egoism and altruism:

some remarks on the (mis)use of these terms


The terms 'egoistic' and 'altruistic' are used in two different senses: a moral, and a technical.

In the moral sense, we call someone an egoist when the thinks only of his own well-being, whereas he should (also) consider the well-being of others (as when a mother no longer breastfeeds a child in order to survive). Conversely, we call someone an altruist when he thinks of the satisfaction of others, whereas he should rather think of his own (the mother who sacrifices her life in order to protect her children).


In a purely technical sense, on the other hand, egoism is simply caring for one's own well-being (or more precisely: one's own fitness in the biological sense). Equally in the technical sense, altruism - the term has been introduced by Auguste Comte in 1851 - is caring for the well-being (more precisely: the fitness in the biological sense) of others. (Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists add to this that the benefit for the other must go at the cost of the altruist.) Phrased otherwise: an altruist cares for the well-being of others without expecting a favour in return. The standard example of altruism is the care of parents for their offspring, which is only a special case of the more general phenomenon of ‘kin altruism’ (nepotism): the care for kin in general.


Whether someone is an egoist or an altruist, depends on the temporal perspective. In the long term - measured against the duration of a lifetime - we can ask ourselves why a living being is out at satisfying its needs egoistically. The answer is that the animal wants to survive. When we ask why it wants to survive, the answer is: because it wants to reproduce itself (and care for its offspring). What is egoism in the short term - the duration of a single isolated behaviour - turns out to be merely a means for a totally different goal: reproduction in the long term. From this broader perspective, every behaviour - egoistic as well as altruistic - is eventually altruistic, since the 'ego' that is satisfied through the satisfaction of its needs, is merely a reproductive machine. The goal of every 'ego' is to bring forth an 'alter'. From a long temporal perspective, hence, every organism is altruistic.


The confusion regarding egoism and altruism is enhanced in that the term 'altruism' is often used as a synonym of cooperation. Thus, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists regard cooperation or barter as a form of ‘reciprocal altruism’ (a opposed to ‘kin altruism’).

With the most primitive forms of cooperation, whereby all the partners cooperate simultaneously (think of cooperative hunting), the confusion is not so evident: after the hunt, the prey is distributed, and the individual hunters bring their share to the den. When wolves devour their cooperatively hunted prey, nobody will feel tempted to make mention of altruism, except when the mother subsequently goes to the den to regurgitate the food for her pups. But, with more complicated forms of cooperation, as when two specialised producers produce some specialised product to barter it afterwards, cooperation often takes the apparent form of altruism: the separate phases of barter can easily be conceived as two altruistic actions. But the process as a whole is purely egoistic: the satisfaction of the need of the partner is only a means of satisfying one's own needs. When both phases of the exchange are, in addition, temporarily separated, it is even more tempting to consider each phase as an altruistic action. And the confusion becomes complete when, after the introduction of money, the number of specialisations goes increasing. Every specialised producer exchanges his product with a whole array of products made by other specialists, of whose existence he may be fully unaware. When the singer sings at a festival, it seems as if he is altruistically satisfying his audience, even when we know that he receives a lot of money with which he will buy the products of countless producers who, as a rule, even did not listen to his music.

No doubt, cooperation commands our admiration: think of the cooperation between wolves during the hunt. Nevertheless, cooperation - be it in the form of distribution or in the form of barter - has nothing to do with altruism. Already David Hume wrote in his ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ (1740): ‘I learn to do service to another, without bearing him any real kindness: because I foresee that he will return me, in expectation of another of the same kind, and in order to maintain the same correspondence of good offices with me or others.’. And everybody knows Adam Smith's phrase: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ (Wealth of Nations, 1776).

The term 'reciprocal altruism', coined by Robert Trivers, is misleading, hence, because the means (apparent ‘altruism) are confused with the end (egoism). In fact, the term 'reciprocal altruism' is a contradictio in terminis, an oxymoron. We propose a far more appropriate term: ‘cooperative egoism’.

