Why is Altruism the default standard of moral and ethical philosophy?



Altruism seems to be the assumed default basis of all proper moral and ethical philosophy. Why is this? Are there any alternative bases for a standard of ethics and morality that might be considered?

Also, the nature of Altruism appears to be absurd without postulating the existence of god - a conclusion which I view as not only false but as potentially harmful (and definitely untenable philosophically).

quaestio e responsum

Posted 2018-03-05T20:41:43.703

Reputation: 109

Hi, welcome to Philosophy SE. Please visit our Help Center to see what questions we answer and how to ask. How did you arrive at the idea that "altruism seems to be the assumed default"? Utilitarianism, which is a popular ethical stance, certainly does not assume it so.

– Conifold – 2018-03-05T21:01:25.233

1Utilitarianism does not have the breadth of reference in the literature and modern discussions of moral and ethical philosophy. Yes, elements of Utilitarianism are employed when discussing particular moral questions, but Altruism wins the day. This has been true in both my personal experience as a student and as an avid consumer of content (viz. written, audio, and video). – quaestio e responsum – 2018-03-05T21:55:36.407

2@Conifold how does utilitarianism (Mill aside) not have altruism at its core? If you didn't already think altruism was good I struggle to understand how you would ever come to think that the greatest good is the greatest good for the greatest number. – Canyon – 2018-03-05T22:56:33.173

1@Canyon Maximizing "well-being" can be based on purely pragmatic considerations, including selfish ones, without any concern for others per se. – Conifold – 2018-03-05T23:51:44.740

Your point about God is not convincing but I'd say there is some sense in it. The point is that biology cannot explain altruism,because it has no metaphysical theory to allow an explanation. Schopenhauer explains it as the 'breakthrough of a metaphysical truth' - which links up with your comment about God but does not require Him to be in the picture since there are other metaphysical views that would explain altruism. . (I don;t know what it means to say 'altruism is the basis of ethical philosophy'. It has to explained by philosophy.but seems not to be the basis of anything.) – None – 2018-03-06T13:41:57.163

@quaestio e responsum: "Utilitarianism does not have the breadth of reference in the literature and modern discussions of moral and ethical philosophy" What? How an Earth have you come to that conclusion? Peter Singer is one of, maybe the, most influential living moral philosopher, and a utilitarian. Mill's thought would have to be covered by any introduction to moral philosophy. – CriglCragl – 2018-03-06T14:53:22.150

@CriglCragl - Okay, if we are discussing how famous or popular exponents of theories are, then I suppose Peter Singer can outweigh the breadth of literature which preceded him. And, yes, I read Mill and discussed his creative application(s) of Utilitarianism over the "hedonistic calculus" of Bentham. Yes, yes, double yes. But in point of fact, I was referring to the literature, not how famous the exponents of Utilitarianism currently were. Why only mention Singer or Mill? Why not Kant who preceded Mill? What about John Rawls, a Kantian altruist? Why not Alisdair McIntyre? – quaestio e responsum – 2018-03-06T16:03:50.007

And this is all assuming that Utilitarianism doesn't have some form of altruism at it's core, as mentioned above by @Canyon. I think it does also. The very concept of sacrifice for the sake of others is inherent in it. And no moral philosopher alive, including Singer I imagine, would think of a selfish pragmatist who acted in completely unchecked hedonistic self-interest as moral. – quaestio e responsum – 2018-03-06T16:04:44.433

Utilitarianism aims to base morality on rational axioms. I don't understand your apparent dismissal of utilitarianism, based on some kind of criticism of 'the literature', whatever you mean by that. – CriglCragl – 2018-03-06T17:47:05.393

Kant was certainly not a utilitarian, to him moral duty is above all, including concern for others if need be, so deontology does not fit into the "altruism" scheme either. And Rawls's "veil of ignorance" can be interpreted as creating a situation where individualists would find "altruism" to their benefit, so the "altruistic" motif here is not exactly unmixed. – Conifold – 2018-03-06T22:03:00.157

@Conifold I never intended to label Kant as a Utilitarian, nor Rawls for that matter. You misread my intention. My point is that while Peter Singer may be a popular moral philosopher and a Utilitarian, it does not mean that Utilitarianism has taken center stage in moral philosophy since one could point to Kant, McIntyre, or Rawls who are not. – quaestio e responsum – 2018-03-06T22:25:35.597



I sense that deep concerns lie behind this question, concerns only briefly intimated by the question itself. I cannot do full justice to those concerns; I can only answer the question as it stands and as seems best to me.


