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Altruism and Society: A Brief Look

Updated on October 8, 2012

How Altruistic Behavior Helps make a Society More Sustainable

Altruism: The belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. – Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

Many people define altruism as simply working for the well-being of others without achieving material gain for oneself in the process. If we accept this definition it can be said that many people engage in altruistic behavior. This is a good thing because altruistic behaviors are essential to the health of any society.

Communities are strengthened when members of the community collaborate to help other members in need. If, for example, one of your coworkers becomes ill and the rest of you join together in the effort to keep the coworker’s family housed and fed, the feeling of community is reinforced. If a group is shown to care about its individual members, the individuals tend to care more about the group. At work that tends to give the individual a stronger motivation to work hard for the company. Because the community as a whole engages in good deeds, individuals feel good about contributing effort to the company that hosts the community.

At the societal level the effect tends to be more fragmented, yet bonds are very often created across sub-cultural boundaries by individuals engaging in altruistic behaviors. For example, a religion may mandate its adherents to help the poor. In their quest to help the poor they may find people in need outside their religion. Whereas they may have previously looked upon the outsiders as ‘other’ and feared them, in their effort to help the poor they find that these ‘others’ are perhaps not so different after all. Both individuals benefit because their universe has expanded, and by extension both religions benefit from containing new individuals who have learned not to fear the other. Tolerance and empathy are fostered while blame and demonization are made irrelevant. Extrapolate this effect to the society at large and you can see that peace throughout the whole of society might very well be promoted as a byproduct of altruistic behavior.


Is Altruism Enough?

Could a society based solely on altruism work?

In a purely altruistic society, every able person would be selflessly serving all other people. People would go to work – not for the security of an income, but in order to serve others. Food providers would deliver food to whoever needed or wanted it. Housing would be available free of charge and no one would own it. Builders would build for the joy of knowing that some entity would occupy and make use of it. Craftspeople and factory workers alike would produce products so that they could give them to people, and no one would own the shop or factory. There would be no competition because everyone would be promoting everyone else, all the time. No one would be rewarded, because everyone would be simply doing what everyone else does.

What of aspiration, desire and the joy of accomplishment? Without them, would life be worth living? If we aspire to be more than what we are, it is for our own benefit, yet individual improvement also benefits the society as a whole. Desire manifests new things and experiences, and wonders come into being as a result of humans in pursuit of a feeling of accomplishment. I believe that without aspiration, desire and the joy of accomplishment, society could not produce the innovations and improvements we have enjoyed. Further, deprived the excitements of risk and competition – both factors that make the joy of accomplishment possible – life itself is deprived part of its beauty and meaning.

(Although, if we had not made innovations and improvements to our world, we would probably not have the problems we have today. Perhaps we would live like the animals in balance with nature, and simply be grateful to be alive on such a beautiful, pristine and unspoiled planet. Sigh. But that is a story for another day.)

My personal view is that we are here to experience the physical. We can in great measure choose our path to do so. The great variety of paths we choose is one of the many wonders of the physical existence.

Is a society that is totally dependent on altruism sustainable?

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
- the character, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

If a society were totally dependent on altruism, almost all innovation would need to come, free of charge, from some other society that was not wholly altruistic. Most innovation comes from an aspiration, a desire or the joy of accomplishment.

One of the chief sources of the joy of accomplishment is competition. Nothing much is more satisfying than beating a rival in fair competition. Yet it is not possible to do this altruistically. Therefore a society that is totally dependent on altruism for its survival would enjoy a perilous existence at best.

For at some point a competitive, innovative society would have to ask itself, “Why am I supporting this society?” The temptation would be to leave it to implode on its own, or, as with Blanche Dubois, take what can be taken from it.

What altruistic activities do you do?

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    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom rubenoff 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thank you, Robie. There is much to be happy about in this existence. Commenters like you, for example.

