]. It is not always from valor that men are valiant, or from chastity that women are chaste."
This classical theory, which gave rise to rational egoism, was harshly opposed by Adam Smith in his Theory Of Moral Sentiments:
"It is the great fallacy of Dr Mandeville's book to represent every passion as wholly vicious, which is so in any degree and in any direction. It is thus that he treats every thing as vanity which has any reference either to what are, or to what ought to be, the sentiments of others; and it is by means of this sophistry that he establishes his favourite conclusion, that private vices are public benefits."
Critics of this theory conflating altruism with vanity and self-interest often reject it on the grounds that it's non-falsifiable; in other words, it is impossible to prove or disprove because immaterial gains such as a "good feelings" cannot be measured or proven to exist in all people performing altruistic acts. Psychological egoism has also been accused of using circular logic: "If a person willingly performs an act, that means he derives personal enjoyment from it; therefore, people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment". This particular statement is circular because its conclusion is identical to its hypothesis (it assumes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment, and concludes that people only perform acts that give them personal enjoyment).
In common parlance, altruism usually means helping another person without expecting material reward from that or other persons, although it may well entail the "internal" benefit of a "good feeling," sense of satisfaction, self-esteem, fulfillment of duty (whether imposed by a religion or ideology or simply one's conscience), or the like. In this way one need not speculate on the motives of the altruist in question.
Humans are not exclusively altruistic towards family members, previous co-operators or potential future allies, but can be altruistic towards people they don't know and will never meet. For example, some humans donate to international charities and volunteer their time to help society's less fortunate. It can however be argued that an individual would contribute to a charity to gain respect or stature within his/her own community.

Altruism and game theory

It may strain plausibility to claim that these altruistic deeds are done in the hope of a return favor. Influenced by the consequentialist perspective of utilitarianism, the game theory analysis of this 'just in case' strategy, where the principle would be 'always help everyone in case you need to pull in a favor in return', is a decidedly non-optimal strategy, where the net expenditure of effort is far greater than the net profit when it occasionally pays off.
According to some , it is difficult to believe that these behaviors are solely explained as indirect selfish rationality, be it conscious or unconscious. Mathematical formulations of kin selection, along the lines of the prisoner's dilemma, are helpful as far as they go; but what a game-theoretic explanation glosses over is the fact that altruistic behavior can be attributed to that apparently mysterious phenomenon, the conscience. One recent suggestion, proposed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, was initially developed when considering the problem of so-called 'free riders' in the tragedy of the commons, a larger-scale version of the prisoner's dilemma.
In game theory terms, a free rider is an agent who draws benefits from a cooperative society without contributing. In a one-to-one situation, free riding can easily be discouraged by a tit-for-tat strategy. But in a larger-scale society, where contributions and benefits are pooled and shared, they can be incredibly difficult to shake off.
Cooperative agents interact with each other, each contributing resources and each drawing on the common good. Now imagine a rogue free rider, an agent who draws a favor ("you scratch my back") and later refuses to return it. The problem is that free riding is always going to be beneficial to individuals at cost to society. How can well-behaved cooperative agents avoid being cheated? Over many generations, one obvious solution is for cooperators to evolve the ability to spot potential free riders in advance and refuse to enter into reciprocal arrangements with them. Then, the canonical free rider response is to evolve a more convincing disguise, fooling cooperators into cooperating after all. This can lead to an evolutionary arms races, with ever-more-sophisticated disguises and ever-more-sophisticated detectors.
In this evolutionary arms race, how best might one convince comrades that one really is a genuine cooperator, not a free rider in disguise? One answer is by actually making oneself a genuine cooperator, by erecting psychological barriers to breaking promises, and by advertising this fact to everyone else. In other words, a good solution is for organisms to evolve things that everyone knows will force them to be cooperators - and to make it obvious that they've evolved these things. According to this theory, evolution will thus produce organisms who are sincerely moral and who wear their hearts on their sleeves; in short, evolution will give rise to the phenomenon of conscience.
This theory, combined with ideas of kin selection and the one-to-one sharing of benefits, may explain how a blind process can produce a genuinely non-cynical form of altruism that gives rise to the human conscience.
Critics of such technical game theory analysis point out that it appears to forget that human beings are rational and emotional. To presume an analysis of human behavior without including human rationale or emotion is necessarily unrealistically narrow, and treats human beings as if they are mere machines, sometimes called Homo economicus. Another objection is that often people donate anonymously, so that it is impossible to determine if they really did the altruistic act (compare with Kant's affirmation that since motive determines the moral nature of an act, and that none can know for sure which motive was behind an act, therefore it is impossible to know if one single moral act ever existed).
Beginning with an understanding that rational human beings benefit from living in a benign universe, logically it follows that particular human beings may gain substantial emotional satisfaction from acts which they perceive to make the world a better place.

