Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren
Chapter 1: Altruism
Jonathan Seglow The term ‘altruism’ was coined by Auguste Comte in the 1830s, derived from the Latin ‘alteri huic’ which literally means ‘to this other’. It soon became the centrepiece of an ethics stressing our social duties to other people. The term gained particular currency in the nineteenth century with the decline of traditional societies in which people’s duties were based on their rank or station. With the rise of more impersonal industrial societies, the question of what obligations people had to others became an issue. However, the idea of behaviour which puts the interests of others before oneself was discussed by Aristotle, Jesus, Aquinas and many other ethicists before Comte (Scott and Seglow 2007, Ch. 1). Altruism has fallen out of favour among contemporary moral philosophers largely because it has come to be associated with supererogatory (praiseworthy but not required) duties, and these have received relatively little attention compared with stricter obligations – of social justice for example.1 Altruism remains a concern of evolutionary biologists seeking to explain why humans among other selfish animals promote the interests of others, as well as of social psychologists who similarly explore the nature of altruistic motivation (Monroe 1994; Scott and Seglow 2007, Ch. 3, 4). Economists have long been interested in altruism (Phelps 1975; Collard 1978; Kolm 1983), though one writer claimed, perhaps unfairly, it’s been a ‘painful nuisance’ for them (Lunati 1997, p. 50). Pareto, Edgeworth, Walras and Smith are among those who investigated altruism. Of them, Smith’s treatment is best known....
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