Altruism is sometimes defined very broadly so that it refers to all human behavior not motivated by the self-interest of the agent. In this use of the term, human actions are either egoistic or altruistic—there is no third alternative. However, such a broad definition may not be very useful. One reason is that many human actions have mixed motives—one acts in a way that benefits other people, but does so partly because one expects benefits in return, if not immediately, then at some time in the future. Such behavior is sometimes described as reciprocal altruism: It is not motivated just by self-interest, but neither is it pure altruism whereby the only concern is the interests or well-being of the recipient.
Another reason for narrowing the definition of altruism is that one may want to exclude actions that are motivated by respect for agreements, rules, social expectations, and so forth, even when their motivation is unselfish. One would not normally describe keeping a promise or fulfilling the requirements of a job as altruistic. This suggests that altruism is best understood as describing actions which are (1) intended to meet the needs or promote the welfare of people other than the agent and (2) not actions that the agent must perform by virtue of the rules and institutions to which he or she is subject.
Many everyday examples of altruism involve actions that deliver small benefits at little cost to the person who performs them—for example, helping an elderly person across the road, or taking time to give directions to a stranger who has lost his way. But more interesting issues arise when the benefit is much greater, but so, correspondingly, is the potential cost—for example, rescuing someone whose life is in peril, with the rescuer also running the risk of death or serious injury. Here, one encounters the paradox that the altruistic agent may believe and state that he had no choice but to carry out the rescue, whereas a third-party spectator would say that it was up to the agent whether to attempt the rescue or not—he was under no obligation to do so. How is one to understand this contrast between the agent's perspective and the spectator's?
A relevant observation here is that in many cases in which altruism is needed, a surplus of potential agents exists. Empirical studies have shown that when someone requires help, increasing the number of potential helpers diminishes the likelihood that any single person will intervene. No one is individually responsible for the plight of the victim, and so no one feels under an obligation to act. If some individuals do choose to intervene, however, then by the same token they have chosen to make themselves responsible, and will see the altruistic action as one that they are required to perform. But they will not blame others who made a different choice.
One might think that some people are simply altruistic by nature while others are not, and attempts have thus been made—for example, in the case of those who sheltered Jews from the Nazis, a paradigm example of an altruistic act with a potentially high cost—to identify the worldview of those who helped. But although personality must play some part in explaining altruistic behavior, the contingency of being selected as the responsible agent is also an important factor. A study of people who rescued Jews from the Holocaust highlighted the importance of being asked by an intermediary to shelter a Jew (Varese and Yaish, 2000). This takes one back to the idea of personal responsibility. Sometimes, people who behave altruistically do so because they are the only ones able to help—the responsibility is theirs by the very nature of the situation. But more often there are many potential helpers, and then what matters is whether someone is selected as the person to assume responsibility—either because she makes this choice herself, or because someone else, the person in need or a third party, asks her to act. Tragedies can occur when this mechanism breaks down: Many people would be willing to act if asked, but because responsibility is diffused, nobody in fact intervenes.
Altruism is a vital component of a good society precisely because one cannot anticipate all the occasions on which people may need to be helped, and therefore cannot formally assign duties to help. Examples of heroic altruism abound; so do cases in which altruism fails because people do not regard themselves as having responsibility for the problem they confront. Humans need to find better ways of sharing the burden of altruism so that everyone helps sometimes, and no one is required to sacrifice himself completely to altruistic causes.
Latané, Bibb, and John M. Darley (1970). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Miller, David (2002). "'Are They My Poor?' The Problem of Altruism in a World of Strangers." Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 5(4):106–127.
Miller, Fred D., Ellen F. Paul, and Jeffrey Paul, eds. (1993). Altruism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Monroe, Kristen R. (1996). The Heart of Altruism: Perceptions of a Common Humanity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Varese, Frederico, and Meir Yaish (2000). "The Importance of Being Asked: The Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe." Rationality and Society 12:307–334.