Altruism in morality and politics

Altruists may be divided in two broad groups : Those who believe altruism is a matter of personal choice (and therefore selfishness can and should be tolerated - ethical egoism even supports egoism as a moral stance, denying altruism any value), and those who believe that altruism is a moral ideal which should be embraced, if possible, by all human beings.
A prominent example of the former branch of altruist political thought is Lysander Spooner, who, in Natural Law, writes: "''Man, no doubt, owes many other moral duties to his fellow men; such as to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, protect the defenceless, assist the weak, and enlighten the ignorant. But these are simply moral duties, of which each man must be his own judge, in each particular case, as to whether, and how, and how far, he can, or will, perform them.''"
Since Aristotle's classical distinction of regimes made in Politics, III, altruism is often held to be the kind of ethic that should guide the actions of politicians and other people in positions of power. Such people are usually expected to set their own interests aside and serve the populace. When they do not, they may be criticized as defaulting on what is believed to be an ethical obligation to place the interests of others above their own.
Ayn Rand, the founder of Objectivism, argued that altruism is immoral because self-sacrifice is fundamentally incompatible with the objective requirements of human life. She defined sacrifice as the exchange of something of superior value for something of inferior value. Rand argued that the fundamental moral value to a living entity was that entity's own life, whose survival and flourishing depends upon the self-interested pursuit, not selfless renunciation, of values. Without value achievement there would be no living entities. As the universe follows consistent and absolute laws and living beings must take certain actions in accordance with their biological natures to survive, she argued, the moral code cannot be arbitrary but must follow a rational framework.
Sacrifice according to Rand is the worst kind of moral transgression as it fundamentally undermines the basic principle of a living entity: the optimization toward something better and not something worse. She argued that if altruism as an expression of self-sacrifice were universally and consistently applied, humankind would not remain in existence for long.

Altruism in ethology and evolutionary biology

In the science of ethology (the study of animal behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, altruism refers to behavior by an individual that increases the fitness of another individual while decreasing the fitness of the actor. Researchers on alleged altruist behaviours among animals have been ideologically opposed to the social darwinist concept of the "survival of the fittest", under the name of "survival of the nicest"—the latter being globally compatible, however, with darwinist' theory of evolution. Insistence on such cooperative behaviours between animals was first exposed by the Russian zoologist and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Recent developments in game theory (look into ultimatum game) have provided some explanations for apparent altruism, as have traditional evolutionary analyses. Among the proposed mechanisms are:
The study of altruism was the initial impetus behind George R. Price's development of the Price equation which is a mathematical equation used to study genetic evolution. An interesting example of altruism is found in the cellular slime moulds, such as Dictyostelium mucoroides. These protists live as individual amoebae until starved, at which point they aggregate and form a multicellular fruiting body in which some cells sacrifice themselves to promote the survival of other cells in the fruiting body. Social behavior and altruism share many similarities to the interactions between the many parts (cells, genes) of an organism, but are distinguished by the ability of each individual to reproduce indefinitely without an absolute requirement for its neighbors.
Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D'Or Hospital Network (J.M.) provided the first evidence for the neural bases of altruistic giving in normal healthy volunteers, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006, they showed that both pure monetary rewards and charitable donations activated the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food and sex. However, when volunteers generously placed their interests of others before their own by making charitable donations, another brain circuit was selectively activated: the subgenual cortex/septal region. These structures are intimately related to social attachment and bonding in other species. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.
A new study by Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, US, is seen by some as breathing new life into the model of group selection for Altruism, known as "Survival of the nicest". Bowles conducted a genetic analysis of contemporary foraging groups, including Australian aboriginals, native Siberian Inuit populations and indigenous tribal groups in Africa. It was found that hunter-gatherer bands of up to 30 individuals were considerably more closely related than was previously thought. Under these conditions, thought to be similar to those of the middle and upper Paleolithic, altruism towards other group-members would improve the overall fitness of the group.
If an individual defended the group but was killed, any genes that the individual shared with the overall group would still be passed on. Early customs such as food sharing or monogamy could have levelled out the “cost” of altruistic behaviour, in the same way that income taxes redistribute income in society. He assembled genetic, climactic, archaeological, ethnographic and experimental data to examine the cost-benefit relationship of human cooperation in ancient populations. In his model, members of a group bearing genes for altruistic behaviour pay a "tax" by limiting their reproductive opportunities to benefit from sharing food and information, thereby increasing the average fitness of the group as well as their inter-relatedness. Bands of altruistic humans would then act together to gain resources from other groups at this challenging time in history..
Altruist theories in evolutionary biology were contested by Amotz Zahavi, the inventor of the signal theory and its correlative, the handicap principle, based mainly on his observations of the Arabian Babbler, a bird commonly known for its surprising (alleged) altruistic behaviours.

