Altruism is a concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of 'others' toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness.
This inner sense of security helps to explain why in many emergencies some parents focus first on their children's safety even if it means putting themselves in harm's way. With this theoretical analysis in mind, we began a program of research on attachment, compassion, and altruism. Our main hypothesis was that people who are dispositionally secure, or whose level of security has been contextually enhanced (e.g., by experimental manipulations, such as reading a story about a supportive person), would be more likely than relatively insecure people to empathize with and provide care for others.
In spite of these comments from two founders of sociology and economics, for a long time it was intelectually unacceptable to raise the question of whether "true" altruism could exist. Whether one spoke to a biologist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a sociologist, an economist, or a political scientist the answer was the same: Anything that appears to be motivated by a concern for someone else's needs will, under close scrutiny, prove to have ulterior selfish motives.
In particular, I examine a specific type of altruism: protecting the environment for future generations. Information on the life expectancy of individual respondents is used to determine the present value of benefits from an environmental project that they can expect to receive in their lifetime.
Past research suggests that individuals are more generous when observed (e.g. Milinski et al. 2002a; Barclay 2004; Hardy & Van Vugt 2006), but this type of display is not necessarily competitive, in that individuals may strive for a 'good' reputation without actually competing for a better reputation than others. Competitive altruism occurs when people go beyond attempting to merely appear generous and instead actively try to be more altruistic than one another, and this has yet to be unambiguously demonstrated.
Subjects in the laboratory frequently engage in altruism, bearing a personal cost to improve the welfare of others (Andreoni and Miller 2002; Camerer 2003; Kagel and Roth 1995). These findings are remarkably robust to a number of manipulations, and they suggest that models of human behavior should include an altruism component.
One mechanism that can lead to the evolution of altruism is group selection. Essentially, group selection is just natural selection acting on differences in the genetic composition of groups. Natural selection on genetic composition can be effective only if there is sufficient genetic variation among the objects of selection (Darwin 1859; Fisher 1930).
Matrilateral aunts and uncles are predicted to invest more in nieces and nephews than patrilateral aunts and uncles. The laterality and sex-of-investor biases have been documented (Gaulin et al. 1997; McBurney et al. 2002). Because investment in kin of the next generation constitutes just one form of kin altruism, the logic of differential altruism as a function of differential paternity uncertainty should extend to investment patterns among cousins.
According to the Aristotelian position, for example, "not only is altruism or sharing virtuous, but such moral virtue is also the development of human nature, not merely a conventional restraint on individual pleasure or gain" (Masters, 1978b:61). Rosseau and Kant are among Modern philosophers who carry forward the tradition of supporting the possibility of altruism, though in quite distinctive ways. Despite the multitude of philosophic propositions associated with the defense of a "naturalistic" egoism on the one hand and altruism on the other, one point about which theorists agree is the centrality of the issue of altruism/egoism for the study of politics.
Altruistic individuals fail to internalize all externalities, so that private decisions may lead to a suboptimal outcome. This result is at variance with the standard view of altruism in growth models in which altruism achieves a Pareto-efficient allocation of resources across generations in the absence of externalities. However, the allocation of resources across generations as well the quality of the environment hinge on whether or not agents are altruistically linked.
It is clear from kin-selection theory that altruism should evolve more readily in those animals that can accurately identify kin and direct their altruistic acts exclusively towards them. However, most recognition systems have some degree of error, and kin recognition is no exception (Keller 1997; Sherman et al. 1997).