The advantage of the term 'cooperative egoism' is that it makes immediately clear there is also something like 'cooperative altruism' when, for example with birds, the parents cooperate in earing their young. More spectacular forms of cooperative altruism are to be found in the beehive and the termite hill, and above all in our own species, that, next to sexual division of labour, also developed that most remarkable phenomenon of social division of labour.

Both terms, 'cooperative egoism' and 'cooperative altruism' make it clear in their turn that cooperation as such cannot be 'altruistic', for the simple reason that it can as well be a means to an egoistic end. Just as an arm can push or pull, just so can cooperation be a means of serving egoistic or altruistic ends.

The confusion between altruism and cooperation is especially acute in the case of the countless forms of seemingly one-sided or disinterested help of strangers. As we demonstrate elsewhere, we are dealing here with special forms of (in any case: egoistic) cooperation.


Since the discovery of the genes (in fact since Weismann's ‘soma’ and ‘germen’, 1892), the problem is further complicated. Next to the perspective of the organism, there is also the perspective of the genes, of which the organism is merely the vehicle. At the risk of anthropomorphism (or rather: theriomorphism), the terms 'egoism' and 'altruism', in the technical sense as described above, can also be applied to genes: the primeval forms of life. The altruism on the long term, that turned out to be egoistic or altruistic in the short term, serves in the last instance the blunt egoism of the genes: these use organisms - their organs and their egoistic or altruistic, solistic or cooperative behaviour - as a mere instrument for their own reduplication.

We should warn against a widespread form of 'moral reductionism'. It is pure sophism to assert that the altruism of an organism (in the short or long term) is 'in fact' egoism because it serves the egoism of the genes. In his introduction to ‘The selfish gene’, Richard Dawkins writes: ‘Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish’... This is erroneous, because the altruism of the organism remains altruism as long as we maintain the perspective of the organism: the behaviour of a mother is, in the above definition, no less altruistic because, in her child, she is caring for (half of her) genes. To avoid confusion, we have to explicitly mention whether we are speaking from a the genetic or of a somatic point of view. Genes are always egoistic (although they can engage in egoistic cooperation). The organism is in the long term always altruistic. In the short term, it can be egoistic or altruistic.

The same sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists that want to sell cooperation as altruism, have al too eagerly pass altruism for egoism


The only correct way of using the terms egoism and altruism is in terms of benefit: who is the beneficiary of the behaviour in question.

Many authors have a different approach and prefer to understand the opposition between egoism and altruism in terms of 'reward''. The reward can be neutral in so far as a behaviour releases some tension (think of hunger), it can be negative in so far as a behaviour alleviates pain, or, finally, positive in so far as a behaviour is rewarded with pleasure. Let us subsume all these cases under the term 'reward' for the sake of convenience. In this approach, every behaviour that releases tension, alleviates pain, or provides pleasure, would be 'egoistic' - interested.

There is no doubt that all egoistic behaviour is rewarded. When I satisfy my own hunger, hunger disappears while I am eating, and eating itself is as a rule pleasurable. When eating, I am not only interested in my behaviour, I am rewarded too. But also altruistic behaviour is rewarded. When a mother breastfeeds her child, this is not in her own interest, but in the interest of her child. She cares for her child at her own detriment. The beneficiary of her behaviour is the baby, but it is the mother who is rewarded for her behaviour: giving the breast is pleasurable. Also the - egoistic - behaviour of the baby is rewarded: when he cries, he gets the breast, and when he sucks his hunger is appeased and, in addition, he enjoys the taste and the warmth of the milk and the pleasure of sucking as such. But, it is not because the altruistic behaviour of the mother is rewarded, that it would no longer be altruistic. The beneficiary of her behaviour is not herself, but her baby: it is his stomach that gets filled, not hers - the full stomach of the baby is the empty breast of the mother. Whether a behaviour is rewarded or not, cannot be a criterion for discerning altruism form egoism. The mother is rewarded for her breastfeeding, but her breastfeeding is in the interest of the baby.

There is a reward for behaviour in egoistic as well in altruistic behaviour, but in the case of egoistic behaviour the beneficiary is the actor himself, whereas in the case of altruistic behaviour is some other party.


