Friday, October 12, 2018


In common language, we think of altruism as self-less actions that benefit others. In psychology, the concept of altruism has been studied for decades. 

Not surprisingly, researchers have looked at the benefits to the person acting altruistically as if such benefits might undermine the concept of altruism.

One scientist who is known for extensive study of altruism is Batson. Batson was skeptical of the concept of altruism but his experimental work changed his mind. Following is his definition (Batson, 2010).

By altruism I mean a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing
another's welfare. Altruism is juxtaposed to egoism, a motivational
state with the ultimate goal of increasing one's own welfare. I use the term
ultimate here to refer to means-end relations, not to a metaphysical first or
final cause. An ultimate goal is an end in itself. In contrast, an instrumental
goal is a stepping stone on the way to reaching an ultimate goal. If a barrier to
reaching an instrumental goal arises, then alternative routes to the ultimate
goal will be sought. Should the ultimate goal be reached while bypassing the
instrumental goal, the motivational force will disappear. If a goal is ultimate,
it cannot be bypassed in this way (Lewin, 1938). Both instrumental and ultimate
goals should be distinguished from unintended consequences, results of
an action—foreseen or unforeseen—that are not the goal of the action. Each
ultimate goal defines a distinct goal-directed motive. Hence, altruism and
egoism are distinct motives, even though they can co-occur (p. 16).

 Not all scholars agree with Batson. There is a problem of understanding human motivation thus, some have focused on helping behavior. A value of Batson's approach is the focus on motivation and the psychological understanding of goal-directed behavior. I appreciate his understanding of self-benefits, which may be due to unintended consequences or even the possibility that altruism and egoism may both be present.

Finally, I should point out that altruism research overlaps with studies of generosity. You will see online sources where generosity and altruism are synonyms (e.g., Oxford, 2018).

Read more about generosity and altruism in Chapter 3 of Living Well 10 BIG IDEAS of FAITH and a MEANINGFUL LIFE available on AMAZON.

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Batson, C. D. (2010). Empathy-induced altruistic motivation. In Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature. (pp. 15–34). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 


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