Altruism and religion

Most, if not all, of the world's religions promote altruism as a very important moral value. Christianity, Buddhism , and Sikhism place particular emphasis on altruistic morality, as noted above, but Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and many other religions also promote altruistic behavior. Altruism was central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. From biblical to medieval Christian traditions, tensions between self-affirmation and other-regard were sometimes discussed under the heading of "disinterested love," as in the Pauline phrase "love seeks not its own interests." In his book Indoctrination and Self-deception, Roderick Hindery tries to shed light on these tensions by contrasting them with impostors of authentic self-affirmation and altruism, by analysis of other-regard within creative individuation of the self, and by contrasting love for the few with love for the many. If love, which confirms others in their freedom, shuns propagandas and masks, assurance of its presence is ultimately confirmed not by mere declarations from others, but by each person's experience and practice from within. As in practical arts, the presence and meaning of love become validated and grasped not by words and reflections alone, but in the doing.
Though it might seem obvious that altruism is central to the teachings of Jesus, one important and influential strand of Christianity would qualify this. St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, I:II Quaestion 26, Article 4 states that we should love ourselves more than our neighbour. His interpretation of the Pauline phrase is that we should seek the common good more than the private good but this is because the common good is a more desirable good for the individual. 'You should love your neighbour as yourself' from Leviticus 19 and Matthew 22 is interpreted by St Thomas as meaning that love for ourself is the exemplar of love for others. He does think though, that we should love God more than ourselves and our neighbour, taken as an entirety, more than our bodily life, since the ultimate purpose of love of our neighbour is to share in eternal beatitude, a more desirable thing than bodily well being. Comte was probably opposing this Thomistic doctrine, now part of mainstream Catholicism, in coining the word Altruism, as stated above.


Altruism is essential to the Sikh religion. In the late 1600s, Guru Gobind Singh Ji (the tenth guru in Sikhism), was in war with the Moghul rulers to protect the people of different faiths, when a fellow Sikh, Bhai Kanhaiya, attended the troops of the enemy. He gave water to the injured, which revived their strength. Some of them began to fight again and seemed to cause problems to the Sikh warriors. Sikh soldiers brought Bhai Kanhaiya before the Guru, and complained of his action that they considered counterproductive to their struggle on the battlefield. "What were you doing, and why?" asked the Guru. "I was giving water to the wounded because I saw your face in them," replied Bhai Kanhaiya. The Guru responded, "Then you should also give them ointment to heal their wounds. You were practicing what you were coached in the house of the Guru." In love of altruism, is there any room for hatred or duality?
It was under the tutelage of the Guru that Bhai Kanhaiya subsequently founded a volunteer corps for altruism. This volunteer corps till to date is engaged in doing good to others and trains new volunteering recruits for doing the same.
It is claimed by some Sikhs that Bhai Kanhaiya's successors who continued the tradition of serving others and who committed their lives to service of the sick and wounded lived longer than usual life spans. Bhai Kanhaiya’s successors were not related genetically in order to account for their exceptional longevity. Rather they were volunteers from the Sikh organizations who committed their lives to serve the sick; first they did it themselves and then they recruited others to do the same. All of them defied the recorded longevity norms of the time for a long span of over three centuries.
Longevity is determined by many factors, freedom from disease and stress are two such factors. The altruists were certainly observed to live calm and tranquil lives. For Sikhs, altruism was made an act of faith by their founders.

See also



External links

selflessness in Arabic: الإيثار
selflessness in Bulgarian: Алтруизъм
selflessness in Czech: Altruismus
selflessness in Danish: Altruisme
selflessness in German: Altruismus
selflessness in Estonian: Altruism
selflessness in Spanish: Altruísmo
selflessness in French: Altruisme
selflessness in Croatian: Altruizam
selflessness in Indonesian: Altruisme
selflessness in Italian: Altruismo
selflessness in Hebrew: זולתנות
selflessness in Lithuanian: Altruizmas
selflessness in Hungarian: Altruizmus
selflessness in Malay (macrolanguage): Altruisme
selflessness in Dutch: Altruïsme
selflessness in Japanese: 奉仕
selflessness in Norwegian: Altruisme
selflessness in Norwegian Nynorsk: Altruisme
selflessness in Polish: Altruizm
selflessness in Portuguese: Altruísmo
selflessness in Russian: Альтруизм
selflessness in Slovak: Altruizmus
selflessness in Slovenian: Altruizem
selflessness in Serbian: Алтруизам
selflessness in Finnish: Altruismi
selflessness in Swedish: Altruism
selflessness in Turkish: Diğerkâmlık
selflessness in Ukrainian: Альтруїзм
selflessness in Chinese: 利他主义

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Olympian detachment, altruism, commitment, consecration, dedication, detachment, devotion, disinterest, disinterestedness, dispassion, dispassionateness, humility, impartiality, loftiness, modesty, neutrality, sacrifice, self-abasement, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-devotion, self-effacement, self-forgetfulness, self-immolation, self-neglect, self-neglectfulness, self-renouncement, self-sacrifice, self-subjection, unacquisitiveness, unbias, unbiasedness, unpossessiveness, unselfishness
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