An action is considered altruistic if it benefits others while harming oneself. Altruistic acts are considered acts of self-sacrifice, and therefore, they are generally regarded as the opposite of self-interested acts. The doctrine of altruism (sometimes called The Principle of Beneficence) states that people have a moral duty to aid others, even at the sacrifice of individual self-interests. Generally, this doctrine is considered morally unacceptable because it mandates actions which are supererogatory (i.e., morally praiseworthy but not morally required). However, milder forms of altruism are often employed as components of ethical theories. For example, utilitarianism sometimes requires an individual to make personal sacrifices to promote the greatest overall good for everyone involved.
One of the best contemporary examples of an altruistic moral principle originates from Peter Singer’s stance on world poverty. Singer argues that those with excess income are morally obligated to donate significant portions of their income to organizations like Oxfam to save the lives of starving individuals across the world. The basis for his argument is a clearly altruistic principle: “[I]f it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.”1 Although many have criticized Singer’s position as being too demanding or impractical, his arguments raise some intriguing questions about when altruistic actions may be morally required rather than merely serving as a moral ideal.
Defenders of psychological egoism contend that there is no such thing as altruism (although this notion seems implausible), and adherents to ethical egoism consider altruism an undesirable, morally backward doctrine. Nevertheless, most moral philosophers regard altruistic actions as admirable and think these actions have a role to play in morality. However, those who endorse mildly altruistic moral principles may reject altruistic principles that mandate extreme personal sacrifices.
- Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999), 229.