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How could an understanding of altruism help to increase human helping behavior?

Is altruism becoming an outdated principle in this harshly competitive world we are living in? As
researchers have noticed, individuals became less inclined to help people in need, especially in
urban areas. The bigger the number of bystanders, the smaller the chance that anyone would
react in case of an emergency. Of course, we cannot blame urbanization alone for our apathy,
indifference or lack of time; neither can we return to an idyllic country life. But we can dive from
time to time into our selves, looking for the archetype of humanity. We may find a reservoir of
patience, understanding, care and love.
This is an essay about altruism and in it I will try to present, briefly, the origins of altruism,
outline the main ideas concerning the altruism-morality debate and present the empathy-altruism
hypothesis. Finally, I will look for a possible answer to the question How (...) to increase human
helping behavior.
Altruism was defined as behaviors that promote the welfare of other living creatures.
Regarding its origins, C. Daniel Batson believes that they lie at least in part in the nurturing
impulse of human parents to care for their young. According to Batson, this impulse has been
strongly selected for within our evolutionary history. Without it, our species would have
vanished long ago.
Perhaps because altruism based on nurturance is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our
lives, is so common place and so natural, its importance has failed to be recognized1.
Batson thinks that perception of another as in need may be a uniquely human skill. Some
primatologists believe they see evidence of empathy and altruism among at least some primate
species other than humans. (Darwin, who was a great lover of dogs, thought that he could see
such sensitivity when a dog gently licks the face of an injured master or an ailing canine
However, careful examination of existing evidence shows that even the most fascinating
examples of nonhuman response to another in need fail to provide clear awareness that the other
is in need let alone empathic emotion and altruistic motivation.
Sober and Wilson (1998) distinguish evolutionary altruism from psychological altruism.
Evolutionary altruism refers to behavior by one organism that reduces its reproductive fitness
its potential to transmit its genes to the next generation relative to the reproductive fitness of
one or more organisms. (Moreover Darwin recognized that altruistic behavior posed a problem
for his theory: if an organism acts altruistically, it may decrease its own reproductive
1 Batson, Daniel C. Altruism in Humans, Oxford University Press, 2011
2 Ibidem, p.39

fitness/survival). Psychological altruism refers to a motivational state with the ultimate goal of
increasing anothers welfare. Sober and Wilson pointed out that there is no necessary connection
between these two concepts. Evolutionary altruism is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce
psychological altruism.
Unfortunately, evolutionary biologists, as well as comparative psychologists, were not always
concerned whether the helping behavior was inspired by an egoistic motivation or an altruistic
Altruism and morality
The link between altruism and morality appears to be based on the juxtaposition of each to selfinterest, often equated with selfishness and considered to be the epitome of immorality. Scottish
philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith considered altruistic motivation as moral, because
altruism is not self interest, while Immanuel Kant believes it is amoral. Kant considers that
altruistic emotions do not have the generality or universality required by morality. Thus, they
involve particularity. They are not based on principle. I might feel compassion for A, but not
feel it for B, though As and Bs situations are entirely analogous 3. The moral point of view
involves impartiality regarding the interests of all, including oneself. It involves abstracting from
ones own interests and ones particular attachment to others. He states that to be moral is to
respect others as having equal value to oneself, and as having an equal right to pursue their own
interests, but not our own particular interests, desires, emotions or attachments. Morality
according to Kant - has primarily to do with obligation, with action we are morally bound to
perform. It involves self-control and the moral motive must not depend on our changing moods.
Unlike morality, Kans says, emotions including altruistic emotions are transitory, changeable,
and capricious.
On the contrary, Laurence A. Blum says that altruistic emotions are not like changeable moods,
such as good-spirits and exuberance, which might on occasion lead to acts of beneficence.
Acting from altruistic emotion is not characteristically acting on impulse or impulsivity,
nor is acting on inclination or doing what one is in the mood to do. Altruistic emotions must
be distinguished from some other-regarding sentiments (such as well-wishing), which involve
weaker dispositions to act beneficently and which aim at less significant aspects of a person
good than do altruistic emotions.4
Altruistic emotions are intentional and take as their objects other persons in light of their weal
and, especially, their woe. Sympathy, compassion, or concern are directed towards others in
3 Blum, Laurence, Friendship, Altruism and Morality, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd,
1980, p.2
4 Ibidem, p. 4