      I tried my best, Glen. I think I always try to write the best article I can, and I feel that through this I am improving. I guess I write for less than purely altruistic reasons :)

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      8 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Tom, you did a great job discussing both sides of looking at this. Although it would be wonderful living in an altruistic society, it's sadly not realistic. I think if it would ever cone to exist, it would require educating people from birth with an altruistic mindset. I enjoyed reading this and voted up and awesome.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Here here Tom-- this hub asks as many questions as it answers and is very thought provoking. It is wonderful to hear somebody talking about the good side of human nature for a change and pointing out the good things we are capable of instead of just the dark side of our nature. But I totally agree that a society based on altruism just does not work-- lots of people have tried it, for the disciples of Jesus to the communes of the '60's and it just does not work. Too bad-- so sad-- we are stuck with who and what we are..... voted this up and interesting and thanks for a very thoughtful hub that provides lots of food for reflexion

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom rubenoff 

      8 years ago from United States

      I wrote a separate article on competition in which I say that we never actually compete with anyone but ourselves. That's what makes us choose to build an outhouse - we see something better for ourselves. Our future self is in competition with our present and past.

      And of course, you and I, we both know that the music lies less in the notes we play than in the spaces we leave between them.

    • Ore N. Mavro profile image

      Ore N. Mavro 

      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      yes..competition with nature. who were at odds with.

      then again, if you were to ask Steve Jobs (RIP) about what was needed to create Apple, he wouldn't say war or competition...I'm sure. Just some ideas on making something better or easier. Though you might retort that industries like that are based on competition. That's capitalism of course. Industry.

      comparison is certainly the germ of competition. far as that...that may be true, but there are plenty veteran artists who are extreme showboaters. You know as well as I do. Depends on their mindset or what they're trying to get across. Me, personally, I'll just say I'm an equal opportunity guitarist. But I've learned, things don't have to always be super technical to sound good, from using my artistic sense (imagination) and not logic.

      There is a guitarist that I often compare myself to. Mostly, I respect his skill level, and technique. I think to myself, I want to be able to play as good as him, use the same technique, get the same sorts of sounds to come out of my fingers and through my guitar. Once I get to that level, I'll just continue playing and getting better. Heck, him and I aren't even the same as far as artists, so comparing us would be silly since I have different goals and different ways of expressing ourselves musically, on default. I'm not thinking "I'm going to be better than this guy". I realize this mindset and I try to ignore it, consciously, because I know it's not needed. And being that way, doesn't even feel good! At all. I hate it. I think humans have the ability to exceed it. To excel for the sake of excelling.

      I don't think the guy who made the outhouse was in competition with anyone but crapping in a bush. What do you think?

      yes, it ties in. of course. this is what modern society is. don't get me wrong, I'm well aware of where I live. I just think that on a base level there are ways we can improve. I always say that in the race to build civilization we totally by-passed the "being civilized" part.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom rubenoff 

      8 years ago from United States

      RJ, I actually make no conclusions about what should be done here. I note my observations and speculate what would happen if everyone in a society behaved altruistically or if a society depended on the altruism for its existence.

      My friend, Ruby, yes, yes, yes. I do not make an obvious point in this article, but a sly and shy one - and you touch on it in a light and knowing way. Thank you.

      And yet, Ore, the Volkswagen Microbus so favored by the children of the flower could not have existed without competition of the deadliest kind. True, the flower children created - mostly they created change - but they did not for the most part create technological breakthroughs or scientific discoveries. Some of the most breathtaking examples of these advances took place directly as a result of World War II. This is because 'necessity is the mother of invention.'

      As a guitarist, what is any level of skill unless it is compared against another? If it is compared, isn't that the germ of competition?

      As a musician I have been in many groups of musicians, and I find that it is the less experienced musicians who try to cut you with their dazzling technique. A few well placed notes played with love, maybe harmonizing with them, allowing them to lead, making them sound better (sound like altruism?) and suddenly they realize they sound so much better with you than alone.

