Altruism is engaging in an act that helps another person without regard to rewards or benefits to self.
It involves doing something to help a person in distress that does not directly benefit yourself.
People have engaged in altruistic acts since the beginning of civilization, probably even sooner than that. Even if there is no obvious benefit to the person being altruistic, from an evolutionary perspective, it helps the survival of the species.
Acts of altruism can take many forms, from a simple gesture of goodwill such as helping a neighbor, to extreme acts of sacrifice such as putting your life on the line to save others.
Definition of Altruism
Auguste Comte, a French philosopher and sociologist, is given credit as being the first to use the term altruisme, derived from Latin alter, “other”.
There are at least four types of altruism:
- Nepotistic altruism is often called genetic altruism because it involves helping others that we are genetically linked to, such as relatives.
- Reciprocal altruism is when we help others because we think they might return the favor.
- Group-based altruism involves helping people that are in our same social group.
- Moral altruism is the purest form of altruism because it is based on a moral obligation to help others, even at the expense of our own self-interests.
Examples of Altruism
1. Volunteering in a Dog Shelter
Doing volunteer work in a dog shelter takes a big heart. It’s like seeing one of the worst sides of society on a daily basis and when dogs go unadopted, it can be heartbreaking.
Nothing tugs at the heart like the sight of an abandoned pet. Unfortunately, it is a big problem in a lot of cities. Fortunately, many dogs that get abandoned find their way into a shelter. There they will be cared for everyday until someone adopts them.
There are no financial rewards for this kind of volunteer work and the emotional toll can be hard to take day in and day out. The people that volunteer in dog shelters do it because they want to help, without regard to rewards or benefits to themselves.
2. Joining the Peace Corps
Joining the Peace Corps is a serious endeavor. The commitment and sacrifice required are significant. For example, 3 months of training in the host country is followed by 2 years of service.
Volunteers only get 2 days off a month and receive a stipend that will enable them to live by the same standards as the citizens of the host country. In other words, it’s hard work that doesn’t pay well.
Although strictly speaking, our definition of altruism is that it is an act that involves no self-benefit, one could argue that receiving modest pay is a self-benefit. One could also argue that feeling a tremendous sense of pride in making the commitment and sacrifice to a poor country is also a self-benefit.
With that logic, then there really is no such thing as “pure altruism” because any act that helps others might give us a sense of pride.
3. Donating a Kidney
Donating a kidney can literally save a person’s life. Depending on what country you live in, this can be accomplished by filling out the necessary forms at a kidney treatment center.
This will ensure that your kidney is donated after you pass away. Or, there is also a “living donor” option that involves donating your kidney while still alive.
A quick search online will show where the center nearest you is located.
Millions of people die prematurely every year due to kidney failure. According to The Lancet, most of those deaths occur in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Dialysis treatment is costly and the people that need it the most often live in countries that have the least sufficient facilities and equipment.
4. Helping the Elderly
Helping the elderly is a true act of altruism. We may not expect any payment or to be the recipient of an award, we just do it to help someone in need. That is altruism.
As we get older, our ability to take care of ourselves and our household begins to decline. What were once simple acts become increasingly difficult.
In some cases, they may even become dangerous, such as trying to stand on a chair to change a lightbulb. Other tasks may be just impossible to carry out because the physical demands are too high, such as mowing the lawn.
Other examples of altruistic acts to help the elderly include: shoveling snow, raking the leaves, painting the house, cleaning the gutters, and driving them to and from various places.
5. Donating Old Clothes
Unfortunately, all those clothes we spent so much money on, will eventually become no longer useful. Clothes go out of fashion, become worn down from wear and tear, or sometimes our body shape changes and they no longer fit.
Whatever the reason may be, donating our old clothes is a simple act of altruism that costs us nothing, but can be a tremendous help to others that are less fortunate. Both the Goodwill and Salvation Army accept donated clothes.
These two organizations also accept most appliances, furniture, electronics, office equipment, children’s toys and playground equipment. If you have some items but are unsure if they would be accepted or not, just contact your local office. They will be glad to help.
6. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation was founded in 2000 and currently has assets of approximately $48 billion. It is the largest private philanthropic organization in the world.
According to the Gates Foundation website, the organization has spent over $53 billion since its founding in 2000, and the number of children who die each year before their fifth birthday has fallen by half.
One could be cynical and say that the founders receive a great deal of international recognition for their efforts. Therefore, perhaps they are not actually being altruistic. Our working definition includes the component that the act is without regard to self-benefit or rewards.
That’s a difficult standard to measure. We can’t actually know the true motives of any human being because there is always the possibility of self-benefit in one form or another with all acts of altruism.
7. Giving up Your Seat
Giving up your seat on the bus is an example of prosocial behavior that doesn’t benefit you at all but is done to help the sick, elderly, or pregnant.
Many countries have a good public transportation system that is used by people of all walks of life. People rely on the system for their daily commute to work and taking care of other daily needs. Usually there is at least one designated seat for people that may have a special need to sit down while riding, such as the elderly, someone injured, pregnant or carrying a baby.