1 Ethical egoism is by no means a bygone and departed position in ethics if we take it to be the view that human action should - morally should - be based exclusively on overall self-interest or that everyone ought - morally ought - to concern themselves solely with their own welfare. If altruism, the requirement of altruism or regard for others, is the default position this can only be so if we exclude ethical egoism.

2 I doubt if any major ethical theory sets altruism as 'the' aim or object or sole proper concern of ethics. I'm not aware of any such major theory that denies all place to self-interest, prudence, or inculates a complete disregard for one's own wants or interests. Indeed, how could one effectively practise altruism if within limits one didn't look out for oneself ? One would be wiped away. Altruism, if I'm pressed to say, is only a matter of caring about others just as they do about themselves. It involves other-benefiting motivation. (How far this actually happens in another question.)


3 Different views can be, and are, taken of the nature of morality; but some requirement of altruism seems inbuilt into ordinary thinking, and thence ethical theorising, about morality. Morality is essentially inter-personal; and its norms involve concern for others to the extent of, at least on occasion if not regularly, wanting to benefit others and checking the pursuit of self-interest. For the most part this just is the kind of social institution it is.

4 In this account of morality I cast a wary eye on Kant but Kant's ethical theory certainly imposes checks on self-interest through the constraints set by the categorical imperative in its various formulations. It also does not rule out wanting to benefit others and acting accordingly unless one takes Kant to exclude all emotional engagement from moral agency. (I express a view but will defer to Kantian scholars.)


'Altruism appears to be absurd without postulating the existence of god'.

5 I can't see any necessary connexion between altruism and belief in the existence of God. Why can't altruism be open, at least to some extent, to evolutionary explanation ? Altruism is a form of co-operation; and co-operation is a robust survival strategy for groups. This could make a capacity or disposition to co-operate a part of our genetic inheritance. No God even hovers on the margins here.

6 I also can't see how, if we were believers and discovered that God did not exist, or were atheists and discovered that God did exist, it should logically affect our moral attitude to altruism one way or the other. (Cf. Steven L. Ross, 'Another Look at God and Morality', Ethics, Vol. 94, No. 1 (Oct., 1983), p.87.) If it logically should affect our moral attitude, I would like to see a supporting argument.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2018-03-05T20:41:43.703

Reputation: 34 276

1"how could one effectively practise altruism if within limits one didn't look out for oneself?" Utilitarianism does this. The greatest good for the greatest number demands sacrificing oneself for others, if net benefit will result. Most ethical schema advocate or demand risking life for others, under certain conditions – CriglCragl – 2018-03-06T14:43:52.700

1I don't disagree but I was thinking of a situation in which, say, I could not help the homeless unless I kept myself in a sufficiently sound condition to do so. It was an embedded, contextual statement : the context was the claim no major ethical theory denies all place to self-interest, prudence, or inculates a complete disregard for one's own wants or interests. Utilitarianism is no exception to this statement. . That utilitarian can require me to sacrifice myself on some occasion does not entail, which is all I claimed, that it denies all place to self-interest or prudence. – Geoffrey Thomas – 2018-03-06T15:32:04.457


The other answers given so far show examples of non-altruistic foundations of ethics. But your question asks for something much more interesting: why is altruism the default? And the place to go for this is Nietzsche. Not necessarily because he is right, but because his thoughts on the matter are the most original and the deepest.

On the Genealogy of Morals can be read as a straightforward answer to this question---how did we get where we are? (You could also look for metaphysical or epistemological insights, or philosophy of action, or psychology, or...) And his answer is pretty straightforward.

His task is to show the origins of the altruistic impulse, so if he posited that they were just basic parts of humanity he would not really be doing his job. (Besides, this is not plausible, as he shows in OGM 2:3 and 2:4; we used to be far crueler than we are now.) He examines a hypothesis popular in his own time, that morality grew from the recipients of kind acts calling them good, and finds it lacking. It does not correspond the the actual traits of early morality, and it is implausible the strong sorts, the ones doing the good acts, would want or need the praise of the weak. Instead it originally came about as

'[T]he good' themselves, meaning the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good, I mean first rate...

(OGM 1:2). A picture I always found useful was of a very strong man picking up a rock, noticing how heavy it was, noticing he could pick it up anyway, and saying, in a caveman grunt, "Hah. Nice."

Nietzsche sets up an opposition between essentially these primitive higher types, or masters, and those they subjugated, their slaves, who were forced to be creative to survive. (This is doing a great deal of injustice to his account; you should read the book.) The higher types were a lot like lions or birds of prey---neither of which are noted for their altruism. Altruism came about because while

[A]ll noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying 'yes' to itself, slave morality says 'no' on principle to everything that is 'outside', 'other'...