      A community formed by non-professional musicians who play at jazz, dance or Latin clubs- like my own band, Klezjam - can be very supportive. Members often go out of their way (altruistically) to help each other. Every band member tries to make all the other band members sound better. Yet the very existence of the band depends on the band members' livelihoods. All of us are involved in some kind of pursuit that gets us money. And without the money there could be no band. So the altruistic community of the band is directly supported by the capitalist community.

    • Ore N. Mavro profile image

      Ore N. Mavro 

      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I think we're misconstruing inspiration and motivation with competition here...that's just my take on it.

      for example. in my personal life I play guitar. In the world of guitarists who are learning and learning to play to learn the guitar (there are a few different ways and mindsets to go about it) there are two factions: one faction are the guys always in competition. Any guitarist that shows up they have to tear down, pick apart, or find fault in. These are the types of folks who when someone like Jimi Hendrix is mentioned they have to talk about how "sloppy" he played and totally miss every point as to why he was a virtuoso and one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock.

      On the other side there are people who admire others and are inspired from them. They work with other musicians, they ask for advice, and they don't care about competing with anyone but themselves and getting past a certain level of skill.

      If boredom is an issue, we can easily find inspiration, and we can sit and think. We were given the faculties to reason and imagine. We don't need competition to use them. Unfortunately, as we grow up we're taught not to be so imaginative. To become more "grounded", which ironically makes us less grounded, in my opinion, in what we're meant to do here. We get stuck in the mini-games of life instead. Most people lose their imaginations wholly , if not fully by the time they're adults.

      so, no, I don't believe, even with boredom that there's a need for competition. Even the flower children, the ones that weren't just beatniks were pretty imaginative (even if sometimes it was due to psychedelics) and they created a lot. In fact, a lot of the fashion, music, and art around today, and especially resurgence from borrowing from that era, is due to them.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      8 years ago from Southern Illinois

      When i first started reading your article, I thought my wouldn't that be a wonderful way to live, then the other side emerged, and i quickly changed my mind. To live without competition would be dull. Remember the cult movement in the seventies?, everyone happy and free, equality for all. It became unsustainable when the people became bored and needed more..Thank you for sharing your thoughts...Cheers

    • profile image

      R. J. Lefebvre 

      8 years ago


      What your hub is describing an utopian existance. If your suggesting we should teach and encourage others to sustain themselves with self worth, by all means yes!. The only problem with helping 'capable' others who have the ability to sustain themselves, are encouraged to take the easy way out.


    • Ore N. Mavro profile image

      Ore N. Mavro 

      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      thanks for getting me thinking about these things in a different way. yeah...time will tell. haha

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom rubenoff 

      8 years ago from United States

      Thank you, Ore, for adding your wisdom and experience to this hub. The only constant in the physical existence is change. We can see society changing, generation by generation. Some change seems good and some bad, but I guess only time will tell. Thanks again!

    • Ore N. Mavro profile image

      Ore N. Mavro 

      8 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I agree with everything you've said. We would've been more nature oriented if we didn't progress so fast with the advent of agriculture and the following innovations. Then again, what's so bad about it? I love technology, and modern society is ..well, pretty. but it's full of other unwanteds. Neurosis plagues humanity, and the family unit is pretty much in shambles.

      the question to me would be what's more important? Shiny stuff, or quality stuff? Stuff that really matters.

      Also, as far as competition goes...I think it's instilled in us to be competitive. When we're children we want to work and have fun with people. Society tampers with that. Competition is therefore, a socially constructed mindset. The best thing ever, is success, period. You don't have to "beat" or "win" against anyone but yourself. All the really spiritual ancient societies and religions knew this.

      It's not about me personally, but us all. That, though, working into modern society is really, really, freaking hard. If you aren't competitive ("it's dog eat dog world, son!"), you'll suffer losses. It's a shame.

      Even dogs don't eat each other and work for the benefit of "The pack"...what a social fallacy.


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