There is also something as external reward: esteem, prestige and what have you. But that does not make any difference for our subject. Let us have another look at the mother who breastfeeds her child. The smile that appears on the face of her baby after breastfeeding is an additional reward for her altruism. Through this extra reward, the chance that she will behave altruistically is only enhanced. But that additional reward does not turn her breastfeeding into an altruistic deed: it is still not the stomach of the mother which is filled, but that of the baby.

And what goes for the mother and her baby, goes equally for the philanthropist and his public. Many a human feels the urge to help the needy. When he gives in to this urge, the internal reward is that this urge has disappeared. He is also externally rewarded by the esteem of his fellow men. But also this additional external reward does change the beneficiary of his deed: the beneficiary of his help is still a stranger, not himself.

Nevertheless, the existence of external rewards creates a new problem. It is often the case that someone does not feel an urge to help at all, but still proceeds to helping, solely for the sake of the prestige. Conversely, someone can feel the irresistible urge to help, even when there is nobody there to witness his deed.

That has its influence on the appreciation of caring for strangers: there is a higher esteem for the act of charity, when it is not performed in the hope of gaining prestige, especially when there are no witnesses around. But also the appreciation of an act has no influence whatsoever on its altruistic or egoistic nature. Let us therefore have a closer look on who the beneficiary is. For, we should beware of isolating this single act from a more encompassing network in which help is expected to be reciprocated. Therein, providing help resembles the behaviour of the baker who provides bread. The only difference is that the baker wants to be reciprocated immediately in money, whereas the helpful merely expect to be reciprocated when they are in need. We are not dealing here with altruism, but with a special form of cooperative egoism (in case: probabilistic cooperative egoism). Or to say it with a slogan: charity is merely a form of self love. And that special form of self love is all the more respectable when it is not motivated with the desire to gain prestige.

It is not superfluous to add that all kinds of external reward may be interiorised into one of the many forms of conscience. But also a good conscience is a reward that does not change egoistic or altruistic nature of the behaviour in question. When I help strangers in order to acquire a good conscience or to please my parents, my behaviour is no less egoistic. And when a mothers breastfeeds for the same reasons, her behaviour remains altruistic.


From the point of view of the individual organism, all animals are egoistic in the short term in so far as they care for their own well-being (fitness). In so far as they also care for the well-being of their children or kin, they are altruistic in the same short term. These egoistic or altruistic deeds can be performed solistically or cooperatively. Whether these deeds are egoistic or altruistic has nothing to do with the question whether they release tension, alleviate pain or provide pleasure: both egoistic - filling one's own stomach - and altruistic behaviour - filling the stomach of the baby - are rewarded in one of these senses.

Still from the point of view of the individual organism, but viewed in the long term (a lifespan), all living beings are altruistic: they are nothing more than reproductive machines, that only want to survive in function of reproducing themselves - in fact: their genes. With animals that die after having performed their reproductive duty, such altruism in the long term is restricted to the care for oneself and the performance of the final reproductive act. With animals that survive a first reproductive act, the altruism extends to the care for the offspring and kin. In the latter case they are also altruistic in the short term during the whole period when they continue to care for themselves in order to be able to care for their kin.

From the point of view of the genes, on the other hand, there is only egoism: genes are not altruistic, although they often engage in cooperative egoism. Genes may build organisms that behave egoistically or altruistically to realise the goals of the egoistic genes. The same genes build vehicles that are reproductive machines and hence are altruistic in principle.

© Stefan Beyst, July 2005, translated March 2007.


In his introduction to 'The selfish Gene', Dawkins writes: 'Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish’

In view of the above, this sentence should be rephrased as: 'Be confident that if you wish to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and selfishly towards a common good - think of Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' - you can expect every help from biological nature. We need not teach generosity and cooperation, because we are born co-operators'.

Of course, some additional remarks should be made. We refer to 'Homo sexualis and homo economicus', chapter VII of 'The ecstasies of Eros'. There, it will become clear that Dawkins' sentence should be concluded as follows:

'Be confident that if you wish to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and selfishly towards a common good - think of Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' - you can expect every help from biological nature. We need not teach generosity and cooperation, because we are born co-operators within the frame of the altruistic sexual division of labour and its instrumental extension: the egoistic social division of labour'.

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