(OGM 1:10) which manifests as follows:

There is nothing strange about the fact that lambs bear a grudge towards large birds of prey... [T]he lambs say to each other, 'These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey and most like its opposite, a lamb,---is good, isn't he?'

(OGM 1:13). The triumph of slave morality came about when Christianity conquered the west---Christians being the inventors of slave morality. (Actually here Nietzsche says Jews but he's pretty clearly not talking about actual Jews; he has nothing but praise for the Old Testament.) This is probably the weakest part of the argument and some later commentators take the slaves' revolt in morality as either semi-mythical or tied to capitalism.

Now unless you are already inclined in a Nietzschean direction this should all seem pretty implausible. So much of his argument depends on how it all hangs together as a coherent story, and I cannot present very much of the story here at all. So I'll leave you with a motivating example:

The praise of the selfless... is certainly not born out of the spirit of selflessness! The 'neighbor'praises selflessness because it brings him advantages! If the neighbour himself thought 'selflessly', he would reject this decrease in strength, this harm for his benefit...

(The Gay Science 1:21). This might seem to be in conflict with the earlier discussion of good as not originally coming from the recipients of good acts, but it is not. This is not supposed to be the origin of good overall; good as a concept already existed. It was co-opted for this purpose.


Posted 2018-03-05T20:41:43.703

Reputation: 1 914

+1 However, the word "altruism" has origins with Comte in the 19th century. It makes me think there is a history here that does not go back as far as Christianity. The idea of altruism dominating today may not have anything to do with religion. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-03-07T20:46:48.330

@FrankHubeny Yeah, I'm using it pretty loosely here to generally represent the idea of the good will as the will towards the good of others, feelings of obligation to others by virtue of their existence as others, and so on – Canyon – 2018-03-08T21:39:48.163


Arne Naess put forth his concept of the Ecological Self. He defined the Ecological Self to be "that with which the self relates to." If you hear two cats fighting, fur flying, and you feel sorry for them, then they are considered to be part of your Ecological Self.

In defining the Ecological Self thus, he provided a way to reframe altruism as selfishness. In his essays, he argued that we could think of Mother Theresa as a highly selfish person, but her self (her Ecological Self) was so wide and all encompassing that it felt as though she was altruistic instead.

Cort Ammon

Posted 2018-03-05T20:41:43.703

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Hobbes and others like Ayn Rand saw humanity as essentially selfish & greedy.

Your question is vague. Altruism is a 19th C. word, so philosophers before then were using other words. So what about altruism are you pointing at? Self-sacrifice? Focusing endeavor on community benefit? Not, just being selfish greedy and impulsive?

EO Wilson and others have developed the concept of eusociality. It is the mechanism of benefit behind evolution of hive behaviour in insects, and community arranged breeding in meerkats, wolves and others. And primates, especially those that like humans raise their young in creches - lemurs though less intelligent than chimpanzees are found to learn more quickly from each other, and have more mirror neurons. Basically eusociality describes the point where advancing the genepool of relatives becomes worth sacrificing individuals breeding chances for. The macro-organism point which micro-organisms like slime moulds crossed, on the way to forming multicellular organisms.

We rely for the key benefits of being human, not just on parental care, but wider community. Cooking, sewing & weaving, farming, metalwork, all require knowledge and resources to be developed and shared communally. Evolving biological and social mechanisms to curb our tendencies towards laziness ignorance and violence, has been essential to this. We are still just animals though, with much more to do

Edit to add: Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer talks about, especially in 'The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress', how interest and concern about the well-being of others can arise evolutionarily in kin-selectiin, but still rationally demand our conscious commitment to expanding that circle, and in challenging our tendency to only help those we know, in our country, or in a condition or situation we have experience of - a legacy of kin-selection we allow to colour our thinking too much. You can get a flavour of this from his TED talk on the subject: https://www.ted.com/talks/peter_singer_the_why_and_how_of_effective_altruism/up-next


Posted 2018-03-05T20:41:43.703

Reputation: 5 272

+1 Good point about the word "altruism" originating in the 19th century. I think it was created by Auguste Comte. Altruism and selfishness as ideas seem to go hand in hand with societies being reducible to individuals. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-03-06T18:06:50.260

Rand said selfishness is a virtue, not that people actually practice that virtue. – alanf – 2018-03-07T08:26:45.397