virtue of their suffering, misery, pain, travail. And so the altruistic emotions have a cognitive
dimension: the subject of the emotion must regard the object as being in a certain state (e.g., of
suffering). But the cognitive dimension is not sufficient for an altruistic emotion to be present,
for someone could believe that another is suffering yet not be roused to compassion or sympathy
for him. The subject must be affected by the plight of the other, and so there must also be an
affective dimension to altruistic emotions, which are more than passive feeling-states. They
involve an active, motivational aspect as well, relating to the promotion of beneficent acts aimed
at helping the other person. Blum emphasizes that there must be a connection between the
altruistic emotions and beneficent action, since prominent traditions in moral psychology have
pictured emotions purely as states of passively being affected by something. Altruistic
emotions are both affective and conative.
Hume also states that, given the weakness of sympathy in contrast to self-interest, moral
considerations alone are by no means decisive.5 He thinks that a given desire provides one with a
motivation to do, and it applies only if one is subject to that desire.
In his Theory of altruistic motivation, Batson stresses that empathic concern (felt when another
is perceived to be in need) produces altruistic motivation. He eliminates the approach which
defines altruism in a way that includes benefiting another as a means to benefit oneself. He
disapproves, as well, the alternative suggested by some psychologists, who define the altruism as
a motivation to benefit another as a means to reduce ones own distress caused by witnessing the
others distress.
In some circumstances human beings experience others as we, not as they. When this
happens, bonds exist that permit one persons plight to become a source of tension for his or her
fellows. Seeking relief, they reduce this tension by aiding a fellow we-grouper... Self-interest is
served and tension is reduced when one acts on the others behalf. (Hornstein, 1978, p. 189)6.
But, as Batson states, according to arousal-reduction approaches, the potential helpers ultimate
goal is to reduce his or her own unpleasant arousal or tension. Increasing welfare is simply an
instrumental means to reach this egoistic goal. None refers to altruistic motivation produced by
empathic concern.
The empathy-altruism hypothesis states that feeling other-oriented emotion elicited by and
congruent with the perceived welfare of another person in need (i.e. empathic concern)
produces a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing that persons welfare by
having the empathy-inducing need removed (i.e. altruistic motivation). The more empathy
felt for the person in need, the more motivation to have to remove it. The hypothesis does not
5 Nagel, Thomas, The possibility of altruism, Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 10
6 Batson, Daniel C. Altruism in Humans, Oxford University Press, 2011

claim that empathic concern is the only source of altruistic motivation. Rather, it claims that
empathic concern is a source of altruistic motivation, remaining agnostic about other sources.
In order to explain why empathic concern produces altruistic motivation, Batson points out the
relationship between emotion and motivation, especially goal-directed motivation. He says that
emotions and motives employ, in part, the same psychology, that is, many of the neurological and
somatic systems involved in the experience of emotion are also involved in the arousal of the
organism for activity to address needs. As a result, the psychological arousal component of an
emotion can increase the intensity of goal-directed motivation to eliminate the perceived
need. It might be said that emotions help turn potential energy (potential motivation) into
kinetic energy (actual motivation). That is probably why some used to say that love can move
He emphasized the difference between need-state emotions that amplify motivation and end-state
emotions that arise when we either obtained or have lost a valued state, such as happiness or
sadness. End-state emotions serve the information function, but do not amplify goal-directed
These two functions of emotions are found in the empathy-altruism relationship. First, the
definition of empathic concern as other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the
perceived welfare of a person in need reflects the information function of this state-need
emotion. The strength of ones empathic concern provides information about the amount of value
one places on the others welfare specifically, on having the others need removed. Second, the
definition of altruism as a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing anothers
welfare reflects the amplification function. Empathic concern activates the desire to reach the
goal of eliminating the perceived need of the person for whom the empathy is felt. That is,
empathic concern produces altruistic motivation.
In everyday life two conditions seem to be necessary to feel empathic concern: 1. perceiving the
other as in need and 2. valuing the others welfare.
Perception of need seems to be a threshold function of two situational factors. First, the
discrepancy (real or apparent) between what is and what is desirable must be noticed. Second,
attention must be focused on the person in need, not on the self or some other aspect of the
situation. Both of these conditions must be simultaneously be satisfied to perceive anothers
need. Additional factors may also facilitate perception of need in ambiguous situations. One such
factor is imagining yourself in others shoes.
Clearly, empathy induced altruism is not the only motive for helping. One can help to gain
rewards, avoid punishments, or reduce ones own distress caused by witnessing anothers
distress. But Batson suggests that empathy-induced altruistic motivation can produce more
sensitive, and less fickle help than egoistic motives. According to him, it is a more pervasive