If that spot is filled however, then it is up to the kindness of strangers to relinquish their spot. Even though this can be a bit of an inconvenience, it is appropriate behavior in a civilized society. It can also be considered a small gesture of altruism.
8. Donating Blood
Donating blood does little good for you as an individual. In fact, it might make you a little lightheaded for a few hours. But it’s good for your community, so many people do it.
In times of a crisis, hospitals can easily run short of supply, especially of rare blood types. Natural disasters or some other kind of catastrophic event never occur on a schedule. So, hospital staff can’t anticipate and prepare for those moments.
For this reason, blood donations are always welcome. It is a simple, harmless process that doesn’t take much time and could ultimately save someone’s life.
And of course, if you have a rare blood type, you should absolutely consider donating to your local hospital in case of emergency. That might not be the best example of pure altruism, but it is a good idea nonetheless.
9. Pro Bono Professional Services
The term “pro bono” is derived from the Latin phrase “pro bono publico”, which means “for the public good”. Today, this means providing a service to others, for free. Usually the “others” are people in need but who lack the financial resources typically required for those services.
Many law firms and other organizations either require or strongly encourage their employees to perform pro bono services, sometimes referred to as community service. It is an act of generosity to those less fortunate and for the greater good of society.
Although an employee may be required to perform pro bono work, which doesn’t quite fit our definition, it is an example of altruism at the institutional level.
10. Adopting a Child
There are some people in the world that are truly caring and compassionate human beings. They are so altruistic that they are willing to make a lifelong, daily commitment to help another human being. In this example, that involves adopting a child.
There are many children in need of adoption all over the world. The circumstances are wide-ranging and almost always heart-wrenching. But the bottom line is that the child is not responsible for their situation at all.
Fortunately, there are a lot of people in the world that seek to adopt. The process is not always easy, and sometimes prospective parents are denied. However, for many, their dream of adopting a child comes true and they are rewarded with a lifetime of joy and happiness.
11. Giving to the Homeless
We have no one compelling us to give money, food, or clothing to the homeless. Nevertheless, many of us feel the pull to provide them with sustenance when they’re in need.
Often, this is because we feel strong compassion and empathy for our fellow humans. It is hard to turn our backs, and likely, this is because we’ve been programmed for millennia to be compassionate creatures. It has an evolutionary benefit after all: helping one another will come around and make us all stronger in the end.
12. Sharing your Lunch
Even children experience altruism when they share their food with a friend who has forgotten their lunch that day. In fact, children are often remarkably altruistic.
However, even this act of altruism could be explained away in other ways.
For example, children are in a season of their lives when they’re highly conscious of the need to make friends and climb their way up the social ladder. So, sharing lunch may be a way to make friends with other children and get into their good graces.
Similarly, it could be explained away as reciprocal altruism, where a child shares their lunch in the hope that, if they don’t remember their lunch in the future, the favor will be returned.
13. Volunteering to go to War
During times when a nation is under threat, some young men and women raise their hands and volunteer to protect their homeland. Others may wait to get conscripted, or even conscientiously object to heading into battle.
These volunteers put their hands up in order to protect people they don’t even know. They’re members of what Benedict Anderson calls an imagined community, which is the phenomenon where you don’t even know everyone in your culture but you still care deeply about them.
Of course, it may be the case that these people need to take up arms because they’re selfishly protecting their own land. However, given that this context is volunteering, there is an element of altruism where people step up to help others out rather than wait to be asked to do something.
Altruism in Animals
14. Vampire Bats
While vampire bats might have an unfortunately scary name, they actually are highly compassionate creatures. They care for their sick friends and even self-sacrifice for one another.
One study found that vampire bats even regurgitate blood (that they have gathered from their pray) in order to feed sick members of their flock. They even feed other vampire bats who haven’t been sick but were unsuccessful in finding food for the day.
Interestingly, this sort of social altruism can also be explained as group-based altruism which is conducted because supporting one another creates a stronger group, which helps all individuals in the end. Thus, again, we see that altruism often has some sort of positive benefit in the long run, meaning perhaps it’s rarely truly pure altruism.
15. Dolphins Saving Humans
Another example of altruism in animals is that of dolphins saving other creatures, including humans.
They commonly carry sick and injured dolphins to the surface to allow them to breathe. When they’re too weak to survive, dolphins will in fact drown. So, this act of carrying one another is a way to help keep their friends alive.
Dolphins have also been observed carrying exhausted land-based animals stranded at sea to shore. There isn’t any clear benefit for the dolphin in doing this.
Perhaps the best explanation for dolphins’ altruism is the fact that dolphins are some of the most emotionally intelligent creatures, capable of displaying empathy and mourning lost loved ones.
There are several types of altruism, some are completely selfless acts to help others with absolutely no concern for how that act benefits the self. Other types of altruism are in the context of possible reciprocation or benefiting the self indirectly.
Examples of altruistic acts are varied and can involve simple, fleeting moments of consideration for the elderly, or a long-term commitment that lasts for years working in a third-world country under harsh conditions.
It may be fair to say that altruism in the modern era has reached levels never before seen in history. At the same time, it might also be fair to say that the need for altruism has reached levels never before seen in history.
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