and powerful force in our lives than has been recognized. It can be an important positive force in
human affairs as well.
Unlike people feeling little empathic concern, empathically aroused individuals feel bad if their
own or another persons helping effort does not succeed, even when they can in no way be
blamed for the ineffectiveness. Capitalizing on this distinction, economists have used concern for
the effectiveness of ones help to differentiate egoistic and altruistic motives for contributing
charities. Empathy-induced altruism is directed toward what is good for the targets of empathy,
not toward a display of ones own goodness7.
Empathy-induced altruism offers benefits in the form of more and more sensitive help for those
in need, less aggression, increased cooperation in competitive situations. Researchers suggest
that empathic concern may have both of these effects on negotiations: promoting one to give
ground and creating a more positive environment that may, in the long run, produce a better
outcome for all. It might even save lives.
In addition, empathy-induced altruism improved attitudes toward and more action on behalf of
stigmatized groups, and more positive close relationships. It may also provide health benefits to
the altruistic helper.
However, empathy-induced altruism is not always a force for good. To use its power wisely, we
need to be aware of not only of the potential benefits, but also of potential liabilities. Empathyinduced altruism can, at times, harm those in need, and it can be overridden by self-concern.
Under certain conditions, people are motivated to avoid feeling empathic concern in order to
avoid the altruistic motivation it produces. Many important societal needs do not evoke empathic
concern, at least not easily or directly. Empathy-induced altruistic motivation can lead one to act
in ways that violate ones own moral principles and undermine the collective good. It can also be
harmful to ones health sometimes even fatal. These benefits and liabilities need to be taken
into account in any attempt to make use of empathy-induced altruism to promote human welfare.
Batson believes that, if humans are capable of extending intrinsic value beyond themselves to
care about the welfare of others, the dogma of universal egoism that has dominated thinking in
the behavioral and social science, especially in psychology and economics, must give way to a
pluralism of prosocial motives that includes altruism.
On the other hand, some of Batsons hopes and ideas might seem too optimistic when they are
confronted with the reality we are living in. After Kitty Genoves was murdered in New York,
while thirty-eight of her neighbors were passively watching trough the window, psychologists
had to admit that our society has become dehumanized as it has become urbanized 8. In
agglomerations, people start feeling less responsible (diffusion of responsibility) of others needs
and gradually become indifferent, apathetic, individualistic, selfish. This observation reminds of
7 Batson, Daniel C. Altruism in Humans, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 164

one old prophecy, according to which the world will end when there is no footpath left from one
neighbor to another.
But how to stop or at least delay this apocalypse? Maybe simply building footpaths, maintaining
them. Offering and asking for small things, communicating with people arround, volunteering to
help those in need could be exercises which prepare individuals to act properly, to offer their help
when emergencies arise. Kknowledge acquisition alone, theories and explanations are clearly
not enough become to develop altruism. One can refine his spirit by reading Philosophy, Ethics
and Psychology, but in order to become altruistic, to be able to renounce on oneself (to offer to
those in need our time, wealth, care, attention), the enlargement of the heart is needed. This is
a lifelong exercise. The ultimate goal and the most difficult, if not impossible, to achieve is to
be altruistic even with the enemies. That is to love them. In this respect, Romanian philosopher
Constantin Noica criticized often cited expression Don't do to others what you don't want done
to you, pleading for a more altruistic one: "Do so to others, as you wish they do to you."

Batson, Daniel C. Altruism in Humans, Oxford University Press, 2011
Blum, Laurence, Friendship, Altruism and Morality, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1980
Nagel, Thomas, The possibility of altruism, Princeton University Press, 1978
Macaulay, J., Berkowitz, L. Altruism and Helping Behavior, Academic Press New York, 1970
Archimandrite Zacharias, The enlargement of the heart, Mount Tabor Publishing, 2006

8 Macaulay, J., Berkowitz, L. Altruism and Helping Behavior, Academic Press New
York, 1970